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Iraq: As Violence Sweeps Country, Kurdistan Remains Calm -- But Wary

The aftermath of the Al-Basrah bombing At a time when violence is raging in the west and south of Iraq, Kurdistan remains relatively peaceful. Kurds say they would like it to stay this way. But they are worried that growing instability elsewhere in Iraq may eventually cost them their autonomy.

Prague, 21 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Today's bomb blasts in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah are just the latest wave of violence to sweep through Iraq.

Fighting in the western Sunni town of Al-Fallujah has killed hundreds in the past weeks. A standoff between U.S. troops and Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatens to escalate into violence in the southeastern town of Al-Najaf.

"It's extremely quiet. It almost feels like being in a different country [from the rest of Iraq]."
And now bloodshed has shattered the relative calm of the southwestern city of Al-Basrah, where four explosions today killed at least 55 people and injured 200 more.

But peace largely prevails in northern Iraq, where the country's Kurdish population has managed to keep their autonomy and have no particular resentment toward the U.S.-led occupation.

There are sporadic exceptions, like yesterday's roadside bomb in Mosul, which wounded five U.S. soldiers and three Iraqi civilians.

But Kurdistan is still notably calmer than the rest of Iraq -- and Kurds are worried the waves of violence to the south may eventually threaten their goal of permanent autonomy.

Hiwa Osman is a Kurdish journalist working with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). He spoke to RFE/RL from the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniyah.

"It's extremely quiet. It almost feels like being in a different country [from the rest of Iraq]. People here watch the events in the south and the center of the country as if they are happening in a different country. The city here feels extremely safe and secure. People are generally busy with everyday life matters. The current [regional] government's biggest worry, for example, is how to tackle the electricity problem," Osman says.

The electricity shortages, Osman says, are a result not of the war, but of the rapid economic development Kurdistan has seen over the past decade of independence from Baghdad. In Sulaymaniyah alone, Osman says, construction is under way on some 17 new factories.

But beneath the tranquil surface, deep concern remains about the future of Iraq. The country's interim constitution guarantees Kurdish autonomy within a federal Iraq. But there are fears that mounting unrest will overturn such political gains when work begins on a permanent basic law.

Moreover, Kurds are one of the few groups who enjoy stable relations with the U.S.-led coalition authority. Osman says many Kurds are worried Washington will pull its troops out of the country, much as Spain and Honduras this week pledged to do.

"They are extremely worried with what's happening in Fallujah and Najaf because they feel that if this continues, it will make the Americans leave the area, just like the Spaniards decided to leave. And they are very worried by the possibility of Americans leaving, of the coalition leaving, because they see them as a safety valve or the guarantor for the country," Osman says.

The coalition troop presence is relatively limited in Kurdistan, with an estimated several hundred soldiers serving in the region. Osman says the U.S.-led troops have received a warm welcome because they are seen as liberators rather than oppressors.

"To [Kurds], the coalition army or the American army is the only liberating army that they have seen ever since the establishment of the Iraqi state," Osman says.

Observers say most Kurds are satisfied with Kurdistan remaining part of a federal Iraq, and do not seek complete independence. But even the region's autonomy claims have been pushed to the background of Iraqi politics by the recent violence.

Yahia Said of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

"The [violence] has actually pushed back the tensions over the Kurdish issues to the background. It's been a kind of an unintended, if you like, positive consequence of it. It has pushed back the political tensions that were very high," Said says.

Said says continued violence might press Kurds to seek greater autonomy. But there are signs Baghdad and the U.S.-led coalition are looking to keep Kurdistan in the fold -- such as the 18 April appointment of Babekr al-Zibari, a Kurdish former peshmerga fighter, as head of staff of the new Iraqi armed forces.

Daniel Neep, director of Middle East studies at London's Royal United Services Institute, says the decision underscores the coalition's determination to keep Kurdistan a part of a future federal Iraq.

"I think the decision to appoint a Kurd the head of the staff [of the Iraqi] Army was quite a good one, because the danger is, of course, that the Kurds are pressing for such a degree of autonomy that they risk feeding fears of secession," Neep says.

Iraqi Kurds have indicated independence is not far from their minds. A week before the interim constitution was passed in early March, Kurdish activists collected a reported 1.7 million signatures on a petition demanding a referendum on the region's future status.