Last week hundreds of Kurds protested in Kirkuk to demand that the oil-rich northern city form part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
They threatened to boycott national elections planned in January unless Arabs who were resettled in Kirkuk by ousted president Saddam Hussein left the city.
The protest followed other recent rallies by Iraqi Kurds in favour of full independence from Iraq – a policy rejected by Kurdish leaders who back extensive autonomy.
But many Iraqis are deeply suspicious of these moves.
A common view is that the Kurds are out of step with other Iraqis who do not share their pro-American views.
And many Iraqis predict the Kurds will achieve full independence in the near future and take Kirkuk’s precious oil with them.
Iraqi Kurdistan has a different feel compared with the rest of the country.
An oil-rich region, it has four million people – about 20% of Iraq‘s population – and has been virtually self-ruled since 1991 under US protection.
Its pro-Western leaders, Jalal Talabani and Masud Barzani, were instrumental in helping the Americans topple Saddam last year.
“Kurdistan is the only bit of Iraq that was relatively well off before the invasion and the Kurds want it to remain that way. They do not want to get sucked into the insurgency that exists in the middle of Iraq and in the south”Turi Munthe, RUSI
The region itself is verdant and mountainous, the people speak a different language, dress differently and fly their own national flag.
Economically and security-wise, Kurdistan is better off than the rest of Iraq – and the people are quick to thank the Americans for that.
Turi Munthe, a Middle East expert at London‘s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told Aljazeera.net there is clearly some resentment between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs in particular.
“They have a separate identity to a certain extent and for many years now there has been little contact between the two groups,” he said.
“Kurdistan is the only bit of Iraq that was relatively well off before the invasion and the Kurds want it to remain that way. They do not want to get sucked into the insurgency that exists in the middle of Iraq and in the south.”
Munthe says resentment towards the Kurds is particularly prevalent among thousands of Arabs and Turkmen who have been forced to leave historically ethnically-diverse Kirkuk and surrounding areas.
The Kurds say the expulsions were a response to Saddam’s “Arabisation” policy, which they say the former Iraqi president launched to consolidate his grip over the region.
This entailed the resettling in northern Iraq of tens of thousands – some say hundreds of thousands – of Arabs from central and southern Iraq, and the expelling of a similar number of Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians.
Iraqi Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish groups dispute these figures and say each side is exaggerating the extent of resettlements and expulsions.
Iraq Turkmen and Arabs have
Nevertheless, this issue, according to Munthe, could be the powder keg that sets off a wider conflict because Kirkuk’s natural resources are coveted by all, and could make an independent Kurdistan a viable entity.
Ali al-Quradaghi, a Kurdish expert at the University of Qatar, also acknowledged the Kurds have striking differences with other Iraqis.
He told Aljazeera.net that most Kurds considered themselves to be Muslims first, Kurds second and Iraqis only third.
But al-Quradaghi said you cannot talk about Iraqi Kurds without first understanding the historical injustices perpetrated against them.
“The Kurds were one people under the Ottoman empire,” he said.
“But the 1916 Sykes-Picot deal between the British and the French carved up the Kurdish territories and distributed the Kurds into five separate states.
“None of the problems we see today with Kurdish rebellions and subsequent reprisals would have happened had the Kurds been given their own state like everyone else at that time,” he said.
Denied a state of their own, the Kurds have waged a struggle against Baghdad for most of the century.
And the struggle has been at considerable cost.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and hundreds of thousands fled into exile during a campaign of “extermination” by Saddam’s forces in the 1980s.
The rights group reported that in 1988 alone, Iraqi forces razed thousands of villages – destroying the traditional rural economy and infrastructure of Iraqi Kurdistan – and killed tens of thousands of its inhabitants.
“The situation for Iraqi Kurds has improved considerably since 1991. So it is not in their interests to fight the Americans like other Iraqis would like them to”
Dr Ali al-Quradaghi,
However, Saddam’s government denied the allegations.
The government said its campaign was a justified response to repeated challenges to its rule over Iraq‘s northern provinces.
It said it targeted Kurdish fighters who were being harboured by towns and villages and assisted by Iranians to destabilise the country.
But only four years later, in 1992, Iraqi Kurds held elections under US and British protection.
The vote was split almost evenly between Masud Barzani’s KDP and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani.
Soon after, the CIA recruited Kurds for an anti-Saddam army, and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a US-backed opposition group, set up base in Kurdistan.
But fighting within the nationalist parties greatly hindered a concerted campaign against Saddam, and in 1994 tensions between the KDP and the PUK erupted into civil war.
During the conflict the KDP allied itself with the Iraqi government against the PUK and the INC, who were supported by Iran and the US respectively.
After four years of fighting, Barzani and Talabani signed a peace accord in Washington in 1998, but northern Iraq remained split between the adversaries.
Moreover, since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, allegations have surfaced over the Iraqi Kurds’ relationship with Israel which goes back to the 1970s when Israel helped them to fight Baghdad.
The two main Kurdish leaders are
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper has said Israeli officials have held meetings with Barzani and Talabani, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has confirmed Israel has good relations with the Iraqi Kurds.
More recently, the New Yorker magazine alleged that Israeli intelligence and military forces were active in Kurdish areas of Iran, Syria and Iraq, running secret operations that could destabilise the entire region.
Iraqi Kurd leaders denied these allegations.
Independence or autonomy?
Given this historical background, al-Quradaghi says the only way the Kurds would get their rights is if they pushed for their own state.
“The situation for Iraqi Kurds has improved considerably since 1991,” he said.
“So it is not in their interests to fight the Americans like other Iraqis would like them to.”
But he added: “If the Kurds wanted independence they would have already asked for it.
“They are realistic people. They know that neighbouring states will never tolerate Iraqi Kurdish independence because that would encourage their own Kurdish minorities to revolt.”
Nevertheless, many groups, Shia-based organisations prominent among them, remain suspicious of Kurdish designs, believing them to be a recipe for Iraq‘s break-up.
Muthana al-Dhari, a spokesman for the influential Iraqi Muslim group Association of Muslim Scholars, said talk of Kurdish independence is exaggerated.
He told Aljazeera.net that in these turbulent times, the priority should be Iraq‘s national unity.
“We don’t have any problem with the Kurds getting all their national and human rights.
“The Iraqi state was built on ethnic and religious diversity and the Kurdish people have been one of the pillars of the Iraqi state,” he said.
“We don’t have any problem with the Kurds getting all their national and human rights. Self-rule in the context of an Iraqi state is acceptable, but a state split upon ethnic lines is unacceptable.”
He added: “The Kurds have nothing to be afraid of. They opted out of central government when it was controlled by one person [Saddam Hussein], but now things are different.
“They are part of the central government and they will have a say in national affairs.”
For al-Dhari, an ethnically divided Iraq would simply play into the hands of foreign powers who he said were intent on dividing Iraqis in order to rule them more effectively.
“The Kurdish question is an Iraqi question and there can be no future for Iraq without an end to occupation,” he said.
“Iraqis have historically been able to bridge religious divisions and live side by side. Sunnis and Shia have fought together in places like Falluja and Balad and Salah al-Din province to get rid of foreign occupation.
“It is not true that civil war will break out once foreign forces leave Iraq. I think the potential for national unity will be stronger without occupation.”