Politics & Policy

The Kurdish Future

A patient people approach July 1.

–”America has no better friend than the people of Iraqi Kurdistan,” wrote Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani in a June 1 joint letter to President Bush. The Kurdish leaders had two demands: to take one of the top two positions and to incorporate the Transitional Administration Law (TAL) in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546. Neither demand was granted. “The Kurds returned from the feast with no beans,” mocked Muammar Qaddafi. Surrounded by ill-wishers, Kurds must first overcome the antagonism within.

U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Iraq last April to oversee the formation of the new Iraqi interim government, which will be sovereign by July 1. “The CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) told us that the plans and arrangements of Brahimi are more than consultative,” said Mawlud Bawamrad, deputy of Iraqi Governing Council member Salahaddin Bahaddin. Kurdish fears came true. Brahimi, with Bremer’s approval, endorsed communalism, with Iraqi de facto divided among Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Kurdistan was a safe haven for Iraqi opposition parties and groups before the liberation. Many of opposition politicians returned the favor by standing against Kurdish interests. Many Arab members of the former IGC now oppose the TAL articles which guarantee federation for Kurdistan and the right of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region to veto the permanent constitution. Challenging the Talabani and Barzani’s joint letter, Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani demanded that the new U.N. resolution not reaffirm the TAL. Faced with a Sophie’s Choice, U.S. diplomats sided with their adversaries rather than with their Kurdish allies. The Kurdish leadership says it is “bitterly disappointed.”

To win international assurance, the Kurds would even welcome the United Nations, despite the mixed regard with which many Iraqi Kurds hold the international body. Back in Erbil, the United Nations’ failure to guarantee even the Kurds’ basic rights is reminiscent of the U.N.’s practice prior to liberation of undermining or slow rolling oil-for-food projects in Iraqi Kurdistan so as not to antagonize the Baathist government upset with the unfavorable comparison made by a successful, even if sanctions-ridden, Kurdistan.

The Kurdish loss threatens stability. Despite differences between Kurdish and Arab leaders, the two communities have remained friendly. But, because of their alliance with the U.S., there is growing Arab antipathy toward Kurds, both inside and outside Iraq. Kurds fear traveling to Mosul or Baghdad, let alone Fallujah, if they have license plates from Sulaymaniyah, Erbil, or Duhok, the three governorates of Iraqi Kurdistan. Many Arabic media stations fuel ethnic hatred. Kurds now occupy the top of al Qaeda activist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s enemy list. On June 14, terrorists ambushed, murdered, and burned five Kurdish members of the Iraq Civil Defense Corp in Samarra.

The Kurdish leadership has played the political game badly. While Sistani throws one card at a time while holding his cards close, the Kurdish leaders shows theirs. The U.S. and U.N. reward insurgencies in Fallujah and Najaf, while ignoring peaceful protests in Iraqi Kurdistan. How many Western journalists have reported on the 1.5 million signatures collected by Iraqi Kurdistan’s Referendum Movement? One year ago Iraq’s neighbors were alarmed that the U.S. might grant the Kurds an independent state. Now, it is unclear if the Kurds will have any guarantee of self-government.

While Kurds blame both the U.S. and U.N., they reserve some for the traditional Kurdish parties. The Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) seldom place Kurdish interests over partisan gain. Despite rhetoric of unification, Iraqi Kurdistan remains divided between two rival administrations, one based in Erbil and the other in Sulaymani. When the two leaders refused to listen to local voices calling for peace, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called them to Washington and had them shake hands. Handshakes and imagery are enough for Western diplomats; the Kurdish people care more about results.

The Kurdish leadership threatened to boycott the interim government if its demands are not granted. The threat was empty. The KDP and PUK political bureaus both backed down, but had the decision be pronounced in the Kurdish parliament. The Kurdish parliament, elected eleven years ago to a four year term decided to accept the U.N. resolution so long as it mentioned federalism. In the independent Kurdish weekly Hawlati, Umar Ali observed the two parties only consult the parliament at times of loss to share the blame.

Both Bremer and Brahimi encouraged division in the Kurdish house. In redistributing interim government ministries, “they treated the KDP and PUK not as representatives of Kurds but as two major Iraqi groups,” observed Bawamrad. The CPA allocated separate budgets for the two administrations.

Nevertheless, the sky is not falling on the Kurds. Free and fair elections will correct many mistakes. We still have good friends. But patience does not last forever.

Bilal Ahmad is pursuing a graduate degree in English literature in Mosul University.

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