Jul 09, 2004

Kurdistan: Questions unanswered in Iraqi Kurdistan

Editorial of the Middle East International on the future of Kurdistan
There was no dancing in the streets and valleys of Iraqi Kurdistan when the handover of “power” was announced in Baghdad on 28 June. The moment found the Kurds in an anxious and disturbed mood, close to a feeling of betrayal over the way the Coalition has left them, their staunchest Iraqi allies, with their future almost as uncertain as ever.

The handover would of course mean little immediate practical change for the Kurds. They have been running their own affairs since 1991, when they rose up against Saddam Hussein, fled to the mountains when he struck back, then returned to their homes with Western air protection keeping Baghdad’s forces at bay.

They have their own parliament and two governments — the region is divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The kind of leadership struggles now just starting among the Arab Iraqis, the Shi’ites and Sunnis, the Kurds went through ten years ago. The sovereignty and self-rule the rest of Iraq has just theoretically been granted, the Kurds have been enjoying in practice for more than a decade.

The autonomy question

But from the Kurdish perspective, two major issues were left dangerously hanging as Paul Bremer flew out of Baghdad: the grand question of Iraq’s future political formula — would it allow the federal autonomy on which the Kurds insist? And the potentially explosive issue of the oil centre of Kirkuk, claimed by the Kurds as an indisputably Kurdish city.

The UN resolution covering the post-CPA period did not specifically include the more detailed references to regional federation contained in the March Temporary Administration Law, leaving the Kurds with the feeling that their hard-won autonomy would have to be fought for anew in the coming negotiations over the constitution.

As well as feeling let down by the Coalition powers — mainly, of course, the US and Britain — the Kurds also felt disillusioned by the behaviour of some of their erstwhile partners in the former Iraqi opposition, especially the Shi’ite factions, who appeared to have rescinded their earlier commitment to the idea of Kurdish autonomy.

Mas’ud Barzani, head of the KDP, told MEI he was astonished when the most senior Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, sent a message of encouragement and support for Kurdish autonomy, only to issue a fatwa a few days later denouncing it. Barzani said he sent back a blunt message, telling the Ayatollah: “We respect you as a religious leader, but please keep out of politics.”

After running their own lives for so long, and now enjoying a rare prosperity and stability, probably a large majority of Iraqi Kurds would really like to go for the taboo objective: full independence. But their leaders know well that that would be a red rag to the daunting assembly of regional bulls who surround landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan: Iran, Turkey, Syria and the rest of Iraq itself.

So they have opted for what they regard as the achievable, namely an autonomous Kurdish region — a mini-state in all but name — within a federal Iraq. Given the state of their own public opinion, and the sacrifices and suffering they went through to get the freedoms they are now accustomed to and regard as their right, this will be the real bottom-line minimum the Kurds will be pressing for in the heated wrangling that lies ahead.

“After all the bitter experience the Kurdish people and the people of Kurdistan have been through, there can be no retreat,” Barzani told MEI. “Our basic condition for staying in Iraq is that it should be a federal, democratic, pluralistic Iraq. A permanent constitution which does not include that cannot be accepted. If there is no agreement on that, there will be no constitution.”

“We sacrificed in order to live as free men in this country, so that we should have rights,” he added. “We hope that events won’t develop in a negative direction. We hope that it will be positive, that these gains can be strengthened, and that national unity and Arab-Kurdish brotherhood can be strengthened too. But if the rights of the Kurdish people are denied, then the Kurdish people cannot accept life as second-class citizens in this country. They must live free and with rights.”

At the basis of the Kurds’ self-reliance are their peshmerga guerrilla forces, which have turned more into regular fighting units in recent years. Having fought the Baghdad regime for decades, they joined the Coalition as the second-largest troop contributor — and seized large quantities of tanks and artillery in the aftermath of Saddam’s collapse.

The peshmerga are now being dispersed among the new police and civil defence units, but (unlike the Arab militias) are not being formally disbanded. Nobody doubts for a moment that if Kurdish freedom came under assault, they would rally to the flag of Kurdistan, with its red, white and green stripes and yellow sun-star, which now flies over official and unofficial buildings in Kurdish northern Iraq much more commonly than the Iraqi national flag.

The neighbours

But Kurdish leaders are hoping it will not come to that, and say they are prepared to explore every possible avenue with their Iraqi Arab interlocutors in the coming months. Their task is hardly made easier by neighbourly interference.

Turkey has always opposed Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, fearing the potential stimulus to its own restive Kurdish minority. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey (formerly the PKK, now renamed Kongra-Gel) recently called off its truce with Ankara and resumed military operations. Although recently split, it is believed to have as many as 5,000 fighters in remote mountain bases inside northern Iraq, a potential source of friction with the Iraqi Kurds, who claim to have no contact with the group.

Turkey’s position was put forcefully to President Bush and his aides during the June NATO summit in Istanbul, and its influence is also felt directly on the ground through Turkish support for elements inside Iraq, such as the Turcoman Front.

Iran, though less overt in its policies, appears to have been instrumental in a shift in position among various Iraqi Shi’ite factions which seem to have turned against the autonomy notion — though as the biggest community (supposedly 60% of the population, though exact figures are not known) the Shi’ites have an objective interest in having the lion’s share in a strongly unified and centralized Iraq, while the Kurds, as a compact minority of perhaps 20-25%, have an opposite interest in a loose federal system.

The future of Kirkuk

Nowhere do these conflicting interests clash more clearly and dangerously than in the northern city of Kirkuk and its oil-rich environs, a conjunction that has clear potential to become a flashpoint for major communal trouble, if not civil war some alarmists fear.

The Kurds feel very bitter about the way the Coalition handled the Kirkuk issue. Under Saddam, uncounted thousands of Kurds, as well as Turcomans, Assyrians and other non-Arabs, were driven out of the Kirkuk area to make way for (largely Shi’ite) Arabs brought up from the south. Nearby Kurdish towns were hived off and attached to Arab provinces to reduce the Kurdish presence in Kirkuk governorate.

As far as the Kurds are concerned, the CPA was extremely dilatory about reversing Saddam’s Arabization of Kirkuk. Many displaced Kurds have not yet been able to return to their homes. Kurdish animus against the British-led CPA presence in Kirkuk, headed by Paul Harvey, was so strong that two days before the handover, the Kurds walked out of meetings with the CPA.

“On the issue of dealing with Arabization, they dragged their feet a great deal, and we censure the Coalition harshly for that,” said Barzani. “They reneged on the promises they gave us. Of course Kirkuk is a Kurdish city. Basically, this issue is not even open to discussion. But for those who doubt, or who want to create a problem, we accepted the solution specified in the Temporary Administration Law”.

Under that proposed solution, the displaced would be allowed to return to their homes, the Arabs brought in by Saddam would return to theirs and receive compensation, the hived-off areas would be restored to Kirkuk governorate, and a plebiscite would then be held on whether it wanted to join the Kurdistan Autonomous Region.

That is clearly a long-term project, and there may be a race against time with anger building up on the ground.

“I’m afraid that the Kurds may be beginning to lose patience,” said Ahmad Askari, a PUK member of Kirkuk city council. “There may be trouble, because Kurdish houses are still occupied by Arabs brought here under the Arabization policy. They are still in Kirkuk. If there is a strong government, it will prevent these moves towards civil war. If not, I am afraid.”

The Kurds envisage Kirkuk’s future as the capital of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and will find it hard to settle for anything less — it is an extremely emotive touchstone issue. But the local Arabs, Turcomans and others are as fiercely opposed to any such project. Inter-communal tensions are high and could easily explode.

The fate of Kirkuk could well set the pattern for Iraq’s short-term future: will it be resolved by reason and dialogue, or by force of arms?

Source: Middle East International Edition Online