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National Anthem Strikes A Chord In Iraq

Fans of Iraq's national soccer team hold up the Iraqi flag in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region.
Iraqi lawmakers are expected to vote soon on a controversial proposal for a new national anthem that would alter the Arabic-language anthem to make room for verses in the minority Kurdish and Turkoman languages.

The proposal, which could be put to a vote as early as March 15, has been criticized by some of Iraq's Arabic-speaking politicians, and applauded by leaders of the country's Kurdish and Turkoman communities.

The dispute over a new national anthem is just the latest in a long line of issues facing Iraq amid increased instability, political turmoil, and civil strife.

Aliya Talib, an Iraqi-Arab writer, says the national anthem should only contain verses in Arabic, the country's main language. She insists that including Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkoman in a single anthem is not practical.

She adds that the move would encourage members of the country's smaller minorities, which include Aramaic- and Persian-speakers, to demand that their languages also be included.

"There are different tribes and ethnicities in Iraq. Minority languages are not just limited to Kurdish and Turkoman, so other minorities will also ask for their local languages to be included," Talib says.

"This will mean that we won't be able to listen to our own anthem and understand it."

Minority Concerns

While Talib's comments strike a chord with Iraq's Arab-speaking communities, such views have been condemned by the Turkoman and Kurdish communities, who together make up an estimated 20 percent of Iraq's population.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq's ethnic minorities have experienced a change in fortune. The Kurds, for example, have had their language placed alongside Arabic as an official language in the constitution, while other long-prosecuted groups have developed their own media outlets and schools.

Despite these inroads, many minority communities say more needs to be done. And for many, having verses in their local languages in the national anthem is an important part of that.

Hasan Kokayi, a Kurdish journalist, says an inclusive national anthem should have been created immediately after the overthrow of the Baathist regime in 2003. He insists that unlike other Arab countries, Iraq has significant non-Arab communities and that the national anthem should reflect that ethnic composition.

The current dispute over the national anthem began in 2004, when the country's newly appointed parliament failed to reach a consensus and created a temporary, Arabic-language anthem.

Since then, successive attempts have been made to establish a more inclusive anthem but have so far failed to receive approval from parliament, which is controlled by a Shi'ite Arab bloc headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The issue has the potential to further complicate ethnic relations in Iraq as the country's government establishes itself following the U.S. troop withdrawal.

Violence has increased as political tensions between the Shi'ite-dominated government and the Sunni community continues, while the future of the autonomous region of Kurdistan remains unresolved.

Written by Frud Bezhan, based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq correspondent Najla Dare