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Autonomy, federation, independence.

Last May's elections in Kurdistan -- the first free vote of their own the Kurds have ever had -- were an exhilarating event. Chris Kutschera witnessed the festival atmosphere and wonders whether the Kurds will be able to limit their aspirations to autonomy, or have independence thrust upon them by Saddam Hussein's intransigence.

EARLY ON THE morning of 19 May, a multitude of men and women lined up patiently to vote in Dohuk, the chief town of Badinan province, as they were doing all over Iraqi Kurdistan. It was an impressive sight, the final seal to a two-wee long election campaign which will leave an unforgettable memory for milions of Kurds who took part.

The campaign to elect Kurdistan's first popular assembly (that is, without a result predetermined in Baghdad) had a carnival atmosphere. Putting out of mind the ghastly events of the past 18 months, hundreds opf thousands of Kurds flocked to greet the political leaders who toured the towns, villages and camps in the area secured by the United Nations.

All of them seemed to have acquired celebrity status. Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish Democratic party (KDP) leader, attracted huge crowds in Suleimaniya, a city with a reputation as a stronghold of support for the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Jalal Talabani, the PUK chief, drew an enthusiastic audience in Irbil, a city with less defined political affiliations. Mahmoud Osman of the United Socialist part of the Kurdistan (USKP) addressed his followers in the Serai square of Old Suleimaniya beneath a giant portrait of Sheikh Mahmoud a hero fo the Kurdish national movement who proclaimed himself briefly "king of Kurdistan" in the early 1920s. Sami Abdul Rahman, head of the Kurdistan People's Democratic party (KPDP), claimed that his rally in Dohuk would have been a mass festival except for the heckling orchestrated by local KDP supporters.

All the contesting parties, even the Iraqi Communist party, despatched motorcades through the towns bedecked with flags and carrying supporters shouting their slogans. Children were the most vociferous in the shouting match between "Mama" and "Kaka" supporters (after "Mam" uncle Jalal and "Kak" brother Massoud). If some Western observers were beildered by the frenzy, its meaning was all too clear to one East European guard attached to the UN forces. "I understand their exaltation so well," he declared. "Like us, they have been forced to remain silent for so many years."

The exhausting campaign closed without any major incident, itself something of a miracle since all Kurdish men carry weapons and in the atmosphere of intense rivalry any agent provocateur could have sparked off violence. Calling the elections "a farce and a crime organised by their American masters and implemented by Kurdish lackeys", Saddam Hussein tried hard to disrupt them.

Kurdish guerrillas claimed to have arrested a number of Iraqi agents carrying explosives with which they planned to booby-trap cars near the polling stations. Baghdad had also massed an estimated 150,000 troops, including three divisions of the elite Republican Guard, along the 330-mile front line which seals Kurdistan off from the rest of Iraq. Up until the last minute, Kurdish leaders wondered anxiously what Saddam might do.

In the end, the Iraqi leader was powerless. Only a shortage of ballot boxes prevented all the voters from taking part. "I never believed that one day I would vote in Kurdistan," said Mumtaz, an Iraqi Kurd living in Britain who had returned for the occasion. "It's like a dream."

Six Kurdish nationalist lists and one Islamic list contested the vote of around a million potential electors for 100 seats in the Kurdish assembly, with another five specially set aside for Christians. In a separate vote, all had to choose a "president" from four candidates -- Barzani (KDP), Talabani (PUK), Osman (USKP) and Sheikh Othman (Islamic Movement).

The real object of the exerise was to bring an end to the endemic rivalry between 46-year-old Barzani, who claims the inheritance of his legendary father Mustafa, and 59-year-old Talabani, who poses as a revolutionary leftist leader embodying the spirit of progress. The voters would have to choose between the two and in doing so, cast their verdict on the extent of freedom to which Kurdistan can aspire. Barzani is identified with the effort to negotiate an autonomy agreement with Saddam Hussein (even though the talks were initiated in April 1991 by Talabani at a time when some two million Kurds were refugees across the Turkish and Iranian frontiers). Even though the talks have been suspended, Barzani is by nature prudent and feels that the Kurds should not go beyond their traditionally modest objectives of autonomy simply because world opinion is momentarily (and unusually) in their favour.

Talabani is altogether more ambitious in advocating a federal set-up in Iraq which would give Kurdistan many of the attributes of statehood as well as more territory. He accuses Barzani of selling out Kirkuk and its population by limiting Kurdish claims to autonomy over a smaller area. The logic of Talabani points implicity to full independence (though he certainly does not say as much). This, however, would win little support in the West (and none regionally) which would also be wary of a federal solution for Iraq after the sorry experiences of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

In order to avoid armed confrontation which seemed a distinct possibility last year the two leaders decided to resort to popular consultation. "Either we fight or we go to the polls," explained one KDP leader, adding that "Massoud Barzani hoped elections will solve all the misunderstandings between our parties."

By putting their respective forces to the count, the political leaders hoped to determine finally who would rule Iraqi Kurdistan. They wanted to put an end to the virtual paralysis of the Kurdistan Front in whcih all eight of the parties, no matter its size, has veto power. And they looked forward to the day when the militias could be disarmed and a real administration put in place to rebuild the country Saddam has repeatedly shattered.

The election results confirmed two basic facts about Kurdish politics. First, the KDP and the PUK are the only parties which really matter. None of the others managed to cross the 7% threshold allowing them to claim seats (the Islamic Movement won 5% of the vote, the remaining parties 2% or less). Inevitably there were accusations of ballot-rigging, but the overwhelming predominance of the two big parties can be taken as reflecting the real situation.

Second, both the KDP and the PUK are remarkably equal in the popular support they can rally and neither enjoys the substantial support at the expense for the other which they each fancied they had. Although, in strict mathematical terms, the KDP was entitled to 51 seats against the PUK's 49, they agreed to a 50:50 split as a face-saving device for Talabani who found it hard to swallow the PUK's narrow defeat (it won 423,833 votes compared with the KDP's 437,879).

Way out ahead of their rival in the "presidential" vote. Barzani and Talabani are due to hold a run-off election while there is talk of fresh assembly elections within six months. However, the second round of the presidential election has been postponed for at least two months and there is a feeling among many politicians that Kurdistan has digested enough democracy for the moment. A surfeit of voting will get in the way of forming a government (or executive council) which will inevitably take time and hard bargaining.

The prospect of political stability will also permit Kurdish leaders to pay attention to the critical issue of financing local government and services, a problem which has been pushed aside in the struggle for immediate survival. Many observers have expected a social explosion in protest against the administrative vacuum left behind by the withdrawal of the Iraqi army and civil service last October to the cordon sanitaire south of Irbil and Suleimaniya. Luckily, it has not happened.

As one panicky KDP intellectual put it, control of all the major urban centres (except Kirkuk) for the first time means "we need some fuel to make the engine work ... But we have none, and even if we win the elections we are lost!" The only income the Kurds currently have to run an administration amounts to the equivalent of around $1m for customs duties every five days or so.

Education services are an example of the crisis facing the Kurds. Like all state employee, except the health department which is functioning more or less normally, teacher have not been paid for months or only very irregularly and the education system is in a shambles. In many schools there are three shifts of three hours each to accommodate all the children old enough to attend. But as the time for exams neared, teachers were still wondering where they would find enough paper for all their pupils and since they have no budget for photocopies all the questions had to be written out by hand.

What happens next depends as much on Saddam Hussein as on the Kurds. If the Iraqi leader sticks to his refusal to make any concessions to Kurdish demands, he could lose any chance of regaining even limited control of the region. "It looks as if we are forming a republic without announcing it," remarked one of Barzani's aides. "Maybe we should redefine it as |external autonomy'!"

An embargo within an embargo

SINCE SADDAM Hussein withdrew his military and administrative presence from most of Kurdistan last October, Iraqi Kurds have been living under a double embargo - the UN-sanctioned blockade of Iraq as a whole and Baghdad's blockade of the Kurdish region. The Iraqi army searches all cars and trucks reaching the checkpoints along the "border" which separate the liberated zone from government-controlled areas. All food is indiscriminately thrown aside, medicines are confiscated and gasoline siphoned off.

As a result prices have skyrocketed in Kurdistan. A gallon of gasoline sells for at least ID15 (one Iraqi dinar = $3) on the free market, (though people willing to queue for two to three days can get 20 litres for half that price). Food prices are hard to imagine. A 50-kilo bag of rice fetches around ID400, almost three times a teacher's monthly salary. Nader Mohammed, a shopkeeper in Irbil, said he had only 200 kilos in his store. "Before, I was selling only by bags of 50 kilos. Now people buy day by day, often only one or two kilos, when they can."

Sugar, which used to cost 150 fils a kilo, now sells for more than ID5. One 16-kilo tin of cooking oil (imported from Turkey) used to be worth ID5. Several months ago, it would set the purchaser back ID250, but has now settled at ID175.

Living with a Kurdish family can tell a great deal about the hardships of daily life. Better-off families can still afford rice, but little meat (ID35 a kilo). "The last time we had meat was six weeks ago for the end of Ramadan," says Nask, a housewife in Halabja who is by no means impoverished. But Piroz, a poor widow whose late husband was badly tortured by the secret police and then died in the notorious chemical bombing of the town in 1988, has forgotten the taste of rice, let alone meat. With her four children she now eats only soup with bread.

Assuming that the worst of the emergency is over, some international relief agencies are starting to pack their bags. But having exhausted their reserves, Kurds are now facing some of the most difficult times of their lives.

Don't be too harsh on Saddam

TARIQ AZIZ, Iraq's urbane foreign minister, made another futile attempt last month to persuade the United Nations that his country was doing its best to comply with conditions which would allow the economic embargo to be lifted. His failure could be expected. Iraq is still dragging its feet on accounting for all of its programme for construction of weapons of mass destruction. It has yet to accept long-term UN monitoring of civilian industry to ensure there will be no more convert military production. And there is no sign that it intends to treat its Kurdish and Shia populations any more humanely.

More significant is the fact that Tariq Aziz should be able to talk sweet reason and present Saddam Hussein's regime as a misunderstood and aggrieved party. This may cut no ice with the Western powers or the Gulf states. But elsewhere in the Arab world there are small but distinct signs of wavering.

At the end of May, for example, Esmat Abdel Meguid, the Egyptian secretary-general of the Arab League, said that the "blockade of the Iraqi people must stop" as soon as possible. The only obstacle to a partial lifting of sanctions he foresaw was the release of remaining Kuwaiti prisoners in Iraq -- prisoners which Iraq insists it no longer holds.

There is a growing current of sympathy in Arab countries for Iraqis who are seen as victims (if not for Saddam himself). The eagerness of the UN, seemingly inspired by Washington, to slap sanctions on Iraq and Libya (the latter for its failure to hand over suspects in the Lockerbie case) can easily be perceived as an anti-Arab or anti-Islamic reflex when so little pressure has apparently been exerted on Israel and the international community has been so dilatory in forestalling Serbia's assault on the Muslims of Bosnia.

Such sentiments are likely to grow so long as sanctions on Iraq remain less than effective and Saddam consolidates his position. Shortages of basic essentials are acute, public health has been badly affected and industry is severely hampered by the lack of imported spare parts. As a sign of how the screws are tightening, Iraqi Airways was forced last month to suspend all domestic flights. Public discontent is widespread but not vocal.

Nonetheless, Iraq has achieved unexpectedly good results by patching up, improvising an cannibalising. In May, the director of operations for the World Food Programme charged with administering food aid to Iraq announced that most people were now adequately (if not well) fed and reports of malnutrition were grossly exaggerated. Saddam can still just gamble on sitting out the blockade.

This leaves the United States in a quandary. The Bush administration is asking Congress to increase 1993 allocations for covert funds to overthrow Saddam to $40bn from $15bn this year. Congress is sceptical and critics see the request for more money as an admission that the efforts of the intelligence services have so far produced dismal results. The National Intelligence Estimate, a classified report on the world drawn up annually for the president, apparently concludes that Saddam Hussein is far stronger than he was a year ago.

It is not hard to see why. The proliferating opposition groups in exile (many of which enjoy a barely phantom existence) have little credibility. Eighteen months after a common front was established on paper under Syria's aegis at a meeting in Beirut, unity has fragmented and for some time President Assad had shown little enthusiasm for backing a viable Iraqi opposition.

He has publicly stated that it is up to the Iraqis to change their government. Foreign powers should not intervene. The West, Saudi Arabia and Iran each have their favoured clients, but Syria is the key. In December, Assad brushed off an attempt by Ayatollah Mohammed Bar al Hakim, the head of the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to rally other opposition groups in Damascus behind an effort to topple Saddam. In March, he refused to allow the representative of the London-based Free Iraq Council to attend a meeting of exiles in Damascus.

The Kurds, meanwhile, alone having a strong presence on Iraqi territory, remain ambiguously aloof from the whole exercise. Kurdish observers were due to sit in on a conference organised last month in Vienna by the pro-Western Iraqi National Congress which planned to elect its own executive leadership. The Damascus-based Joint Action Committee meanwhile proposed a conference in Kurdistan. Fearing retaliation from Baghdad, the Kurds were distinctly cautious.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; includes related article; the Kurds' aspirations for autonomy
Author:Kutschera, Chris
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Hard times in the promised land.
Next Article:To the bitter end.

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