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Kurdish Artists Push for Political Goals

March 15, 2004

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) _ For years, many Kurdish artists dedicated their talents to fueling Kurdish resistance to Saddam Hussein, and documenting his atrocities. With Saddam in a prison cell, some Kurdish artists and intellectuals are putting words and images into a new battle for political goals and a dream of a longed-for homeland.

Wearing traditional Kurdish garb, actor Barzan Khlos gazed into a camera and belted out a song to the beat of Kurdish music: ``Twenty two countries for you? Sure, no problem. Federalism for me? No, it’s atheism and forbidden, brother.″

Khlos _ performing in the satirical comedy show ``Program of the Program″ _ was poking fun at what many Kurds think is the Arab failure to understand Kurdish demands for federalism in post-Saddam Iraq. Some Iraqis fear federalism could lead to a divided nation.

Some Kurds want independence, but the major Kurdish parties are focusing on what they view are the more realistic demands of federalism and constitutional rights, including the right to keep their peshmerga fighters as a distinct armed force, control resources in their region and add districts to the autonomous area.

Iraq’s interim constitution, signed this Monday, stipulated that the country’s system of government will be federal. But the specifics of some of the Kurdish demands have yet to be worked out.

``Like the majority of the Kurdish people we want federalism ... so in our sketches we tackle political subjects and talk about federalism and defend the Kurdish issue,″ said Sherko Abdullah, who writes the monthly show, which airs on Kurdish-language Khak television. The program reaches viewers in Sulaimaniyah and in some other northern areas, including parts of Kirkuk as well as some border areas in Iran.

Abdullah also edits Sekhurma, a monthly magazine of caricatures and commentaries about hot issues affecting Kurds. The cover of the current issue has a cartoon of a Kurd yelling ``Federalism!″ in the blocked ear of an Arab. ``Talk into the other ear,″ said the Arab, whose other ear had ``Self Rule″ written on it.

Abdullah said Kurdish artists are using their ability to mobilize the people.

``The Kurdish street is moved by art and literature more than it’s moved by political statements,″ he said.

During decades of struggle against Baghdad governments, some Kurdish artists, poets and singers joined rebels in the mountains to make morale-boosting art with national themes for peshmerga fighters.

When Saddam bombarded the city of Halabja with chemical weapons in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 residents, Kurdish artists turned the tragedy into sad words and images.

Poets mourned the dead with baleful elegies and singers put the words to doleful music. Painters and sculptors depicted the horror that gripped Kurds and left behind disfigured children and dead parents crouching over lifeless kids.

After the 1991 uprising that led to the Kurdish-run semiautonomous region under U.S.-British aerial protection, Kurds broke away from Saddam’s tight grip, establishing television stations and eventually a budding cinema industry. While Saddam was glorified in the rest of Iraq, he was often the butt of jokes in Kurdish-controlled north.

``We the Kurds _ artists, intellectuals and writers _ have lived a bigger tragedy than other countries because we were ruled by others who persecuted us,″ said Moustafa Ahmed, a comedian. ``After our 1991 uprising... we started to resume our artistic march to express the hopes and problems of the Kurdish people.″

Ahmed said that under Saddam’s rule, some Kurdish artists used to get around the heavy-handed censorship by trying to weave in coded criticism of the dictator in their work.

Sherko Bekas, a renowned Kurdish poet, used to write under a pen name, Jwamer, while living with resistance fighters in the mountains of Sulaimaniyah.

From a mud-brick room, he used his words to encourage the peshmerga and celebrate symbols of the Kurdish movement. He said Baghdad tried to jam the transmission of his radio station.

``I couldn’t use a gun and my poem was my gun. Our resistance was through language, poetry and literature ... that didn’t distance themselves from the people and from the blood that was shed,″ he said.