Middle East

Iraq's Kurds focus on autonomy

PUK supporters in Rania Image copyright Nick Tarry
Image caption The Kurdistan Region has enjoyed autonomy within Iraq since the early 1990s

Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region is holding parliamentary elections on Saturday at a critical moment in the history of the Kurds - not only in Iraq but also in the whole Middle East.

When it comes to security and safety, Kurdistan is a world apart from the rest of Iraq.

Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, is growing and expanding. Its business-friendly environment has attracted foreign investment from around the world.

Since 2003, the main Kurdish parties have put their divisions aside for the benefit of the Kurdish people. This has helped provide the stability necessary to achieve prosperity that is the envy of the rest of Iraq.

Two-party rule

The region has enjoyed autonomy within Iraq since the early 1990s, when an internationally-enforced no-fly zone prevented the forces of President Saddam Hussein from attacking it.

Image copyright Nick Tarry
Image caption Kurdistan's prosperity is the envy of the rest of Iraq

After the fall of Saddam, the Kurds tried to ensure their region and its economy were not significantly affected by the sectarian insurgency raging elsewhere.

It has helped that Sunni Muslim Kurds make up the majority of the region's 4.5 million-strong population and that al-Qaeda in Iraq is not significantly active there.

Islamists, including those once considered extremists, are also part of mainstream politics in the Kurdistan Region. Although most of Iraqi Kurdish society is conservative, Kurds are in general motivated by their ethnicity rather than their religion.

The two parties which have dominated regional politics for decades are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by the region's President Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

The opposition, campaigning against what they describe as corruption and nepotism in the higher echelons of government, hope to end the two parties' domination on Saturday.

Mr Talabani, who is 86 years old, has been receiving medical treatment in Germany since suffering a stroke in December. In his absence, other leaders of his party have been campaigning passionately to win over voters.

'Our time has come'

In Rania, near the border with Iran, I went to an election rally addressed by Barham Saleh, the former prime minister of the Kurdistan Region and the man who many believe will succeed Mr Talabani next year.

I asked him whether Kurds were any closer to their historical dream of independence.

Image copyright Nick Tarry
Image caption Many believe that the election could change the region's political landscape

"Every Kurd yearns for independence," Mr Saleh replied. "However, the Kurds of Iraq have decided to be part of a democratic, federal Iraq. The Kurds of Syria are working within Syrian polity to be part of the new, emerging system in Syria."

"Putting it bluntly, our time has come. We are part of this region and our rights need to be respected."

The conflict in neighbouring Syria has caused thousands of Syrian Kurdish refugees to flee across the border to northern Iraq.

But those who have stayed have gained increasing control over their affairs, as the Syrian government has had to focus on fighting rebel forces.

New era

The Syrian crisis has also prompted discussion among all Kurds about their national destiny.

A regional conference of Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq to discuss how to advance Kurdish autonomy had been due to take place in Irbil last week, but was postponed.

However, Fawzia Yusuf, an Irbil-based Syrian Kurdish politician, said she was sure it would eventually take place.

"Our main goal will be to unify Kurdish opinion. The second goal is to form a Kurdish national organisation to take charge of diplomacy with the rest of the world. And the third goal is to make decisions on a set of common principles for all the Kurdish people."

Speaking to Iraqi Kurds preparing for Saturday's elections or to Kurdish refugees from Syria, it became clear that having an independent state was not a primary concern.

The Middle East may not be ready for that yet either. But there is now a general sense here that Kurdish identity has entered a new era, and that Kurds can no longer be ignored.

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