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For an Iraq Cut in 3, Cast a Wary Glance at Kurdistan

By EDWARD WONG

08/27/06 "
New York Times" -- -- QARADAGH, Iraq -- -THE Kurdish policeman’s mother died in 1988 when a boulder crushed her as she fled to Iran after the aerial bombardment of their village. His older brother had been killed earlier, in combat with Saddam Hussein’s troops.

“But I don’t just hate Saddam,” the policeman, Lt. Ismail Ibrahim Said, 29, said in this mountain town’s station house before the start last week of Mr. Hussein’s trial on the charge of genocide against the Kurdish minority. “I see it in the new government of Iraq. When they have power, they’ll oppress us like Saddam did.”

The policeman’s sentiments, widely shared across the autonomous Kurdish homeland, reflect a lack of will among many Iraqis to forge a unified nation, and could herald the breakup of the country into three self-governing regions. As Iraq writhes in the grip of Sunni-versus-Shiite violence, a de facto partitioning is taking place. Parts of the country are coming to look more and more like Iraqi Kurdistan, with homogenous armed regions becoming the norm.

But if Kurdistan increasingly portends the future shape of Iraq, it also signals the hazards inherent in a fracturing of the country. American and Iraqi officials agree that the greatest danger to a politically divided Iraq, or to an Iraq riven by civil war, is hostile intervention by the country’s neighbors. The resulting regional conflagration could remake the Middle East through mass bloodshed. Here in Kurdistan, interference by border nations is already happening more overtly than elsewhere in the country.

More than a week ago, Iran lobbed artillery shells for several days at villages around Qandil Mountain in the remote north of Iraqi Kurdistan, killing at least two civilians, wounding four and driving scores from the area, said a senior politician, Mustafa Sayed Qadir. Iran has been shelling the area sporadically for months, he said.

Qandil Mountain is a base for militant groups fighting for Kurdish independence or autonomy in Turkey and Iran.

Like Iran, Turkey has been increasing the pressure against Kurds who are pushing for self-governance. This month, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, warned Tariq al-Hashemi, the Iraqi vice president and a Sunni Arab, that the Iraqi government needed to take “satisfactory steps” against the Kurdistan Workers Party, a guerrilla group with hideouts in this region. Turkish officials have also warned Iraqi Kurdistan against seizing control of the oil city of Kirkuk.

The top Kurdish politicians in Iraq officially are not pushing for an independent Kurdistan. They are all too aware that a Kurdish nation would draw intense hostility from Turkey, Iran and Syria, which all have Kurdish minorities chafing to raise their own flag. Kurds in those countries and in Iraq have long dreamed of uniting to form the nation of greater Kurdistan, encompassing up to 30 million people and stretching from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean to southern Iraq.

“Both Turkey and Iran are not happy with what’s going on in Iraqi Kurdistan — having a special region, having a government, having a Parliament, and so on,” said Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish member of the Iraqi Parliament. “That’s why they do those special operations, those bombings. It’s a blow against the Kurdish government in Kurdistan.”

“We have to be very careful, and we are very careful,” he added.

The type of cross-border disputes occurring in Kurdistan could spread across Iraq should the country splinter. Some Shiite leaders are working to create a nine-province autonomous Shiite region in the south, one that would include the oil fields around Basra. If this were to happen in the context of a large-scale civil war, Saudi Arabia and Syria, countries with Sunni Arab majorities, could openly back Sunni militias in Iraq against the Iranian-supported Shiite fief.

Yet whether Iraq’s neighbors like it or not, this country’s regions are heading toward greater autonomy, not less.

Iraqi Kurdistan has been virtually independent of the national government since 1991, when the American military established a no-flight zone across the region. The toppling of Mr. Hussein in 2003 only pushed the Kurds to reinforce their autonomy. Seeing that, many Shiites in the south began clamoring for the same.

The endgame for this nation, however bloodily it may come, could be an Iraq divided into three self-governing regions dominated respectively by Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. (The Shiite Arabs make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population; the other two groups 20 percent each.)

Here in Kurdistan, the people are open about their reluctance to participate in the project of a greater Iraq. In January 2005, 98 percent of Kurds voted for independence in an unofficial referendum. The Kurds often point out the artificial nature of Iraqi nationhood, created when colonial powers carved up the Ottoman Empire after World War I, and ask why the people should be expected to possess a strong sense of Iraqi identity now when they never really had one.

“Iraq was never a unified country,” said Asos Hardi, editor in chief of Awene, an independent Kurdish newspaper. “When you released the only factor keeping this country together, Saddam, all the problems came to the surface.”

In the market square of Sulaimaniya, the main city of eastern Kurdistan, a schoolteacher said the historical enmity between Arabs and Kurds would not disappear anytime soon.

“The Kurds and the Arabs have been like neighbors, but the Arabs have always been occupiers on this land,” said the teacher, Anwar Abu Bakr Muhammad, 33, as he chatted with friends before dusk. “Being separated from them is much better.”

The drive for independence is evident simply from a glance around the square. On one side of a building is a towering painting of Sheik Mahmoud al-Hafid, who fought for a Kurdish homeland in the early 20th century. The square’s center is dominated by a bust of Piramerd, a poet best known for his writings on Kurdish nationalism.

Across Kurdistan, the Iraqi flag is almost nowhere to be seen. The red, white and green banner of Iraqi Kurdistan, with a yellow sunburst in the middle, flutters along streets and from government buildings.

Children are not required to learn Arabic in schools, which means an entire generation is growing up without the ability to communicate with other Iraqis. Arabs arriving from other parts of the country have to register with local security forces. The Kurdish regional government has its own militia, called the pesh merga, which is estimated to number more than 100,000 and operates checkpoints on the border between Kurdish Iraq and Arab Iraq.

Moreover, the rift between Arabs and Kurds could be widened rather than healed by the trial of Mr. Hussein and six aides for their brutal 1988 military campaign against the Kurds, called Anfal. Survivors on the stand last week used a term that has recently entered the Kurdish vocabulary to describe the fate of relatives taken by government forces and never seen again: “Anfalized.”

Such memories of suffering might hinder Iraqi unity, but they serve to reinforce the foundation of Kurdish nationhood.

“The Arab nationalists think of us as inferior to them,” said Bahman Jabar, 30, another teacher in Sulaimaniya’s market square. “It’ll be better for us to split from the Arabs and have our Kurdish state.”

Yerevan Adham contributed reporting from Sulaimaniya for this article.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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