Fri, Mar 24, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Iraqi Kurds enjoying life away from all the mayhem

NORTHERN PEACE While the Shiites and Sunnis continue to massacre each other in the south of the country, the Kurds are watching and dreaming of an independent state

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SULAIMANIYA, IRAQ

Like most young Kurds in this northern city, Asad Ali does not speak Arabic. He has heard about the rising wave of sectarian killings down in Baghdad, but it seems a world away from the quiet rhythms of daily life here in Kurdistan.

So when a discussion broke out near an outdoor book market about whether there would be civil war between Shiite and Sunni Arabs in Iraq, Ali, a 24-year-old who wears rimless glasses and blue jeans, did not hesitate to give his opinion.

"It is beautiful that our enemies are killing each other," he said with a grim chuckle.

It is not an unusual view here. Kurdistan may be part of Iraq in the legal sense, but most Kurds view the Arabs, whether Sunni or Shiite, as foreign oppressors. The fact that the Arabs are now fighting among themselves evokes little sympathy.

For many Kurds, the main danger of a civil war is that it might spread northward, threatening the relative stability they have enjoyed since the US invasion in 2003. Although Kurdistan is virtually an ethnic monolith, the major cities on its borders, Kirkuk and Mosul, have substantial Arab populations and are far more violent.

So the prospect of a civil war makes many Kurds yearn all the more fiercely for separate national status. Some even say such a war might help them make their case.

"I think the violence down in Baghdad will lead Kurdistan to independence," said Muhsin Khidir, 30, who was taking a cigarette break near the booksellers. "We don't want that kind of fighting here. If civil war breaks out in Iraq, I'm sure we will have the support of the international community, and we'll just declare ourselves independent."

Older Kurds, who came of age before Kurdistan became an autonomous region in 1991, tend to be more worried about the violence in central Iraq, and more hopeful that their own political leaders can play a mediating role. But they too wonder whether a broader conflict might have accidental benefits.

"I don't like to get my rights in the tragedy of others," said Asos Hardi, 43, a journalist who helped found Hawlati, Kurdistan's main independent newspaper. "But if it will happen and Iraq will become a second Afghanistan, why should we continue with them? It is a logical question."

Kurdistan had its own civil war in the 1990s, when its two main political parties fought for control. Many Kurds do not want to become involved in another war. They are also deeply resentful of Iraqi Arabs, who carried out brutal attacks on Kurdish villages during the reign of former president Saddam Hussein.

Evidence of that animosity can be found almost anywhere. At the outdoor book market -- which sits under a vast mural of Sheik Mahmoud al-Hafeed, the rebel leader who is considered the father of modern Kurdistan -- one of the most popular titles is a paperback called The Bloody History of the Arabs: A Summary. On its cover was a lurid color illustration of a hooded skeleton strangling a beautiful young woman.

But separating from Iraq would be difficult, if not impossible. Apart from any objections the Arabs might raise, Turkey has at least 12 million Kurds within its borders, and has made clear that it would not tolerate an independent Kurdistan. Iran and Syria have Kurdish populations, too, and would probably also object.

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