REVIEW: Article

A New Chapter for Iraq's Kurds

The elections in Iraq on January 30, 2005, turned out to be an historic success. Millions of Iraqi citizens defied terrorist threats and violence and came out to vote.

The fact that a vast majority of Iraqi citizens chose to participate in the political process demonstrates their desire for democracy. The Kurds are at the core of this democratic movement. The liberation of Iraq could not have occurred without the participation of the Kurds, the only indigenous force to fight alongside the United States (US)-led coalition in March 2003. Now, the democratization of Iraq and the creation of a viable, federal state also need the Kurds’ most urgent and unstinting efforts.

Kurdish engagement in the new Iraq is a reversal of history following decades of suffering and discrimination. Iraq was created in 1921 without the approval of its peoples and soon became a charnel house for the Kurds. The Anfal genocide campaign of Saddam Hussein’s regime against the Kurds in 1987-1988 was the culmination of what Iraq had become—a killing machine burning its oil wealth in war. Sadly, the disaster did not end with the final Anfal that occurred after the ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war. Oppression was rekindled in March 1991. The Kurdish rapareen (uprising) of March 1991 against the Ba’athist regime was betrayed, and tens of thousands of Kurds died. Rescued from this renewed slaughter—thanks in part to the efforts of Great Britain, France and the US, along with critical support from the visionary President of Turkey, Turgut Ozal—most of Iraq’s Kurds found a “safe haven” but in a wasteland. Some 4,500 villages and towns were destroyed and over 180,000 persons were estimated to be missing. Entire towns, such as Qala Diza, were demolished; its 70,000 inhabitants scattered.

Yet on January 30, 2005, Kurds, in Iraq and across the globe, voted in staggering numbers. In the Kurdistan Region, also known as Iraqi Kurdistan, 84 percent of those registered to vote exercised their right to do so, the highest turnout in all of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds had fought and died for this day. The survivors of the Anfal, the veterans of the Kurdish resistance and their children all showed that those sacrifices would not be in vain.

The results of the election are encouraging. The Kurdish bloc has 77 of the 275 seats in the Transitional National Assembly of Iraq. The Kurds of Iraq therefore have gone from the periphery to holding the balance of power in Parliament, from being the most persecuted, deprived and backward nation within Iraq to being the most advanced community. The Kurds’ achievements are remarkable, and their influence is great.

Many now ask: What are Kurdish ambitions? What are our aspirations? Our overriding aim is to secure the future and well being of our long-suffering people. The Kurdish movement in Iraq is broad, and it has had its internal differences, with historical quarrels that we deeply regret. Throughout our struggle, our people have remained steadfast. In addition to the Kurds, the Kurdistan Region also is home to important and ancient Christian and Turkoman communities, which have suffered under Ba’athism too. We, therefore, solemnly pledge to our diverse constituency that they and their descendants will never suffer in the way that their forefathers did.

Building the new government in Iraq will be a complex task that will need to fully address the concerns of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.* In order to ensure that the political process operates relatively smoothly, a high degree of consensus among the different communities is required.

Under Iraq’s current Constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) shall, except for some areas that fall within the exclusive competencies of the central government, administer the Kurdistan Region. The KRG will be composed of representatives from the political parties, but ultimately our employer is the electorate whose well being and secure future is our sole aim.

To achieve this goal, we will pursue policies of equality, democracy, federalism and secularism.

Equality is important because without equality there is no democracy and no future for the Kurds in the new Iraq. That is why we are asking that a Kurd be appointed to one of the top posts in the new Iraq, such as the presidency. A Kurd as head of state in Iraq would demonstrate that Kurds and Arabs are equals in the new Iraq.

The TAL’s recognition of Kurdish as an official language of Iraq is a similar step towards equality.

We are conscious of the ethnic and religious diversity of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, a diversity that must be preserved by recognizing individual rights and the fundamental principle of equality. The Kurdistan Region has long been a haven for minorities. One of the largest Christian churches in Iraq was recently built in Suleimani, in Iraqi Kurdistan, with KRG financial assistance. In addition, the Kurdish members of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council (2003-2004) strongly supported proposals incorporated into Article 9 of the TAL that recognizes “the right of Iraqis to educate their children in their mother tongue, such as Turkoman, Syriac or Armenian.”

Democracy is key, as it is the greatest threat to dictatorship. The long years of isolation under sanctions, but protected by US and British aircraft flying from Turkey in the northern no-fly zone, have created in Iraqi Kurdistan a largely self-sufficient, functioning state with an elected legislature and more importantly, a thriving civil society. These developments, the resurgence of a once devastated society, have created an unstoppable Kurdish demand for democracy.

Democracy cannot exist without justice. The justice that must underpin Iraqi democracy demands that Saddam Hussein and leading Ba’athists be put on trial and that their genocidal ethnic cleansing policy be reversed. There cannot be justice for the perpetrators without justice for the victims. We cannot put Saddam in the dock and leave his racist handiwork intact, particularly in Kirkuk. It is morally unacceptable that the Kurdish victims of Saddam are forced to live in shanties while Saddam and his cronies live in comfortable confinement. Of course, reversing ethnic cleansing is a complex issue that needs to be handled carefully. The Arab colonists of Iraqi Kurdistan must be treated fairly and must be offered due compensation in the form of land, jobs and other incentives to allow them to be resettled in those areas of Iraq from which they came.

But the forgotten victims must be treated fairly too. Over 95 percent of the victims of ethnic cleansing in Kurdistan were Kurds, expelled for no other reason than they were Kurds. Simply postponing the resolution of this issue is unacceptable. Victims’ patience is waning. There is much talk of the history of Kirkuk, from which Kurds were systematically pushed out. However, the issue here is not history but human rights, and not, as some believe, oil and natural resources, but social justice. Postponing the just resolution of this issue will only serve to legitimize genocide. It is astonishing that those who so loudly and justly denounced ethnic cleansing in the Balkans appear content to accept ethnic cleansing in Iraq when it has been directed at the Kurds.

Nobody can claim that the Kurds are not pulling their weight in Iraq. We have sent our brightest and most able officials to Baghdad and our security forces have scored many successes against Iraq’s enemies. Indeed, Kurdish counterterrorism and intelligence forces have played a key role in Iraq, providing critical leads that enabled the capture of Saddam Hussein and an al-Qaeda courier carrying the Zarqawi letter. Kurdish forces are effective not only because they are well trained and brave, but because they have popular support. It is not surprising, therefore, that Iraqi Kurdistan is secure and that there have been no attacks on coalition forces within the existing Kurdish area.

To defend Kurdish democracy, the Kurds want their security forces, the Peshmerga (“those who face death”), to remain as a regional defense force—commanded, raised, recruited and administered locally. This is far from a historically unprecedented arrangement and will ensure both the security of Kurdish and Iraqi democracy. The Peshmerga have maintained stability in the Kurdistan Region since the liberation of Iraq.

There has to be a balance between strengthening Iraq’s new security structures, while maintaining local command and control over Kurdish security forces. Many Peshmerga have joined Iraq’s fledgling security institutions and have proven themselves in combat. Our unqualified commitment to the new Iraq and our pro-Western democratic values have made us targets for terrorists. Dual terrorist attacks in Erbil on February 1, 2004, killed 120 people. A few months later, the small Kurdish minority was ethnically cleansed from the then-terrorist controlled city of Fallujah.

Given Iraq’s tragic history and current uncertainties, the citizens of the Kurdistan Region will not accept Iraqi security forces, commanded by a government in Baghdad, in Kurdish-administered areas, without their prior explicit, democratic consent. That attitude may change, but it will take time. Imagine, for a moment, how Poles would have reacted if in 1947 they had been asked to accept re-armed German troops in their country.

Only federalism can keep Iraq peaceful and intact. The Ba’athists and their Arab nationalist predecessors maintained the nominal unity of Iraq through ever-escalating violence. This sorry legacy is the reason why most Kurds reject the notion of remaining part of Iraq. For Kurds, the very name of Iraq evokes memories of torment. Kurdish nationalism is a defensive ideology. The fear that the Iraq of tomorrow could become the Iraq of yesterday—a fear intensified when Kurds hear Iraqi politicians renege upon their pre-liberation promises of a federal Iraq—compelled 98.8 percent of Kurdish voters to opt for independence in an informal referendum on January 30, 2005.

While opting for independence, Kurdish voters also backed parties that advocate integrating Iraqi Kurdistan into a new, democratic, parliamentary, secular and, most importantly, federal Iraq. They, therefore, split their votes. They showed sophistication in backing moderate politicians to represent them in Baghdad, while expressing their aspiration for independence in a non-binding vote.

Thus, the voters are saying that while they dream of independence, they could live with federalism. Their message is not inconsistent. Self-determination is a democratic right. Can any politician tell the long-suffering Kurds that they do not have the same right to self-determination as anyone else?

The Kurdish leadership argues that while an enormous unilateral concession was made when Kurdistan rejoined Iraq in 2003, it proved beneficial in terms of the gains made in legitimizing the KRG, ensuring regional stability and furthering political progress. That is why the political leadership must deliver democratic federalism to prove that less can mean more—that Kurds can thrive in a federal, democratic Iraq rather than in an isolated, independent mini-state.

Federalism is equally important for Iraq, as it prevents a return to dictatorship. Just as the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany sought to prevent a new dictatorship, so we have insisted that the new Iraq incorporate the lessons learned from the past. The new Iraqi Constitution should provide safeguards against coercion and the misuse of power. Political and economic power must be decentralized, i.e. away from Baghdad. A federal structure is the only viable route. Iraqi Kurdistan would retain its government and legislature, and control over most of its affairs, ceding only certain core sovereign competencies, such as foreign, national defense and fiscal policy, to the federal government in Baghdad. Federalism is the only way to ensure that a centralized tyranny will not be resurrected and that someone from Fallujah or Tikrit will never again impose his/her will on the citizens of Suleimani.

It is for this reason that oil matters. Oil has historically been a curse, a resource that has been misused. The Iraqi government and the United Nations (UN) Oil-for-Food program systematically robbed the Kurds of the lion’s share of the wealth generated by Iraq’s oil. At the same time, it is a testament to the administrative capabilities of the KRG that despite receiving only a portion of the $8.4 billion allocated to Iraq by the UN Oil-for-Food program, we used these funds more efficiently than the rest of Iraq.

Only a democratic, federal government, with the relevant checks and balances in place and decentralized authority, can effectively manage Iraq’s natural resources wealth. Ownership of resources must be separate from revenues received from these resources. Like most countries that have oil, the federal government should tax the oil-rich region and re-direct the revenues generated from those taxes to other less-developed parts of the country. If this concept is institutionalized, we could allay the concerns of Sunni Arabs, who fear that their land is barren of oil. Iraq’s wealth, therefore, must be distributed proportionally, equitably and transparently.

Kurds are defending secularism because only secularism can ensure the correct balance between religion and the state. Most Iraqi citizens are Muslim, but there are many who are not. We believe that the state should respect the religions of all its citizens. The Kurds reject a secularism that is anti-religious just as we reject the psuedo-religion of terrorists and other fanatics who are anti-secular. Whether a women covers her head, for example, is a matter of individual conscience and should not be imposed by any authority. Democracy, after all, is simply the aggregate of those free building blocks known as individuals.

No one can predict the outcome in Iraq or its success as a state. However, what can be predicted is that the Kurds will not be the cause of its failure. The Kurdish leadership today is fully committed to making Iraq work—provided that tomorrow’s Iraq bears no resemblance to yesterday’s. That is why we made compromises in the TAL and why we insist that Iraq use the TAL as its road map for reconstruction, political renewal and democracy. The Kurds refuse to play second or third fiddle and allow Baghdad to dictate policies and impose rules on us. The days of dictatorship enforced by rape and genocide are over. We must ensure that they never return.

* Editor’s Note: The New York Times of March 17, 2005, reported that Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish nominee for President, said in an interview on March 16, the date of the opening session of Iraq’s first freely elected Parliament in a half-century: “‘The National Assembly must embody the will of the Arabs and the Kurds as well as other minorities in Iraq to build a country that is devoid of oppression and sectarianism.’”

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United States Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government