Kurds Serious About Independence; Arabs Worry About Expulsion

KIRKUK – Two members of Kurdish parties are touring a soccer stadium turned refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Iraq’s northern oil-rich city Kirkuk on a sunny morning. They are carrying a petition asking Kurds whether they want ethnic federalism in Iraq or Kurdish independence.

The politics of freedom is very much in the air. Kurdish parties are already hinting that they have won a victory in local council elections. And already they have begun to make noises about independence.

Ahmed Hassen Aziz, like everyone else in the camp, wants an independent Kurdistan.

"I feel that Kurds were under oppression," he said, "and I felt the discrimination of the former regime. Now I’m stamping my hand for Kurdistan. This way we will reach our potential and have all our rights as Kurds in independent Kurdistan."

This is the third time since the start of the U.S. occupation about two years ago that Kurds have launched a petition drive for independence. On the other two occasions, more than 1.5 million Kurds stamped their thumbprint to separate from Iraq, but the impact on overall political dynamics was minimal.

This time, however, the situation is different. Because Kurdish refugees were allowed to vote in last weekend’s election, Kurds were doubtless able to carry a strong majority of the vote.

Now, the local government plans to organize a referendum on inclusion of oil-rich Kirkuk under the authority of Iraqi Kurdistan – a move bitterly opposed by the city’s Arab population, which boycotted the election in protest.

Sunni Arabs are not the only people worried. "Federalism is dangerous," says Sheikh Ahmed el-Ami, who heads the office of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Kirkuk. "If Kurds get their independence, it will destroy Iraq."

The sheikh spells out what that could mean. "If they take their independence, then I will have to ask for independence for the Shia in the south," he says. "The Sunnis will want to separate. We will even have to have very small countries for Assyrian Christians and Yazeedis [an old ethnic group]."

Arabs in Kirkuk have reason to worry. A major part of the Kurdish program is the transfer of Arabs to the south of Iraq. Many Arabs came to Kirkuk in the north during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Kurds now want them to "go back to their original place" to make room for Kurdish refugees who are returning to their original place.

But Arabs do not want to go, says Sheikh Ahmed al-Ami. He was not sure whether the move would provoke armed resistance to the Kurdish plans.

"God only knows what will happen," he said. "We know that for every action there is a reaction, but we don’t know what will happen yet. It’s up to the Kurds."

Elsewhere in Kirkuk, citizens go about their lives indifferent to the political machinations around them.

"We need a new life," Turkmen shopkeeper Ardu Abu Zeinab says amidst nods from his customers. "During the 35-year rule of Ba’ath, Saddam was crushing our human rights here. Now it’s no problem for us who rules – Kurds or Turks or Arabs. We need water. We need electricity. We need someone to take care of our basic human needs."

(Inter Press Service)