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Iraq: Election Of Talabani Marks Victory For Middle East's Kurds

The appointment of Jalal Talabani, a prominent Kurdish politician, as Iraqi president last week was widely celebrated by millions of Kurds scattered across the Middle East. The move could have two divergent effects: it might encourage Kurds to integrate better in the countries they live in, but it might also raise their aspirations for a Kurdish state.

Prague, 14 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Jalal Talabani is the first leader of a Kurdish party to become a president of a major country in the Middle East.

Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, told RFE/RL that the election of Talabani is hugely important for the Kurds and for the whole region.

"I think electing President Talabani is also as important as the fall of the Berlin Wall. It affected all the Kurds in the area. Once the Kurds were thinking about a separatist state in order to fulfill their dreams to have an independent state," Nourizadeh said.

Nourizadeh said that Kurds were celebrating Talabani's election throughout the region, starting with Iran and ending with Syria. “The Kurds in Iran were celebrating in the streets of Mahabad and Sar Dasht; also the Kurds in Syria, in Turkey [were celebrating]," he said. "Therefore, I think it [sends] a very strong message to all Kurds: 'Do not go for separation but try to have democracy.’”

There are thought to be nearly 30 million Kurds living in the region divided among Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. A separate Kurdish state could threaten the territorial integrity of these countries and potentially destabilize the region.
Talabani has stated publicly that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is not viable. The president has also insisted he is representing all groups in Iraq, not just the Kurds.

However, Nourizadeh said that Talabani's election is unlikely to encourage Kurdish separatism. He said that the Iraqi example has shown Kurds that they can achieve their national dreams through democracy -- without having a separate state. That, he said, could have a powerful impact on local communities.

Kamran al-Karadaghi, a Kurd, is an expert on Iraq who works at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. He agrees that Talabani’s appointment was greeted as a national victory across the region, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, al-Karadagdi is not certain the appointment will bury Kurdish hopes for an independent state. "The Kurdish population in Iraq made a point during the elections, when they voted at the same time, unofficially, in a referendum on independence," he said. "Almost 97 or 98 percent of the people voted for independence."

Al- Karadaghi said the referendum clearly indicated that independence is a goal of the Iraqi Kurds -- more so than just having important governmental posts. He said Talabani's appointment will not change this trend.

Aspirations are one thing, however, the political reality another. Al- Karadaghi said Kurdish politicians clearly see that "at this stage, independence is impossible because of the geopolitical situation." Talabani has stated publicly that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is not viable. The president has also insisted he is representing all groups in Iraq, not just the Kurds.

Meanwhile, al-Karadaghi said, the Iraqi Kurds believe President Talabani will help to consolidate their gains in Iraqi Kurdistan -- and in the federal state as a whole.

One of the aims of the Iraqi Kurds -- what al-Karadaghi calls "consolidation" -- might be achieved by including oil-rich Kirkuk in the Kurdish region. However, it is unlikely that the Iraqi Arabs, neither Sunni nor Shi’ite, would agree. Such a move could further damage regional relations between Arabs and Kurds.

Talabani has not announced such plans and, as Nourizadeh said, many Arabs across the Middle East trust his common sense. "He had very good relations with the late President [Gamal Abdel] Nasser of Egypt and with the Jordanian kings and with all the Arab countries," he said. "That's why he was accepted. He even had good relations with the Syrians."

Nourizadeh said Iraqi Arabs trust him. He added that another Kurdish politician, if elected president, might be treated differently.

For the latest news and analysis on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".