By Charles Recknagel/Kamran Al-Karadaghi
Veteran Mideast correspondent David Hirst, who reports for the British newspaper "The Guardian," has been a frequent visitor to northern Iraq. He recently came to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague to share some of his impressions of that region. Deputy Director of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq Service Kamran Al-Karadaghi interviewed Hirst and asked his assessment of northern Iraq's economy, politics, and future.
Prague, 1 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Radio Free Iraq Service Deputy Director Kamran Al-Karadaghi asked Hirst what he sees as the most remarkable aspect of northern Iraq, which is mostly populated by ethnic Kurds and has been outside of Baghdad's control since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
Hirst said he is most struck by the ways in which northern Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan, is developing functioning political institutions to address its own regional needs and problems:
"Kurdistan, to my mind, is developing the attributes of statehood. This is entirely to be expected in the conditions which we have in Iraq. After all, it's now 10 years [since] this entity came into being, this enlarged safe haven, which was really the fruit of a sort of cataclysmic accident, namely [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's] folly and stupidity in invading Kuwait and the consequences which that had."
"[And] being an accident, it was also supposed to have been provisional. Theoretically, the Kurds are still wedded to the notion of rejoining Iraq and the federal regime, but it is clear that the longer this situation goes on, the more the Kurds build, physically, psychologically, culturally, educationally, and I think the more difficult it is going to be for this entity to be re-integrated into [a] reconstructed Iraq."
Hirst observes that Iraqi Kurd leaders and ordinary people universally say that they are not aiming to establish a state. But at the same time, they say a state is their right and historical dream, and that one day they may accomplish it.
He says that on a recent visit he saw many signs of an increasing sense of self-sufficiency in the region. He cites the example of an oil refinery he visited near Sulaymaniyah:
"I visited an oil refinery there which had been constructed entirely by Kurdish technicians without any outside support or help, entirely from ingredients which were taken from non-oil installations, like a sugar factory, a Coca-Cola factory, a cement factory, things which the Iranians had left behind from the [1980-88 Iraq-Iran] war years, even the Iraqi mine fields, where they constructed bombs to blow up and perforate exploration wells."
He said he also was struck by a graduation ceremony for university graduates in Argil. And, in that same city, he observed that there was not a single Arabic-language sign. He says that all these suggested to him that a sense of national identity is being consolidated.
Al-Karadaghi asked Hirst if he also detected any insecurity among the Kurds over the fact that, despite their increasing self-sufficiency, their situation could change at a moment's notice should they be returned under Baghdad's control. That could happen either forcefully by Saddam's regime or through some larger political settlement to the Iraq crisis. Hirst replied:
"Yes, this is a very important factor in Kurdish psychology, the deep sense of insecurity which co-exists with what is an improved [economic] situation, compared with  years ago. But this sense of existential insecurity is deep-rooted and it focuses mainly on Saddam, of course, but not entirely, because Saddam is only the most obvious and most brutal and most dangerous enemy. All the regional states are in a way complicit with Saddam, not least, of course, Turkey, the most important one. Kurdish feelings of hostility toward Turkey run very deep, they are very suspicious."
Our correspondent also asked Hirst how he regards the rivalry between the two Iraqi-Kurd factions that control northern Iraq. The two factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), have frequently fought but in recent years have improved ties. Hirst said that -- apart from the military conflicts -- the competition between the two rivals may have brought some beneficial economic and political results:
"I heard [it] said a number of times, that in a curious way this separation of administrations has been beneficial. It's made each administration more efficient, more honest than it would otherwise have been. And they compete for public support. [For] example, they recently had municipal elections which people on both sides said were elections which were honest and fair."
But Hirst says there is also a great danger for the Kurds in the factions' political division, and that is disunity.
"If there ever comes a situation where the Iraqi Kurds have to fight for their place in a post-Saddam order, they must be in as strong a position as possible to do so. And if they are divided when that moment comes it will gravely weaken their bargaining power vis-a-vis Iraq and the rest of the world."
As a final question, our correspondent asked what relations Hirst observed between the two Kurdish factions and Iraqi Arab groups that are in opposition to Saddam's regime. Hirst said:
"I think that both Kurdish [faction] leaderships are insistent that while they want to overthrow Saddam and still see their future as one within a re-constituted Iraq, they are not prepared to go along with any enterprise with other opposition groups. And that inevitably means, in fact, not just Iraqi opposition groups but the international community and particularly the United States."
"They are not prepared to go along with that unless they have more-or-less cast-iron guarantees that it will come to a definitive conclusion, the overthrow of Saddam. And also unless they have guarantees about their future in this newly constituted Iraq. The result of that is that at the moment they are not ready to do anything because they don't see any convincing guarantees that any such enterprise is really even seriously underway, let alone any guarantees about its outcome. So, they are wedded to the status quo for the time being and the foreseeable future."