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Splinters From Syria Reach Iraqi Kurds


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Many of the conflicts and rivalries now roiling the Middle East are intersecting this week at a conference in Northern Iraq. Diplomats, academics and business executives from Iraq, Turkey, Iran and the U.S. are meeting at a university in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. They're venting their hostility in some cases, sharing the love in others. And much of the talk is about how the Syrian civil war is reverberating throughout the region and shaking up old relationships.

NPR's Alice Fordham is there and joins us now. And, Alice, let's start with that location, Sulaymaniyah. Where is that and why have the conference there?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, Sulaymaniyah is interesting because it's just the little mountain town but it's on a lot of ethnic fault lines that can tell us a lot about the way that the region is changing. It's close to the Iranian border. It's not far from Turkey. And although it's in Iraq, it's in the autonomous northern area where most of the country's ethnic Kurds live and which has very tense relations at the moment with the Arab-dominated leadership in Baghdad.

And all these countries and ethnicities have troubled histories, but their relationships are changing in ways that might reshape the region. And you can see these shifting power games played out as their representatives speak here.

CORNISH: How so? What are you hearing?

FORDHAM: Well, first of all, we really had a show of Baghdad's worsening relationship with Iraq's Kurds on display. So we started off with all the usual pleasantries about constructive dialogue in difficult times. But then the very first person to speak was the prime minister of Iraq's Kurds, and he just laid into Baghdad over a budget dispute they're having at the moment. He said that in terms of Arab-Kurd relations in the country, the worst has already happened

And then, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, gave a long speech which he began with warm greetings in Kurdish. And the young Kurdish guys sitting around me felt like this was a big moment. Turkey has had a hostile relationship with its Kurdish minority. And as the Iraqi foreign minister said a decade ago activists were in prison in Turkey for speaking Kurdish.

And I think this shows us how much Turkey is bending over backwards to improve its relationship with Kurdish groups. And they're helping Iraqi Kurds with a nascent oil industry, for example, even though this makes Baghdad really furious.

CORNISH: Earlier, we mentioned that Iran, as one of the many countries represented there, what did you hear from their delegation?

FORDHAM: Well, they were careful about what they said. They were very measured. But there was a feeling that before Iran had its new president, Hassan Rouhani, they wouldn't have been reaching out in this way. Lots of Kurds live in Iran, too, and they have a tricky relationship with Tehran, historically.

CORNISH: Now, these countries and ethnic groups have been balancing friendship and antagonisms for centuries. What are we seeing in today's shifts that could change the Middle East?

FORDHAM: Well, I think you really feel around here in this Kurdish area that, as Kurdish groups gain more acceptance from their neighbors, they're more free to behave autonomously. People don't really think that we're likely to see all these different Kurdish groups pushing for a state anytime soon. But Kurds in Syria have taken advantage of the unrest there to stake out territory, even as Kurds in Iraq build ties with people they once fought.

And more broadly, I think it shows some of the fallout from Syria. Turkey has been very supportive of rebels in Syria, which infuriates people in Baghdad who see their resurgent Iraqi terror problem as related to the Syrian situation. They accuse the Turks of neo-Ottomanism, of thinking like they are building an empire again.

CORNISH: And there's been such a long history of American involvement in Iraq. Was there an American voice in all this?

FORDHAM: Well, there was but it wasn't a very loud one. The U.S. envoy Brett McGurk spoke late in the end of the second day here. And there was a real consensus in the panels and in the discussions that Iraq and the Middle East are living in a not a post-American reality exactly, but one in which America is much less keen to at least be seen as a deciding factor in what happens around here.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Alice Fordham in Northern Iraq. Thank you so much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.