Iraqi Kurds, the one Iraqi community that has broadly supported the American occupation, are expressing growing anger at the failure of the United States and its allies to give them full control of their own affairs and allow the Kurds to expel Arabs placed in Kurdistan by Saddam Hussein.
Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told The Independent in an interview that the Kurds had been offered less autonomy "than we had agreed in 1974 with the regime of Saddam Hussein".
The Kurds, the main Iraqi victors of the war last year, want, in effect, to keep the mini-state in northern Iraq they ruled after Saddam withdrew his army in 1991. They also want the US and the Iraqi Governing Council to recognize the Kurdish identity of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and other districts from which Kurds were forced to flee by the deposed dictator and his predecessors.
We are not happy with the process. We are disappointed.
Mr Barzani, a neatly dressed, rather intense man who fought for decades against the old regime, was in Baghdad to seek to persuade the US-appointed governing council, of which he is a member, to recognize the federal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Sitting in a gloomy house in Saddam's old palace complex, Mr Barzani said it was important for the Kurdish right to home rule to be enshrined in the Iraqi Basic Law that is now being drawn up.
But he is caustic about the governing council. "Their main priority seems to be traveling abroad," he said, and added that many members of the council were formerly part of the Iraqi opposition who had committed themselves again and again over the years to a federal solution for the Iraqi Kurds and should not now abandon their old promises.
But Mr Barzani confirmed that "we all believe the Kurdish issue should be resolved within Iraq itself". The Kurds of Iraq know that if they did opt for independence that would precipitate a Turkish invasion, probably aided by Syria and Iran. All three countries have large Kurdish minorities. He said: "They should be grateful to us because it is only the Kurdish issue which brings them together."
The Iraqi Kurds were extraordinarily fortunate during the brief war to overthrow Saddam last year. Before the war, Washington intended to invade Iraq from the north using Turkish bases and accompanied by a Turkish army. The Kurds were told by the US to keep quiet, though they protested furiously. In the event, the Turkish parliament rejected the US demand. The Americans were compelled to rely on the Kurds to create a northern front against Saddam. As the regime in Baghdad collapsed, Kurdish forces swept into the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. The Kurds saw that as a first step towards reversing ethnic cleansing which pre-dates Saddam's regime.
"Kurds have been very patient, but it is impossible to wait another 10 or 15 years. This would lead to major problems," Mr Barzani said.
He said the Kurdish leaders could have acted opportunistically by sending back Kurdish refugees and expelling Arabs in the immediate aftermath of liberation. Instead they waited.
"We are not happy with the process. We are disappointed. Some Arabs who left have now returned. We are not against Arabs who have always lived there but those who came because of Arabization must go back," Mr Barzani said.
There are the seeds here for a savage ethnic conflict. The Arabs and Turkomans in Kirkuk are frightened. Many of the Arab settlers have been there for more than a generation and it is not clear where they would go. The last year has seen a number of small-scale but bloody clashes.
Mr Barzani emphasized that the Kurds were giving up control over defense, foreign and fiscal policy to central government. At the moment, that is not a great sacrifice as there is no Iraqi army, the Foreign Minister is the very able Kurdish leader Hoshyar Zebari and fiscal policy is not a topic on which most Kurds feel strongly. The Kurdish position is, for the moment, very strong since the Kurds are well organized and their peshmerga fighters are the largest Iraqi military force in the country. But they fear that their current superiority may not last and their gains over the past year will be chipped away as the face of the country changes.
The US cannot afford to alienate the Kurds, but the Kurds also need to keep their alliance with America. It is US air power that allowed the Iraqi Kurds to achieve de facto independence after 1991. And it is the US that keeps Turkey out of northern Iraq.
The problem for the Kurds is that the best guarantee for their autonomy is to play a central role in a new Iraqi government. But Kurdish control of Kirkuk and the reversal of Arabization may lead to constant friction between Kurdish and Iraqi Arab leaders in future.
* George Bush stepped up efforts to calm the dispute over transition to self rule in Iraq, calling in the Iraqi Governing Council president, Adnan Pachachi, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shia member of the council who is close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, for talks in Washington.
Last night, there were reports that the British and US governments were looking at running direct elections in time for the handover of power to Iraqis by 1 July. The Guardian reported that unnamed British officials said the Government had been swayed by the Shia argument. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said it had been studying using dyes on voters' hands as a means of working without an electoral roll.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd