Unshackled from Arab domination and the yoke of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqi Kurdistan has grown into a powerful incubator of Kurdish...

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IRBIL, Iraq — Unshackled from Arab domination and the yoke of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraqi Kurdistan has grown into a powerful incubator of Kurdish ambitions and nationalism. But the enclave in northern Iraq also has the potential to destabilize the Middle East, as recent tensions raise the specter of a regional war.

For months, neighboring Iran and Turkey have been engaged in low-intensity warfare against Kurdish separatists from the two countries who have established camps in Kurdistan. Last week, lawmakers in Ankara, Turkey, raised the stakes, threatening to authorize a military invasion of Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels responsible for attacks in Turkey.

From their autonomous enclave, Iraqi Kurds have for nearly 17 years quietly undermined attempts by Syria, Iraq and Iran to halt their cultural and political aspirations, throwing open the doors to their ethnic brethren from surrounding countries. In doing so, they also have provided shelter to the separatist groups fighting guerrilla wars against Turkey and Iran.

“We can’t help them,” said a Kurdish official in this city, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But we can’t hand them over, either.”

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Turkey, Iran and Syria, with long histories of suppressing Kurdish national movements, eye the Kurdish experiment in northern Iraq warily, though all have an economic stake in the enclave and maintain cordial ties with its leaders.

In the past five years, hundreds of Kurdish students from the neighboring nations have come here to study at universities. Also, Kurdish exile groups and political parties, along with Kurdish refugees from neighboring countries, have found protection from persecution.

Leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan argue that their regional government, which accounts for three of Iraq’s 18 provinces, provides an attractive blueprint for Kurdish autonomy that would not require a formal redrawing of the Middle East’s borders. Turkish authorities, however, fear that Kurdish separatists are determined to break off part of Turkish territory for their own state.

Change in goals urged

Kurdish officials say they have urged sister movements in other countries to relinquish violent separatist struggles and band together with other opposition groups to achieve a more feasible vision: the same type of decentralized government that gives Iraqi Kurds autonomy without formal statehood.

“We no longer struggle for an independent Kurdistan,” said Abdul-Razzaq Moradi, an official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran.

Although they are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, Kurds, with a total population estimated at 25 million to 40 million, speak a different language and adhere to a culture distinct from the Arabs, Persians and Turks. They are believed to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a state, the victims of superpower machinations after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I.

Kurds violently fought governments in Iraq, Syria and Iran during the 20th century. The four countries that contain the Kurdish regions have at various points suppressed the Kurdish language, destroyed Kurdish villages and executed politically active Kurds for treason. During the 1980s, Saddam Hussein slaughtered tens of thousands of Kurds to quell a rebellion.

Kurdistan’s first sustained period of self-governance in centuries began in 1991, when, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, British- and American-enforced no-fly zones were established in northern Iraq. The 2003 toppling of Hussein strengthened Kurdistan’s legal standing.

In 2005, the new Iraqi Constitution enshrined the three-province Kurdistan regional government into law.

An economic boom that began shortly after the collapse of the former regime has mushroomed dramatically, filling Kurdish coffers. Satellite TV channels have sprouted, linking Kurds here in Irbil with those in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Sanandaj in Iran and Qamishli in Syria, as well as Stockholm and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Despite the newfound economic power, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership is rooted in armed struggle. Though they don suits now, many were once gun-running rebels, products of pan-Kurdish guerrilla and political movements.

During years of fighting as a “peshmerga” warrior in the mountains of Iraq, for example, Omer Fattah, now deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government, entrusted his wife and children to the care of Iranian Kurds.

“We view them as our family,” he said. “Our traditions are the same.”

Kurdish groups in northern Iraq that are working for autonomy in Syria, Iran and Turkey get housing, offices and budgets for promoting themselves.

But officials here say they forbid the exile parties from taking up arms or fighting for radical causes. Instead, they say, they call for Kurdish organizations to negotiate with governments in Syria, Iran and Turkey.

Turkey, for one, accuses the Kurdistan government of failing to rein in the armed Kurds attacking Turkish forces. Negotiation in Turkey, where animosity and deadly retaliation are escalating, is unlikely.

An “incubator”

To resistance groups, Iraqi Kurdistan is a haven where members can remain politically and militarily active without exiling themselves to Europe. One official called it the “incubator” where all the political groups can sit down and work together.

A dozen groups from Iran, Syria and Turkey recently formed a coalition in Iraqi Kurdistan. Even the most radical organizations are allowed to operate here, including militant groups clustered around the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that have fought the Turkish and Iranian militaries and brought the region closer to another war.

Kurdish culture flourishes in Iraqi Kurdistan, unlike in Turkey, Syria and Iran.

“The things that have kept us alive were our language, folklore, music and celebrations,” said Falakaddin Kakeyi, the minister of culture for the Kurdistan regional government. “Rights may vanish, oil may finish, buildings can be destroyed, but language is forever.”

The greatest ambition is to surmount differences of dialect and writing to forge a standardized Kurdish language. The satellite TV channels have helped, as Kurds speaking the northern dialect of Syria and Turkey become familiar with the southern dialect of Iran and Iraq.

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