Iraqi Kurds Keep an Eye on Independence

ARBIL – Sipping tea at a café in Arbil, Moayed Rafiq, 25, watches news of a car bombing in Baghdad on an Arab television channel. Others around him also watch, quietly.

“When I see this every day on TV, I think there is no need for us to tie our destiny with Iraq,” Moayed said.

To Moayed, Iraq is just a word he hears through media. He believes the time has come for Kurds to secede from Iraq “once and forever.”

Despite the rhetoric by Kurdish politicians that they want Kurdistan to remain a part of Iraq, many of the young feel as Moayed does. Kurdish leaders are rushing in to join a rebuilding of Iraq, but many people in Kurdistan want to break away from it.

“Of course, I feel sad for their suffering, but we can’t just wait until things get better there. We have had enough already,” said Moayed.

Kurds have been a part of the modern Iraq state for the last 80 years, but feel distinct from Arab Iraq.

“Kurdistan, both as a people and a land, is not part of Iraq. It was attached to Iraq by a political decision against the will of its people,” Ghafour Makhmuri, member of the Arbil-based Kurdistan parliament, told IPS.

Kurds suffered most under Saddam Hussein. More than 100,000 were massacred in ethnic cleansing operations known as Anfal (the name of a Koranic verse meaning "spoils of war").

Fortune turned for them in 1991 when they established an autonomous region after the Gulf War.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was another boost to Kurds’ status in Iraq. For the first time, a Kurd (Jalal Talabani) became president of Iraq. Governing their northern region themselves, Kurds came to exercise huge power in Baghdad as well.

But rejoining Iraq, as many Kurds like to call it, has not stopped Kurdish efforts for independence. In January 2005, alongside national elections, more than 98 percent of Kurds voted for independence in an unofficial referendum.

The Iraqi constitution that was ratified last year did not recognize the right to self-determination for Kurds. That angered many independence-minded Kurds.

“The peoples of Iraq must be united on the basis of a voluntary union, and whenever they don’t want to live together, separation is the only solution,” said Aso Karim, a member of the Kurdistan Referendum Movement, the organization that held the 2005 unofficial referendum.

Kurds’ acceptance of federalism in the Iraqi constitution is not the end of the road for them. Some say it is only a launching pad for a higher goal.

“I believe Kurdistan people look at federalism only as a gateway to independence,” said Makhmuri, who also heads the Kurdistan National Democratic Union, a hard-line nationalist party.

Makhmuri believes the country’s sufferings will end only when it disintegrates. “The best solution to the current problems of this country is dividing it into several states. Given the current situation, I am now more optimistic than ever that we step toward independence.”

The prospect of Kurdish independence has been a nightmare to Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey particularly, that have sizable Kurdish minorities. They fear Kurds’ separation from Iraq would provoke nationalist sentiments among their own Kurds.

But Kurdish leaders admit that without broad international support, a landlocked Kurdish state will not be able to survive.

“I can go to parliament now and declare independence,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, told a gathering of his Kurdistan Democratic Party in Arbil last week. “But when nobody supports it, it will just disrupt the current situation of the Kurdish people.”

Pro-independence Kurds say they need investments from powerful nations to create and safeguard an independent Kurdish state. There is no certainty that this would be forthcoming for an independent Kurdish state.