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In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Kurdish women celebrate the Peshmerga, the Kurdish freedom-fighting militia, which fought doggedly against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now, many say they want an independent nation.
In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Kurdish women celebrate the Peshmerga, the Kurdish freedom-fighting militia, which fought doggedly against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now, many say they want an independent nation. (Anita Powell / S&S)
In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Kurdish women celebrate the Peshmerga, the Kurdish freedom-fighting militia, which fought doggedly against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now, many say they want an independent nation.
In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Kurdish women celebrate the Peshmerga, the Kurdish freedom-fighting militia, which fought doggedly against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now, many say they want an independent nation. (Anita Powell / S&S)
This man, who said he was 73 years old, became a Peshmerga fighter when he was young. Many current Peshmerga soldiers are making the transition to the Iraqi army, though Peshmerga leaders say the militia will continue to exist and to safeguard the region.
This man, who said he was 73 years old, became a Peshmerga fighter when he was young. Many current Peshmerga soldiers are making the transition to the Iraqi army, though Peshmerga leaders say the militia will continue to exist and to safeguard the region. (Anita Powell / S&S)
The future of the Kurdish region: A young Kurdish boy, with a Kurdistan flag on his lapel, celebrates at a Peshmerga gathering in Sulaymaniyah.
The future of the Kurdish region: A young Kurdish boy, with a Kurdistan flag on his lapel, celebrates at a Peshmerga gathering in Sulaymaniyah. (Anita Powell / S&S)

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — It’s a place of big skies, vast mountain ranges and heart-breaking beauty; proud, defiant people with their own language, fiercely guarded identity and bold flag; enviable agricultural and petrochemical resources; a history of bloodshed, a protracted struggle for independence and a headstrong, highly influential political machine with players in the top levels of national government, including the presidency.

Throw in a twang and a couple million pairs of Wranglers, and it could be Texas.

But the five provinces that fall in part or in whole into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq face an identity struggle that could challenge the delicate state of Iraqi unity.

Despite Kurds’ predilection to refer to “Kurdistan,” no such political or geographic entity exists. On one side, leaders faithfully maintain their allegiance to Americans, whose national policy leaves no room for an independent Kurdistan, while balancing the people’s deep-seated desire for complete autonomy.

It’s a struggle American soldiers in the region face daily in their position as advisers and allies to the Kurd-dominated Iraqi army in the area, and as former allies with the Kurdish freedom fighters, the Peshmerga, many of whom are joining the growing Iraqi army.

“There’s times when they’ll say ‘Kurdistan, Kurdistan, Kurdistan,’” said Lt. Col. Robert Benjamin, deputy commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, of Fort Campbell, Ky. “I’ll say, ‘There is no Kurdistan. There is Iraq.’”

“They’re going to have to change,” he said. “They want to have a lot of autonomy under the new constitution and the new government, but I think they’ll go along with it. They can become a good part of this nation.”

It’s a hard shift for a region that has been fighting for its independence for at least 80 years, and which, during the Saddam Hussein era, had American support in the push for independence. It’s also a healing process for a population that suffered through Saddam’s genocidal campaigns against Kurds and which has lost trust in their fellow countrymen.

“I will not say all the Arabs are bad,” said Iraqi army Col. Kamal Mahmood, a former member of the Peshmerga. “I will just say the majority.”

Local leaders unanimously expressed a wistful desire for an independent Kurdistan. But they also profess loyalty to another entity: the United States.

“All the Kurds need or want [independence],” said Iraqi army Col. Jamal Hawez Mustafa, deputy commander of 3rd Brigade, 4th Division, based in Sulaymaniyah, a modern, bustling Kurdish city near the Iranian border. “We’ve been fighting so long for a separate Kurdistan. Now we’ve decided to let that go. Because the Americans don’t want it, we don’t want it. That’s the main reason, because we don’t make any problems for the Americans.”

But Mustafa, who fought for the Peshmerga from 1980 until he joined the Iraqi army in 2004, said his ultimate loyalty lies with his people.

“Right now,” he said, “we work for the Iraqi army and do whatever the Ministry of Defense tells us. Whenever those departments disappear, we’ll probably go back to Peshmerga again.”

The Peshmerga Organization Center commander, who only goes by one name, Gen. Jafar, said the region’s people feel strongly that Kurdistan should be independent.

“Why should we stay related to Iraq forever?” he said. “We have our land, our nation, our language, our history. … We are still related to Iraq. If the time came up to be independent, everybody wants that.”

Kurdish leader Ali N. Salhi, a member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council who emigrated to South Dakota in 1975 after the failed Kurdish revolution, said he has spent the last 30 years working in exile for the Kurdish cause. He returned to Iraq in 2003.

Salhi, who is an American citizen, proposed a more moderate solution to the cry for Kurdish independence. He said he feels residents should be able to vote whether to group themselves into a Kurdish super-state — a region that would have strong regional government, but still maintain national ties. His model: powerful states in his adopted nation.

“Most of the Kurds somehow are interested in being part of the Kurdistan region,” he said in English. “I don’t have any reason to be against the idea. I believe the opportunity should be given to the population. The sooner the better.”

But he doesn’t believe an independent Kurdistan is the answer.

“That’s not the way to go,” he said. “Each state in the U.S. has its own laws, its own government, but still has a connection to the central government.”

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