Last May's elections in Kurdistan -- the first free vote of their own the Kurds have ever had -- were an exhilarating event. Chris Kutschera witnessed the festival atmosphere and wonders whether the Kurds will be able to limit their aspirations to autonomy, or have independence thrust upon them by Saddam Hussein's intransigence.
EARLY ON THE morning of 19 May, a multitude of men and women lined up patiently to vote in Dohuk, the chief town of Badinan province, as they were doing all over Iraqi Kurdistan. It was an impressive sight, the final seal to a two-wee long election campaign which will leave an unforgettable memory for milions of Kurds who took part.
The campaign to elect Kurdistan's first popular assembly (that is, without a result predetermined in Baghdad) had a carnival atmosphere. Putting out of mind the ghastly events of the past 18 months, hundreds opf thousands of Kurds flocked to greet the political leaders who toured the towns, villages and camps in the area secured by the United Nations.
All of them seemed to have acquired celebrity status. Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish Democratic party (KDP) leader, attracted huge crowds in Suleimaniya, a city with a reputation as a stronghold of support for the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Jalal Talabani, the PUK chief, drew an enthusiastic audience in Irbil, a city with less defined political affiliations. Mahmoud Osman of the United Socialist part of the Kurdistan (USKP) addressed his followers in the Serai square of Old Suleimaniya beneath a giant portrait of Sheikh Mahmoud a hero fo the Kurdish national movement who proclaimed himself briefly "king of Kurdistan" in the early 1920s. Sami Abdul Rahman, head of the Kurdistan People's Democratic party (KPDP), claimed that his rally in Dohuk would have been a mass festival except for the heckling orchestrated by local KDP supporters.
All the contesting parties, even the Iraqi Communist party, despatched motorcades through the towns bedecked with flags and carrying supporters shouting their slogans. Children were the most vociferous in the shouting match between "Mama" and "Kaka" supporters (after "Mam" uncle Jalal and "Kak" brother Massoud). If some Western observers were beildered by the frenzy, its meaning was all too clear to one East European guard attached to the UN forces. "I understand their exaltation so well," he declared. "Like us, they have been forced to remain silent for so many years."
The exhausting campaign closed without any major incident, itself something of a miracle since all Kurdish men carry weapons and in the atmosphere of intense rivalry any agent provocateur could have sparked off violence. Calling the elections "a farce and a crime organised by their American masters and implemented by Kurdish lackeys", Saddam Hussein tried hard to disrupt them.
Kurdish guerrillas claimed to have arrested a number of Iraqi agents carrying explosives with which they planned to booby-trap cars near the polling stations. Baghdad had also massed an estimated 150,000 troops, including three divisions of the elite Republican Guard, along the 330-mile front line which seals Kurdistan off from the rest of Iraq. Up until the last minute, Kurdish leaders wondered anxiously what Saddam might do.
In the end, the Iraqi leader was powerless. Only a shortage of ballot boxes prevented all the voters from taking part. "I never...