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Barzani Interview on Kurdistan and Iraq

The Kurds are a people who were badly treated by history during the past century, and now they are being squeezed by geography in this one. While their autonomous region in the north of Iraq functions in many ways like an independent state, geography makes this landlocked region highly dependent on its neighbors, most of them unfriendly. The Turks and the Iranians fear Kurdish rebels in the own countries, and the problems that an independent Kurdistan might bring. Iraqi Kurds have an even worse relationship - no relationship might be more accurate - with the Syrian government, which rules over a significant Kurdish minority that it treats very badly. And then to the south, of course, are the Iraqi Arabs, with whom they must negotiate autonomy.

Today's Wall Street Journal has an interview the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani which explores the tension between the Kurdish desire and their reality. Most Kurds long for independence, and on a de facto basis they have a lot of it, but their leaders are highly aware that they cannot survive if their four neighbors oppose them. Kurdistan has oil and increasing commercial links with the outside world, but none of this is worth anything without the right to pump oil through and travel over adjacent territories. Barzani makes clear that he is committed to a federal Iraq, but that the two concepts are joined - either Iraq is federal or the Kurds will split. Arab leaders in Baghdad, on the other hand, know that they have some leverage, but that they cannot force a united Iraq on Barzani. So they will have to negotiate.

This is from today's Weekend Interview:

ERBIL, Iraq--Unlike Baghdad, 200 miles away, the air here does not echo with the sound of gunfire, car bombs and helicopters. Residents of this city of a million people picnic by day in pristine new parks and sip tea with friends and relatives at night. American forces are not "occupiers" or the "enemy," but "liberators." Mentioning President Bush evokes smiles--and not of derision.

American forces were "most welcome" when stationed here at the start of the invasion of Iraq, says Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan in the north. Not a single U.S. soldier was killed in his region, he adds proudly, "not even in a traffic accident." Would U.S. forces be welcome back now? "Most certainly," he declared this week in an interview in his newly minted marble (and heavily chandeliered) palace. The more American soldiers the better, a top aide confirms.

The secret of Kurdistan's relative success so far--and of America's enduring popularity here--is the officially unacknowledged fact that the three provinces of the Kurdish north are already quasi-independent. On Oct. 11, Iraq's parliament approved a law that would allow the Sunni and Shiite provinces also to form semi-autonomous regions with the same powers that the constitution has confirmed in Kurdistan. And while Kurdish leaders pay lip-service to President Bush's stubborn insistence on the need for a unified Iraq with a strong centralized government, Kurdistan is staunchly resisting efforts to concentrate economic control in Baghdad...

Read the full Weekend Interview.

Notes