Flag Symbolizes Divisive Issue of Kurdish Autonomy

Saddam Hussein's trial in Baghdad was disrupted when a witness wore a lapel pin with the image of the Kurdish flag instead of Iraq's banner. The flag issue has taken on greater importance in Iraq since Sept. 1. That's when Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdish region, banned the flying of the Iraqi flag at government buildings.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Saddam Hussein's trial has hit another snag. First, a new chief judge was appointed, then the defense lawyers walked out in protest. Then Saddam himself refused to sit down and the new judge ejected him. Iraq's former president is on trial for the deaths of 180,000 people, many killed by poison gas. It happened to Iraqi Kurds who are concentrated in northern Iraq. This trial is a reminder of one of the biggest challenges facing Iraq: the challenge of holding the country together.

NPR's Anne Garrels is following that trial in Baghdad and begins with this detail: the flag on one witness' lapel. And, Anne, what was it?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, it was the sun-splashed red, white and green Kurdish flag, not the Iraqi flag. One of the witnesses wore it. And now this is a big issue, because the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani suddenly banned the Iraqi flag in the Kurdish region. His move took everyone by surprise and set off a political storm. The U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad immediately issued a statement suggesting this was not a helpful move, repeating American support for a unified Iraq. The president of Iraq, though, Jalal Talabani, who, incidentally, is a Kurd and a rival to Barzani, stepped in to try to finesse the situation and calm the furor.

President JALAL TALABANI (Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: He said all of Iraq suffered under the current flag, which he called a symbol of repression. Talabani added it had long been decided the whole country deserved a new one, and he said the national parliament would soon take up the issue. But the battle of the flags continues.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Bus drivers in Baghdad who take passengers north express outrage the Iraqi flag is ripped from their vehicles once they get to the Kurdish border. Omar Adnan(ph), who sells car parts, says he will never give up the current Iraqi flag.

Mr. OMAR ADNAN (Car Part Salesman, Iraq): (Through translator) The Iraqi street might well revolt on this issue of changing the flag. The Arabs will not agree to this because the Arabs are devoted to the flag.

GARRELS: Meanwhile, Kurds like Baktiar Mohamed(ph), who drives south, say Arabs in Baghdad now force them to display the Iraqi flag.

Mr. BAKTIAR MOHAMED (Bus driver, Iraq): (Through translator) We take the flag because if we don't, we would be killed. In Baghdad, when they find we are Kurds, they look at us as if we are Jews. They call us traitors.

GARRELS: The Iraqi flag had long been all but absent in Kurdistan. Kurdish politicians say Barzani decided to issue an official ban now in order to shift attention from problems at home, where there are shortages of electricity and water and criticism of growing corruption. On the flag issue, Barzani knew he would have complete support and he does.

Nia Zlatif(ph), a schoolteacher, echoes the views of everyone interviewed.

Ms. NIA ZLATIF (Teacher, Iraq): (Through translator) It is a disgusting flag for the Kurdish people. It represents the gassing of the Kurds.

GARRELS: In Sulaymaniyah's market, the flag issue has laid bare deep-seated Kurdish animosity toward Iraq's Arab majority.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) Those barefoot people, the Arabs, don't want us to have freedom. They want to prevent this. In our long history, we have always fought. Kurds and Arabs are like cats and dogs; we can't get along.

GARRELS: The gulf between Kurdistan and the rest of the country grows wider. Most young Kurds now no longer study or speak Arabic. From the relative peace and tranquility of their cities, which are noisy with construction, not bombs, Kurds look west for future investment. At a recent international trade fair in Sulaymaniyah, 39-year-old Zhilwan Mahmoud(ph) said Kurds prefer not to think about the violence down in the south.

Mr. ZHILWAN MAHMOUD: They don't care what happen in south of Iraq - the people, especially. Because when Saddam was killing people here, the south of Iraq didn't care too. So it's the same here.

GARRELS: And the flag issue underscores the tensions over federalism. While political parties fight over regional rights, Kurds are filling the vacuum by assuming greater and greater autonomy. Kurdish President Barzani interprets the constitution as he sees fit. The weak central government in Baghdad hasn't intervened so far, but Kurdish politicians know there will eventually be a clash.

But Kurds like Bahir Ahman(ph) acknowledge true independence is still only a dream.

Mr. BAHIR AHMAN: (Through translator) We are surrounded by enemies: Syria, Iran and Turkey. No one really supports our becoming an independent nation.

GARRELS: If, as the Iraqi president says, there will be a new flag acceptable to all, Kurds say grudgingly they will fly it.

Mr. STEVJUWAN MAQMOUD(ph): I don't like it but we have to. Now is not time for a free Kurdistan. But we have to.

GARRELS: But Stevjuwan Maqmoud, who you just heard, hopes the Iraqi flag won't fly for long.

INSKEEP: We're talking to NPR's Anne Garrels. She's in Baghdad. And, Anne, we keep hearing about Kurds who want their own country - that northern sliver, that northern tier of the country - to be their own nation. How different is Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq right now?

GARRELS: Oh, it's a light-world away. It's just 400 miles from Baghdad. But when you go there, you have to go through passport control even though it is officially part of Iraq. And it is incredibly peaceful compared to the violence everybody is undergoing down in the south.

Kurds have been largely autonomous since '91, when the U.S. and British troops banned Iraq from flying over the region and helped protect it. They've had several years to fight their way into peace. There was a lot of political violence there.

But parties have now unified. They're working together. And with a largely homogeneous population of Kurds there's none of the sectarian violence that is now so prevalent here in Baghdad.

INSKEEP: Well, could they simply break away? Is it that simple that they could plausibly declare themselves their own country and be self-sustaining?

GARRELS: Well, they want to eventually, but they know now is not the time. I mean, as all Kurds say, they know the Syrians, the Iranians, the Turks and probably the U.S. wouldn't support it and would probably interfere with it.

But in the meantime they're enjoying the relative peace and tranquility. There are no cement barriers. There's no razor wire. People walk the streets. They gather in cafes. Liquor is even available. It's much more moderate than down here. You know, if women wear headscarves, they do out of conviction not out of pressure. And I've got to say, there are plenty of young women walking the streets in T-shirts and jeans.

INSKEEP: Anne Garrels, I want to ask a question more broadly about the possibility of a break-up of Iraq. When this possibility was first raised two, three, even four years ago, it was said that it was unlikely, implausible partly because Iraq's different groups, the Kurds, the Shiites, the Sunnis, Arabs were mixed together, they had intermarried, that there was a sense of nationhood. After the events of this year is all that still true?

GARRELS: Not as true as it was, that's for sure, and certainly not for the Kurds. And in the meantime they're basically grabbing as much autonomy as they can. But it's a fragile situation. You know, there still is no enabling legislation for the constitution and a lot of what the Kurds are doing is not really been sanctioned by the central government.

And you've got the big issue of Kirkuk looming. Now this is a disputed region next to Kurdistan. The Kurds claim it as theirs. They want Kirkuk to be their capital. But it's a mixed city and there's supposed to be a referendum on this by the end of the year 2007.

Yet in the meantime, the Kurdish president - now, there is a president of Kurdistan as this semi-autonomous region - the Kurdish president and prime minister have said that they actually have the right to begin exploring oil in Kirkuk even before the referendum. I mean, this - if they decide to do this, this would bring a violent response from the rest of Iraq.

INSKEEP: Questions of oil and power at the bottom of a lot of this.

GARRELS: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: We're talking to NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Anne, good to talk with you.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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