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Iraq: Kurdish Voters Want To Preserve Self-Rule

As Iraq's 30 January elections for a new National Assembly approach, Kurdish voters are expected to turn out in large numbers to support their own united list of candidates. The Kurdish list is campaigning to preserve the Iraqi Kurds' already considerable degree of autonomy, which many credit with keeping their area quiet, despite conflicts elsewhere in the country.

Prague, 26 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kurdish parties in northern Iraq are expecting a large turnout for the 30 January vote as they take advantage of generally good security in the region to campaign actively.

Kamran al-Karadaghi, a regional expert with the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), is in the northeastern town of Al-Sulaymaniyah. He told RFE/RL that the Kurdish parties are urging voters to go the polls to maintain their substantial degree of self-rule within a future federal Iraq.

"You can feel that electioneering is really [going on] all over. I mean, the leaders are traveling in Kurdish towns. They talk to people. They issue statements. Their newspapers, their press, is full of election news. They are telling the voters that it is important to vote so that they will be able to protect their concept of a federation in Iraq, which is Iraqi Kurdistan.," al-Karadaghi said.

The Kurds are pressing hard for defining Iraq as a federal system when Iraq's first post-Saddam Hussein constitution is written later this year. The writing of the constitution is to be overseen by the new National Assembly, which will also choose Iraq's next interim government.

One prominent Kurdish politician, interim Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari, expressed the Kurds' election goals this way in a speech today in Irbil: "The aim is that Kurds, the Kurdish people, have a good presence and be fairly represented in these elections and in the new National Assembly and have weight in this assembly."
Three car bombs killed at least seven people in Kirkuk today in a sign of continuing tensions in the city.

Al-Karadaghi said the Kurdish leaders also want a strong representation in the National Assembly to ensure the Kurdish-administered area receives -- and has spending control over -- what they consider a fair share of Iraq's future state revenues. "It's not only [about] the political side and the integrity of Kurdistan, but also the share of the Iraqi budget which they will get for the Kurdistan federation," he said. "That's also an important issue."

The Kurdish-administered area of northern Iraq has been self-governing since it fell out of Saddam Hussein's control after the 1991 Gulf War. The area is now under a joint administration created by the two largest Kurdish factions -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- after almost a decade of fighting that split the territory between them.

For the National Assembly race, the two parties are running a united candidate list called the Kurdish Unity list.

Al-Karadaghi said Kurdish turnout for the vote could be boosted by the fact that the Kurdish-administered region is also holding two additional polls on 30 January. These are for the Kurdish parliament and for local councils. He said the council races have particularly motivated voters because those contests feature the KDP and PUK running against each other, as well as numerous smaller parties.

The most volatile local contest is in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a town with a mixed population that is outside the Kurdish-administered area. There, the recent return of some 100,000 Kurdish residents of voting age who were displaced under Hussein looks set to give the Kurds dominance of the provincial council, despite alarm within the city's other communities.

These other communities include large numbers of Arabs transplanted to Kirkuk under Hussein's programs to "Arabize" oil-rich areas of northern Iraq during his conflicts with Kurdish leaders. They also include Turkic-speaking Turkoman residents of Kirkuk and a small number of Christians.

Al-Karadaghi said a decision by Iraq's Independent Election Commission allowing the returning Kurds to vote appears to have set the stage for the Kurds to take control of the currently balanced Kirkuk council. Their chances have been boosted by a decision by one Arab party, the United Arab Front, to boycott the poll in protest against the election commission's decision.

"If the Arabs boycott, of course, then the Kurds think that with the latest arrangements for the Kurdish deportees to participate, they might have a majority in the council. The Turkomans are also not happy because of this, and I think the Turkomans would have preferred the Arabs not to boycott. But, in any case, it is one Arab party [that has boycotted]. I think there are other Arab groups that will participate," al-Karadaghi said.

One of the major Turkoman parties, the Turkoman Front, is also reported now to be considering withdrawing from the election.

Three car bombs killed at least seven people in Kirkuk today in a sign of continuing tensions in the city.

Kurdish leaders want to include Kirkuk in the Kurdish-administered area of northern Iraq when the final constitution is written. That goal has alarmed some leaders of Iraq's other communities. Mahir Nakip is a native of Kirkuk and the former president of a group called the Iraqi Turks Culture and Benevolence Association. He told a conference on the Turkomans held at New York's Columbia University in November that he sees the dispute in Kirkuk as a fight over oil.

"Kurdish people are claiming that Kirkuk is a city in Kurdistan. There is not any evidence to show this reality. They are fighting for oil, not for the city. They are insisting on Kirkuk because they have been trying to occupy Kirkuk since the 1950s. We are sure that they will not declare their Kurdish state until Kirkuk is included in this area," Nakip said.

Kurdish officials say they are committed to Iraq's territorial integrity and deny they are seeking to create an independent state.

The events in northern Iraq are being closely watched by neighboring Turkey. Ankara accuses the Kurds of disregarding the rights of the Turkoman minority in areas they control and opposes any measures that would give the Kurds greater political or financial independence. Turkey is widely believed to fear that greater autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds could also encourage its own large Kurdish minority in the south to seek similar rights.

Ankara recently suppressed a 15-year rebellion by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) over autonomy demands. The conflict, which killed or displaced tens of thousands of people, ended with the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.

Al-Karadaghi said tensions in Iraq over whether Kirkuk is included in the Kurdish-administered area could subside if parties in the new National Assembly can agree on a formula for sharing the state budget. He said the Kurdish administration could stand to get more money by sharing the federal budget -- which includes oil revenues from Iraq's main oil fields in the south -- than it could hope to get from Kirkuk's revenues alone.

[For news, background, and analysis on Iraq's historic 30 January elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Iraq Votes 2005".]

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