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Putting Rivalries Aside, All Main Kurdish Parties To Meet For First Time

Masud Barzani, the current president of northern Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish regional government, visits Syrian refugees at a camp in Irbil on August 19.
Masud Barzani, the current president of northern Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish regional government, visits Syrian refugees at a camp in Irbil on August 19.
Across the four countries where most of the world's Kurds live, competing ideologies and rivalries have prevented the emergence of a single unified Kurdish movement.

That has suited the governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, which have fanned Kurdish rivalries in the past because they don't want an independent Kurdish state carved out of their territories.

Now, with an eye toward improving their relations, 600 delegates from more than 40 Kurdish parties in all four countries are coming together for the first time.

Kamal Kirkuki, former speaker of the Kurdish regional parliament in northern Iraq, is a key organizer of the September 15-17 event. He says Syria's civil war and Middle East uprisings have made the gathering in Irbil necessary.

"We want to send a message of peace from all the participants in this event to all corners of the world," Kirkuki says. "We want [Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran] not to be misunderstood by the world. We want this conference to complement the previous attempts made by Kurdish leaders [to bridge their differences]. We feel that conditions are now appropriate."

Partisan Rivalries Persist

All main Kurdish factions in the region have expressed the desire for Kurds to eventually be unified within an independent Kurdish state they call Kurdistan. But partisan rivalries keep them apart.

Kamal Kirkuki: "A message of peace"
Kamal Kirkuki: "A message of peace"
In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was founded in 1978 upon an ideology of Marxism with Kurdish nationalism.

It has renounced Marxist ideology since Turkey imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. But those Marxist roots still raise suspicions among Kurds in areas where conservative Muslim values are the norm.

The presence of female militants in the PKK also has not rested well with Kurds in areas with male-dominated tribal structures.

Kurds in Iraq have a history of bitter fighting during much of the past 40 years. Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is led by Masud Barzani, the current president of northern Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish regional government. Its main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

During the 1980s, Barzani's KDP was supported by Iran while Talabani's PUK was backed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. They fought a full-fledged civil war in 1994 after the creation of the Kurdish regional government.

'Temporary Autonomous State'

The toppling of Hussein's regime in 2003 brought a tenuous KDP-PUK alliance that has held for a decade. But further divisions emerged in 2009 when a third Iraqi Kurdish party, Gorran, was formed by disenchanted members of both the PUK and the KDP.

In Syria, Kurdish leaders attained de facto autonomy in their areas last year when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces withdrew, leaving Kurdish councils in charge of local administrations.

Syrian Kurds' autonomy plans have evolved since then with calls for their own constitution and a "temporary autonomous state" proposed by the Democratic Union Party, an affiliate of the PKK.

Salih Muslim: "Dream of all Kurds everywhere"
Salih Muslim: "Dream of all Kurds everywhere"
"The [Irbil] conference is the dream of all Kurds everywhere and is going to bring us closer as parties across the region," says Salih Muslim, the leader of the Syrian Kurds' Democratic Union Party. "Kurds within Syria already are in basic agreement under the umbrella of the Supreme High Kurdish Commission. We are looking forward to a transparent political path for the Kurdish people, ensuring understanding and coordination between us all so that Kurds become part of the democratic outlook in the Middle East."

The Kurdish autonomy agenda, however, has been stalled in Syria by recent battles between Kurdish militias and Al-Qaeda-linked anti-Assad Islamists. The fighting has sent more than 35,000 Syrian Kurds since August 15 into northern Iraq, where they have joined more than 150,000 other Syrian Kurdish refugees.

Meanwhile, Islamist rebels in Syria have been recruiting Kurdish Islamists from northern Iraq, further complicating matters.

PHOTO GALLERY: Syrian Kurds flee to Iraq by the thousands.

Only in Iran have the fortunes of Kurds remained relatively unchanged by Syria's civil war and the Arab Spring uprisings.

Iran's Kurdish parties have been weakened by assassinations of their leaders. They remain divided over issues beyond the call for greater autonomy.

'A Real Mess'

The organizers of September's Irbil conference assure Baghdad and Iraq's neighbors they are not trying to create an independent Kurdish state.

In Turkey, opposition to that development has driven Ankara's Kurdish policies for decades.

Bulent Azaria, director of the Turkey program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Ankara's position is now complicated by the need to deal with Kurds caught up in Syria's civil war while also moving toward a peace deal with the PKK.

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At the same time, Ankara has been engaging with Barzani, the Kurdish regional government president.

Barzani has pan-Kurdish aspirations. But he has recently developed closer relations with Ankara that have resulted in deals on oil deliveries from northern Iraq directly into Turkey. Azaria says Barzani's evolving relationship with Ankara could motivate him to try to temper autonomy aspirations of other Kurdish leaders.

"You're getting three different processes influencing each other -- the Turkish opening to the Kurds in general, the Turkish involvement with the Iraqi Kurds in the hope that they would influence the others, and, of course, the Turkish involvement in the Syrian civil war with all the Kurdish complications," Azaria says. "Put them all together and you've got yourself a real mess."

Even without a breakthrough agreement in Irbil, the organization of the event could boost the popularity of Barzani's KDP among Kurdish voters in northern Iraq who dream of Kurdish unity.

Elections for northern Iraq's Kurdish regional parliament are scheduled for September 21, just four days after the conclusion of the Irbil conference.

With additional reporting by Heather Maher in Washington and RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq's Samira Balay

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