Erbil, Iraq - More than two months after elections, Iraq's parliamentarians have yet to cobble together a new government. Is this just the messiness that has to be expected in a fledgling democracy? Or, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, have the Iraqis been given a republic that they will be unable to keep?
Here in northern Iraq, Kurdish leaders do not claim to know the answer. Barham Salih, Kurdistan's prime minister, calls the situation "confused" and marked by "political intrigue." It also could be more consequential than most people - including most American policy makers -- seem to appreciate. "The fate of Islam and democracy may be decided in Iraq," Salih tells me and other members of a delegation of journalists and think tank analysts led by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit.
Kurdistan is part of Iraq, yet distinct. Salih recalls trying to explain that to President George W. Bush a few years ago. "We are Iraqis and we are not," he said. Bush replied: "You sound like Texans."
Not quite. The Kurds are an ancient nation but one that has never had its own state. Kurds are neither Arabs nor Turks but in Iraq they inhabit a territory sandwiched between the two. Millions of Kurds also live in Turkey, Syria, Iran and other corners of the Middle East. A Kurdish diaspora can be found from Seattle to England to Central Asia.
But Kurds enjoy self-rule only now and only here within what is officially called the Kurdistan Regional Government, part of an Iraqi federation that was constitutionally established after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Kurds are determined to defend their newfound autonomy. "We are not going to squander the gains we have made here in Kurdistan," Salih says. Another prominent Kurd tells me: "I'm willing to be an Iraqi, if I can be a first-class Iraq. I'm not willing to be a second-class Iraqi."
Kurds constitute about 20 percent of Iraq's 30 million people. That gives them significant but not decisive leverage in the attempts at coalition building now taking place in Baghdad. For the moment, Kurdish leaders seem less than enthusiastic about potential coalition partners that include Arab nationalists (inevitably hostile toward minorities), Ba'athists (heirs of Saddam Hussein who ruthlessly persecuted the Kurds), and both Shia and Sunni Islamists (most Kurds favor strict separation of mosque and state and see nothing in Iran they'd want to emulate).