Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Kurdish nationalism rises with Arab unrest, Sudan split

* Region sees inspiration from secession of South Sudan

* Kurds have oil riches, some autonomy in northern Iraq

By NAMO ABDULLA -- Reuters



ARBIL, Iraq, July 20 - On the day the newest African nation, South Sudan, was born, Iraqi Kurdish leader Barham Salih used his iPad to tweet his feelings to the world: "Watching history in (the) making as South Sudan goes independent."

"Moral of story, right to self-determination cannot be denied by genocide."

With the emergence of a new nation in Africa and uprisings against autocracies across the Arab world, Kurds in Iraq's semi-autonomous north are speaking in louder voices about the possibility of increasing autonomy if, as some Kurds fear, Iraq's central government becomes more authoritarian.

In parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran, Kurds are also seeing new possibilities of freedom beyond governments who have historically repressed their Kurdish minorities.

"There is a lot of inspiration from southern Sudan," said Salih, prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurdish flags and colours -- red, white and green -- are far more common than the red, white and black of Iraq.

"But more important is the deep concern that most of us feel about the direction of the politics of Baghdad as it goes towards centralisation and authoritarianism."

Iraq's central government and the Kurdish region -- three of Iraq's 18 provinces -- have unresolved issues over borders and oil rights. Iraqi Kurdistan has 45 billion barrels of crude reserves.

With a population of about 30 million, largely living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, Kurds are an ethnic group whose culture and language separate them from Arabs, Turks and Persians, with whom they share land.

Largely Muslim, they have been subject to repression by other Muslims who see them as separatists.

After the first Gulf War in 1991 Western powers provided a safe haven for Iraq's Kurds, allowing them to use their natural resources to start building a modern state.

Notions of Kurdish nationalism were reinforced by the 2003 invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein as much of Iraq tumbled into sectarian warfare that threatened its survival as a single state.

IN ASCENDANCE?

"For the first time in their modern history, the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, at least, are cautiously ascending," said author Michael Gunter, who has written on the evolution of Kurds in the two countries.

He said Turkey's desire to join the European Union has forced Turkey to improve Kurdish lives in the southeast. Kurdish music is heard in Turkish cities such as Diyarbakir, and a Kurdish-language TV channel broadcasts round-the-clock.

After 27 years of conflict between Turkey and Kurdish rebels, both Kurds and Turks appear to prefer more peaceful solutions to end the hostility.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has acknowledged the existence of a Kurdish problem, long denied as a "security issue", and promised to solve it. In June elections, Kurds won 36 parliament seats, almost double their previous total.

From the streets of Syria's Qamishli, where Kurdish protesters call for freedom, to the Citadel in Arbil, where a Kurdish flag waves over Iraq's biggest boomtown, many Kurds see a promising future for pan-Kurdish nationalism.

"There is no such a thing as half-revolution," said Khalid Ali, a Syrian Kurdish activist in Arbil.

"Syrians have decided it. The toppling of Bashar al-Assad is just matter of time," he said, referring to the Syrian leader who has cracked down on pro-democracy protests. Syria blames armed groups linked to Islamists for stirring violence.

Exiled Syrian activists living in Iraqi Kurdistan are using social media tools such as Facebook, and collect donated money to support protesters at home.

"If this regime falls, it would be better for the Kurds. They will be free to work in their own regions," said Mahmoud Ya'aqub, 34, who administers Facebook groups in Arbil.

David Romano, a Middle East politics professor at Missouri State University, says the success of the Syrian revolution would have profound impact on other countries, including Iran.

"Iran will be more isolated if Syria falls," said Romano, the author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement.

From a hideout high in the Qandil Mountains, Amir Karimi, a senior anti-Iran rebel leader, espouses a more radical vision.

"If Syria falls, Iran would be the next target," he said. "Turkey would be left with two choices: Either to wipe out the Kurds completely ... or surrender to reality." (Editing by Jim Loney and Elizabeth Piper)

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