IRBIL, Iraq – There is growing concern among Iraq's Kurds that the United States will once again abandon them midway in their age-old aspiration to set up a federal Kurdish state.
Kurdish leaders and many others in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq are convinced that Washington promised, just before invading Iraq 10 months ago, that the Kurds would be granted autonomy under a federal system after the fall of Saddam Hussein. U.S. officials say no such guarantees were made.
The Kurds, who established a semiautonomous area in Irbil (search), Sulaimaniyah (search) and Dohuk (search) provinces in northern Iraq under U.S. and British protection following the 1991 Gulf War, were among the strongest Iraqi supporters of the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.
"In the last 12 years, we've had a free and democratic atmosphere. It's impossible for the Kurds to accept one scintilla less than what they have enjoyed," Neschirwan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdish Parliament in Irbil, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Irbil is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party (search), one of the two major Kurdish factions. The other faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (search), controls Sulaimaniyah. Those provinces and Dohuk are home to most of Iraq's Kurds, who represent about 20 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.
The Kurdish goal is to formalize their existing autonomy under a federal system and even expand it to the oil-rich area around Kirkuk (search), historically a mixed Kurdish, Arab and Turkoman (search) city. Saddam expelled Kurds from Kirkuk and resettled the area with Arabs.
Barzani, nephew of KPD leader Massoud Barzani, said no political party has the right to accept anything less than federalism "because the Kurdish public and the Kurdish people will not accept it."
The Kurdish Parliament in Irbil has sent a proposal for a federal solution to the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad and to L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator of the nation.
Bremer has indicated that he prefers a federal system, but one based on geographical boundaries rather than ethnic composition.
Barzani said that during meetings between U.S. officials and anti-Saddam opposition groups and Kurdish leaders before the war, "it was confirmed that the Kurds will get a lions share in the new Iraq.
"And things gradually changed. After the war, they forgot everything. ... They came out with a new idea about how to run the situation. This in itself has become a problem," he said.
Barzani said "historically, geographically" there has been an area called Kurdistan made up of areas with majority Kurdish population.
"What we say is this: The borders of the federal union should be made up of areas that are called Kurdistan," he said, reiterating a demand by Kurdish leaders.
The Kurdish aspirations have alarmed neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran, which fear that granting Iraqi Kurds an ethnic enclave could incite separatist sentiments among Kurdish minorities within their own borders.
Barzani also demanded that Arabs, who were settled in Kirkuk and other Kurdish areas, should be asked to leave. Then Kurds can vote in a referendum on whether they want to be part of a Kurdistan federation, he said.
In recent days, Kurds have been collecting petitions from citizens calling for a referendum on a federal solution.
"The petition is to put pressure on the coalition authority, the Governing Council and human rights groups to take notice of the wishes of the Kurdish people that they want to determine their own fate," said Haval Abu Bakr, a professor at Sulaymaniyah University.
Ferhad Pirbal, a writer and professor at Salaheddin University in Irbil, said, "We know the Turks, the Arabs and the Americans very well. They might do the same again and betray us, like they did in the past. Americans understand the feelings and emotions of Iraqi nationalism and can use that against us."
His wife, Tarza Jaff, a teacher and a novelist, agreed.
"We are all afraid that America will betray us again," she said.
Kurds felt let down in 1991 after the U.S. government urged them to rise against Saddam but did nothing to help them when they were brutally crushed by the Iraqi army.
The Americans, however, say they planned to keep Iraq intact.
"When we came we said it's going to be one nation" and "we will keep the status quo for now until we can establish a government with a constitution," said Lt. Col. James Bullion with the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion in Irbil.
He said the issue of Kirkuk was yet to be resolved and the Coalition Provisional Authority will set up a property claims commission in Irbil, Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah in the coming weeks for people evicted from their towns.
Bullion had advice for the Kurds who were among the people who suffered most under Saddam: "This is the best opportunity for them to achieve their goals. But they have to be realistic. If they push too hard, they may lose that opportunity."