BY BENNY AVNI – Special to the Sun
December 24, 2004

UNITED NATIONS – A group of Kurdish activists has delivered to the United Nations a petition calling for an independent Kurdistan that was signed by more than 1.7 million Kurds, or almost half the Kurdish population in northern Iraq.

Members of the American-led coalition and the U.N. fear that an independent Kurdistan could lead to the breakup of Iraq. It is also a major concern for neighboring Turkey, which has its own Kurdish population with aspirations for independence.

The American-led coalition, as well as the transitional law that currently governs Iraq, calls for a unified nation. The petition, signed by residents in what the Kurdish activists define as “southern Kurdistan, “demands a referendum that will lead to independence and the breakup of Iraq.

The petition was handed Wednesday night to Carina Perelli, director of the U.N. electoral assistance division that is helping to organize Iraq’s crucial nationwide election on January 30.A U.N. spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said yesterday that the organization receives similar petitions on a “routine” basis.

The U.N. also supports a united Iraq. “We have all been working on the basis that you are going to have a unitary state, an Iraq that is united and at peace with itself and with its neighbors,” Secretary-General Annan said in a recent press conference.

The Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq, including the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud Barazani, and the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani, has also expressed its support for a unified Iraq. But according to the Kurdish delegation to the United Nations, that is merely a tactical position.

The Kurdish delegation of seven activists, two of them from northern Iraq and five who live in America and Europe, is relying on the petition that was circulated among Iraqi Kurds, whose numbers are estimated at between 4 million and 5 million. “Independence is the goal of the Kurdish people,” a California businessman who is the group’s coordinator, Ardi Rashidi, told The New York Sun.

When asked about the international calls for a unified Iraq, Mr. Rashidi said: “Of course that is the current position of the U.N. On the other hand, the U.N. charter gives people the right for self-determination. So we are trying to respect the current applicable law” and at the same time continue to seek independence by peaceful means.

The Kurds, as the petition notes, are different “ethnically, culturally, and philosophically from the Iraqi Arabs” and are “a distinctive nation.” For 80 years, according to the petition, the Kurds “have been subjected by the Iraqi Arab state to repression, enslavement, and genocide.”

Since the northern no-fly zone was established in the aftermath of the 1991 Iraq war, giving the Kurds what the petition calls a “de-facto state,” they have realized that “they do not wish to be controlled by an Arab-dominated Iraq,” the petitioners said. It demanded the U.N. send a delegation to run a referendum on independence.

“Indeed, almost all ordinary Kurds would like to see complete independence,” a New York University professor who helped the Iraqis write the transitional law, Noah Feldman, said. “But thus far the Kurdish leadership has understood that it’s much better for the Kurds to have autonomy de-facto, as part of a federal Iraq.”

He argued that the leadership’s position on independence will be steadfast, even after the election. Calls for Kurdish independence would undoubtedly increase, he added, if the security situation elsewhere in Iraq worsens or a civil war breaks out. “But we are not quite there yet,” he said.

Mr. Feldman said the public position of the leadership has helped keep the Kurdish independence movement peaceful. “They don’t want to bite off more than they can chew,” he said. Specifically, the Kurdish leadership would like to avoid antagonizing the Americans, who have been their allies.

Mr. Rashidi argued from a different perspective, saying the petition movement relies on the fact that the Kurds have been good allies for America and that therefore Washington and other allies – including Israel, for instance – should reciprocate by heeding their wish for independence.

Another complicating factor is the Turks, who are wary of their very large Kurdish population that has fought for independence from Ankara for decades. Turkey is concerned that increased autonomy for Iraqi Kurds would lead to more demands for separation by Turkish Kurds.

The Turks are “absolutely right” to have such fears “and we don’t need to be shy about it. We have to be honest,” a Washington-based activist for Kurdish independence from Turkey, Kani Xulam, told the Sun. “From the perspective of the Kurds in the north, there is an opportunity.”

Like Mr. Feldman, Mr. Xulam noted that there is no danger for now that the Turks would attempt to invade northern Iraq to put an end to independence aspirations there. Any such military invasion would be detrimental to the most burning current Turkish goal, joining the European Union.