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Disharmony in Iraqi Kurdistan
"All areas which are part of Kurdistan historically and geographically and where the majority are Kurds must be united in the regional government of Kurdistan. Kirkuk is one of these cities," Talabani says.
While a Kurdish partnership with the Shiites--who endured similar suffering and injustice at the hands of Saddam Hussein--might not be as rosy as one would think, there are signs that Kurdish unity is also less than solid. Even as the Kurds celebrate their success in becoming powerbrokers of the new Iraqi government, some old tensions are re-emerging.
The Kurdish zone has been divided between rival administrations ever since a bloody fratricidal war during the mid-1990s between the two main factions, Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani. Talabani was originally a member of the KDP, founded by Barzani's father Mullah Mustafa, but he left to form the PUK splinter group.
The region's last elections (held in 1992) produced an even PUK/KDP split, sparking a power struggle that led to acrimonious conflict. More than 3,000 were killed in fighting between the factions, and each side accused the other of seeking external support. The PUK turned to Iran (so the charges go) while the KDP was accused of enlisting the help of Turkey, and even of Baghdad.
This time around, Barzani and Talabani have agreed to paper over their differences and present a united front in the interests of the Kurdish people, consolidating their power by running on the same list in national and Kurdish parliamentary elections.
But Kurdish political commentators suspect the political infighting will again obstruct the common Kurdish interest. "These two parties have a long history--forming coalitions, quarreling, civil war. This hasn't finished because of some statements. Both parties want authority; both are eager to win the exclusive acceptance of the Kurdish people," said Chiman Salh, political editor of Xabat newspaper, based in Erbil. She added that it wouldn't be a surprise if the parties eventually ended up supporting different Shiite blocs within the year in order to gain a political advantage over the other.
After the region's local elections--the only one where the parties ran separately--accusations of vote-rigging are being traded. When the PUK did better than expected, some officials began to question the wisdom of a deal that secured Talabani's nomination as candidate for the largely ceremonial post of Iraqi president.
"I have no comment on this," said Talabani, when asked if he had regrets over the arrangement between the two parties, whereby he gets the post in Baghdad and Barzani becomes de facto president of a united Kurdish zone, with Barzani's nephew, Nechirvan, continuing on as prime minister of the Kurdish regional government. The arrangement "is in the interests of the Kurdish people," Talabani insists.
The differences between the two men start from their demeanor--during interviews with foreign journalists Barzani wears traditional Kurdish clothes and speaks only in Kurdish; Talabani wears a suit and speaks in English--and extend to their divergence of views on the Kurdish future in Iraq.
While Barzani has responded to the Kurds' strong showing in the elections with warnings that an independent Kurdistan is inevitable, acknowledging the groundswell of Kurdish popular support for secession, Talabani takes a different line. "I don't see any possibility for a Kurdish independent state," he says.
More than 1.9 million Kurds voted to secede from Iraq in an informal poll conducted alongside national elections on January 30, but while Barzani makes threats about withdrawing from the political process if Kurdish rights are not respected, Talabani urges national unity.
"A democratic, federal, united, independent Iraq is the best thing for the Kurds nowadays," Talabani says, and he does not hesitate before answering a question about where his first loyalties lie: "[with] Iraq, of course--because Iraq includes Kurdish people."
Despite their differences, the Kurdish leadership knows it must stay united, since division would damage the Kurds' chances of getting what they want from Iraq. This in turn could threaten the stability of a region that has been a haven of peace in the face of Iraq's recent chaos.