Middle East
Kurds wary amid US elections
Tensions in northern Iraq could prove problematic for a new US president.
Last Modified: 04 Nov 2008 12:23 GMT

The Kurds started supporting the United States following the 2003 invasion of Iraq [GALLO/GETTY]

Over the past five years, the Bush administration has referred to northern Iraq as an example of the freedom and democracy that the war has brought about.

It was, in fact, the only example they could put forward.

And since the very beginning, Washington had the full support of its closest allies in Iraq - the Kurds.

For the first time in their history, they had reached the highest levels of the country's government with Jalal Talabani becoming the first president of post-Saddam Iraq.

But even that support has dwindled since the crisis with Turkey over the Kurdistan Workers' Party, when Ankara threatened to destabilise the Kurdish north with a full scale incursion after the US chose to back Turkey, a Nato ally.

US 'dishonest'

''America was not honest with the Kurds. They've let them down in the past and they only follow their interests"

Barzan Mohamed, local man

When I first came to the Kurdish region back in 2003, there were pictures of US president George Bush, "the liberator", adorning most of the shops in the market at the foot of the citadel.

But when I arrived back last month, all I could see were effigies of Kurdish leaders.

''America was not honest with the Kurds. They've let them down in the past and they only follow their interests," says Barzan Mohamed, a local man.

"They can leave the Kurds any time and I don't trust having an alliance with them or even friendship."

"Yes, they rid us of dictatorship, but they came here to control the region and the Middle East."

Kirkuk battle

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Kurds have a decades-long claim over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, about 80km south of the borders of the Kurdish region.

They regard it as their historical capital. Some call it the Jerusalem of the Kurds.

In 2004, they managed to have enshrined in the new constitution that a referendum would take place for the people of Kirkuk to decide whether it should be attached to the Kurdish region or remain under the administration of Baghdad.

It was supposed to take place by the end of 2007, but that date came and went, and there is still no sign of a referendum.

"We see Kirkuk as part of the Kurdistan region, the Turkmen want it as an independent region, the Arabs want it to be integrated by Baghdad, we have three opinions," says Mahmoud Osman, an independent Kurdish politician.

"So, who could decide on these three opinions? I think the people of the area will be the best to decide on it. Choose one of them."

Relations soured

But Arabs and Turkmen living there accuse the Kurds of repressing them through the security forces dominated by the Kurdish peshmerga - fighters who fought the government of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader.

Relations with the Shia-led government have also soured lately.

Kurds have been staunch supporters of the long-term security agreement with the US, now dubbed as the "withdrawal-from-Iraq agreement".

Because of the lack of progress in the political process, Kurds feel that an American presence is guaranteed because of the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad.

Presidential hopes

Ahmed says all Iraqis would suffer if the
new US president pulled troops out
The feeling is overwhelming among the old generation, those who suffered from the chemical weapons of Saddam.

Ahmed Ali Mohammed, born in 1931, has seen it all.

Sipping his sweet tea, he says things would be much worse for the Kurds if it were not for the Americans.

"What I want from the new US president is not to pull out their troops, because all factions and parties will suffer, our fate will be unknown" he says.

But the Kurds also have other territorial ambitions that have ruffled the Arabs' feathers.

Kirkuk is not the only disputed territory. Mosul and Khanaqeen near the Iranian border are among some of the cities and towns they have a claim on.

And in those areas, tensions between them and the Arabs have increased dramatically lately.

They are accused of wanting to take control of those areas ahead of the provincial elections next January and there was recently a standoff between Kurdish and Arab elements of the Iraqi security forces.

The "mother of all disputes" remains Kirkuk, a city no one is willing to relinquish without a fight.

If the precarious security situation unravels there, it will drag with it the rest of Iraq.

Al Jazeera
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