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Minorities Discuss Democracy in Post-Hussein Iraq

(Washington, DC--May 2, 2003) Representatives of three Iraqi minority groups agree that the country's future depends on the establishment of a democratic government. Participating in a panel discussion at RFE/RL's Washington offices this week, activists for the Kurdish, Assyrian, Chaldean and Turkoman communities shared their respective goals for a pluralistic Iraqi society.

Mike Amitay, executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, said the new government in Baghdad must recognize that a Kurdish civil society has begun to emerge during 12 years of de-facto self-rule in Northern Iraq. Kurdish leaders expect this self-rule to continue, Amitay said, and envision a decentralized governing arrangement that allows for local rule and some control of oil resources. Amitay warned that continuing tensions between the two main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), might complicate efforts to maintain Kurdish self-rule within a sovereign Iraq, noting that Iraq's people may decide that the current borders of the country "may not prove to be a viable solution."

Dr. Katrin Michael, an Iraqi Chaldean working with the Washington, DC-based Iraq Foundation, and Michael Flanagan of the Assyrian American League insisted that the territorial integrity of Iraq be maintained and the country's resources fairly distributed. They argued that, like the Kurds, Iraq's Christian communities should be granted local self-rule. Dr. Michael said that Assyrians and Chaldeans "should insist that democracy not be made into the means of the majority to rule over the minorities," and that Christians need the ability to preserve their heritage by protecting archaeological sites such as Nineveh and Ur and running their own churches, schools and media. Flanagan and Michael said a census must be conducted as soon as possible, to determine the true number of Assyrians and Chaldeans still living in Iraq. Flanagan said, "We want the ability... to be Assyrians within a pluralistic Iraq."

Orhan Ketene, U.S. coordinator for the Iraqi Turkmen Front, agreed that a fair and accurate census is needed. Iraq's Turkoman are ethnically linked to Turkey, but Saddam's campaign of "Arabization" has obscured their numbers -- Ketene said that population estimates range from 300,000 to 3 million, located in a corridor stretching from Mosul to Kirkuk. Ketene said that following the Ba'ath Party collapse last month at the hands of the Anglo-American coalition, PUK Kurdish forces began pressuring the Turkomans to leave Kirkuk, despite American warnings. "We expect democracy to be fully applied; we expect the Kurdish parties to comply with American demands; and we expect a fair census to be done in Iraq," Ketene said.

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