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Iraq: Kurds Ponder How To Strengthen Autonomy After Elections

Farouk, one of 150,000 Kurds who fled Kirkuk in the late 1980s (RFE/RL) Iraqis go the polls on 15 December to elect the first parliament formed under the country’s new constitution. For Iraqi Kurds, there is little question whom to vote for: the Kurdistan Coalition List groups all the major Kurdish parties and is expected to sweep up the Kurdish vote, just as it did it January, when Iraq elected the outgoing interim parliament. The Kurdish list will use its seats in parliament to press a wide range of demands that still remain unresolved.

Irbil, 12 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Among the major issues are how to ensure the Kurds receive a larger share of the country's oil income, and the status of Kirkuk and other areas that Kurdish leaders want to include in the Kurdish autonomous region.

But the most emotional question for Kurds is what the new parliament might do to allow Kurds displaced by Saddam Hussein's regime to return home.

In the face of “Arabization” campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled areas across northern Iraq. Some took to the mountains; others ended up in camps in inhospitable areas. Arabs from southern Iraq were brought up to replace them.

Some 150,000 Kurds were forced out of Kirkuk, the fourth-largest city in the country. They include Farouk, who in 1987 fled to Irbil, now the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.

Since then, Farouk has been living in one of the sprawling squatter villages that ring the city. The villages still consist of the poorly built mud-brick houses that the refugees hastily constructed when they arrived. For decades, the refugees have regarded them not as homes, but merely as temporary shelters until they can return home.

Farouk said that since the toppling of Hussein in 2003, he has frequently visited his former house in Kirkuk. But he has yet to move back. "My house is occupied …,” he explained. “An Arab is living in my house right now, and they [the local authorities in Kirkuk] haven't given it back to me."

Farouk said he will be among thousands of displaced Kurds who will travel home to Kirkuk to vote on 15 December. He hopes that will help bolster Kurdish leaders' argument that Kirkuk has a majority Kurdish population and should be incorporated into the Kurdish autonomous region.

Kurdish leaders have said they will respect Kirkuk's mixed ethnic character, but that those who displaced Kurds should return to the south. That is a position fiercely opposed by the city's Arab and Turkoman residents, who say they will lose their rights if Kirkuk joins the Kurdish region.

The Kurds have been pressing the Kirkuk issue in Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but so far there are no signs of any progress in agreeing upon the city's final status. Adding to the deadlock is the issue of oil. Kirkuk is the center of an oil-rich region and would greatly add to the autonomous Kurdish region's economic strength.

That particularly worries neighboring Turkey, which fears that a stronger Kurdish region might push for independence, in turn stoking separatist feelings within Turkey’s own Kurdish population.

Oil is itself a bone of contention, as the Kurdistan Coalition List is dissatisfied at how Iraq's oil revenues are shared out. Under an existing deal, the Kurdistan region receives income equivalent to 17 percent of the nation's oil income. The Kurds insist that figure should be raised.

But the immediate postelection question for the Kurds will be what kind of coalition to form with Iraq's Shi'ite and Sunni parties.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also the leader of one of the two main Kurdish parties, said during a visit to RFE/RL in Prague in October that "the Kurds will remain aligned in a strong alliance with the Shi'ites" following the next election.

But some observers say the Kurds are unhappy in their current partnership with the dominant Shi'ite religious parties. They say the outgoing government of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari is widely viewed as having ignored the issue of Kirkuk, instead concentrating on increasing the role of Islamic law in Iraqi society.

Jabar Kadir, a Kurdish historian who lives in the Netherlands, told RFE/RL that the Kurds may now try to form a new alliance with secular forces. He argued that the strongest leader of those forces is Iyad Allawi, a former interim prime minister. "I think with Allawi it would be easier than it is with a religious party, or a religious list, which is thinking all the time about religious and sectarian questions," Kadir said. Allawi is courting, among others, former members of Hussein’s Ba'ath Party, which espoused secular values.

As the Kurds prepare to press their cause in Baghdad, they face the difficult question of just how much leverage they actually have over their Arab compatriots in the new Iraq.

Historically, the Kurds have been at the military mercy of an Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad. That means they have to be careful not to push their demands so hard that they unite Iraqi Arabs against them.

They also have to be careful to maintain the support of the United States, which has backed the Iraqi Kurds' calls for autonomy while counting on the Kurds helping to rebuild Iraq.

Some Kurdish analysts say all this will make the Kurds patient in the postelection negotiations.

But the Kurds also have a powerful card of their own to encourage progress in the talks -- that is, the threat to stop cooperating in the new Iraq and go their own way. That is something that would create a crisis not only in Baghdad, but also for Iraq's neighbors -- and the United States.

Iraqi Legislative Elections 2005

Iraqi Legislative Elections 2005

RFE/RL's coverage, background, and analysis of Iraq's December 15, 2005, legislative elections.

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