Kurdistan beyond Iraq

Kurdistan beyond Iraq

The political pressures in Iraq are pushing the Kurds towards independence, says

Dlawer Ala'Aldeen.

10 - 11 - 2006 OpenDemocracy

In Iraq, sectarian violence and attacks on United States and British forces are spiralling out of control. The effects on American domestic politics are evident in the historic defeat of the Republicans in the congressional elections. The pressures on the George W Bush administration, and Washington's political leadership more generally, are likely only to intensify in over the next eighteen months.

The Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former US secretary of state James Baker, is scheduled to report on its recommendations in January 2007. It is expected to propose a "three-in-one" partition of Iraq, dividing the country into Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurdish entities. This is likely to be endorsed by President Bush.

Such a proposal, as long as it includes Kirkuk and other Arabised (hence disputed) territories within Kurdistan, will no doubt be welcomed by the Kurds - anything less that this will be rejected violently. The Shi'aresponse will be mixed. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) will approve but only with modifications. Muqtada al-Sadr, and likeminded Shi'a extremist groups, will reject it out of hand. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Da'wa party will be in a serious dilemma, namely how to choose between principle and real politics. As for the Sunni Arabs, who once had the whole of Iraq and now face the prospect of being left with the poorest federal entity, they will protest, threaten and eventually succumb.

The proposal to divide Iraq is not new. Influential authors, such as Peter W Galbraith, Ralph Peters, SenatorJoseph Biden, Leslie Gelb and others have recently recommended partition as the only way to achieve US objectives. The most elegant, logical and convincing proposal is that of Galbraith, which is detailed in his bookThe End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. He displays the obvious and argues for a win-win outcome for all.

The idea is, unsurprisingly, alarming to many Iraqi Arab intellectuals. Zaid al-Ali characterises the partition of Iraq into semi-autonomous federal entities as a "dangerous" concept ("Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith", 26 October 2006). As a Kurd, the question I pose is: dangerous for whom, and why?

United Iraq: myth or reality?

Iraq as a modern political entity is only eighty-five years old. It only came into existence in 1921. Mesopotamia, the land of two rivers (between the Tigris and Euphrates) had been divided by the Ottomans during their centuries of imperial rule into the two administrative wilayets (units) of Baghdad and Basra. The northern neighbours of the people of these areas, living in what Kurds designate as southern Kurdistan, were inhabited by distinct ethnic groups and governed via a third wilayet, in Mosul.

The British occupied Mesopotamia during the first world war and Mosul wilayet by 1920. There were no initial plans to merge the three wilayets; instead the Kurds were offered the chance of going independent. The deposed king Faisal, dethroned by the French in Syria, was offered Mesopotamia by the British. Faisal had never visited Mesopotamia, and regarded it as too Shi'a for his comfort; he therefore lobbied for it to be merged with the Sunni (although Kurdish dominated) Mosul wilayet. The Shi'a revolt of the 1920s and coincidental Turkish political manoeuvres added fire to his argument and settled the outcome.

In 1921, the British fixed a referendum to give the result they wanted: legitimacy to Faisal as the new king of Iraq. Meanwhile, the betrayed Kurds were bombed into submission. The Iraqi air force - built, trained and equipped by the British - carried on the campaign thereafter. With time, the majority of the Kurds eventually embraced the constitutional, semi-democratic rule of the Hashemite kingdom, and settled for demanding their cultural rights within an integral Iraq. However, Iraq's political atmosphere remained unsettled in the face of the storm of extreme Arab nationalism.

Iraqi unity and Arab nationalism

The post-1945 cold war order brought a new wind of pro-Soviet and anti-western Arab nationalist sentiments to the region. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt initiated an epidemic of military-led coup d'ètats, which arrived in Iraq in 1958. The overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy marked a turning point: Britain lost influence over Iraq, and the fate of the Kurds fell into the hands of a series of undemocratic Arab nationalists who ruled Iraq for a decade until, in 1968, Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party seized power.

Saddam's extremism was neither a surprise nor an alien phenomenon in the middle east. After 1945, the belligerent superpowers had inaugurated brutal regimes throughout the middle east, to secure military, economic and political influences. Saddam was a product of the era and Iraq's bloody history; his regime was ultra-ruthless, rich, shrewd and organised.

Under the complacent view of the superpowers and the Arab League, Saddam pushed all limits. His totalitarian leadership rendered Iraq's ethnic and religious diversities irreconciliable, and deepened the gulf between the ruling Sunni elite and the rest. He maximised Iraq's potential for disintegration, turning it into a bomb primed to explode at the slightest trigger.

Iraq's unity in democracy

After Iraq's regime change in April 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority's Paul Bremer was given an impossible mandate to keep the country united, ethnically integrated and constitutionally democratic. In his short year, he achieved the opposite and abandoned ship. His policies formalised the ethnic divisions within the country's political institutions, rendering Iraq ungovernable. In the process, he alienated the former Iraqi opposition parties who were eager to share power and responsibility.

Throughout their time in opposition, the mutually distrustful Kurdish, Shi'a and Sunni Arab political parties had little in common in terms of aspirations, strategies or alliances. Not unexpectedly, integration was not on their agenda, before or after regime change. In this period, the best of the mechanisms proposed for preserving Iraq as a unified state was the constitution adopted in the referendum of 15 October 2005.

In essence, the constitution would divide Iraq into federal units (de facto states) with irreversible decentralisation of power. This is designed to prevent the return of dictatorships - a situation to which, as far as the Kurds and the majority Shi'a are concerned, there is no going back. The downside of this devolutionary constitution is that it yields weak governments in Baghdad, invariably composed of a coalition of unwilling and distrusting parties.

The pre-constitution interim government of Iyad Allawi (June 2004 - April 2005) has been the strongest of the post-regime-change period. He shared power with his partners and won their trust. In contrast, his successor as prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, provided a good example of how not to rule. He failed to implement the interim constitution, alienated his governing partners and forged unlikely alliances with extremist Shi'amilitias.

The Sunnis and most Shi'a (including Hakim's Sciri) were grateful for the strong Kurdish veto wielded by Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, which prevented Jaafari's re-election. His own successor and the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, promised to be different. His government, however, is crippled by its lack of control over the army, police or intelligence services; essentially, it is now confined to the boundaries of Baghdad'sGreen Zone and helpless in the face of insensate violence and escalating civil war.

The Kurds' mbitions

Kurdish political leaders in the post-Saddam era, having just about recovered from the genocidal rule of an extreme Arab nationalist, displayed their preference for a democratic Iraq to an isolated and vulnerable Kurdistan. They have manifested this wish by contributing significantly to the professional conduct of the government in Baghdad and have won respect for their focus, professionalism and statesmanship.

The Kurds freely supported the new constitution and the government in the hope that their aspirations and prosperity will be realised within a democratic Iraq. But a number of factors - Jaafari's hesitation in implementing the constitution, extremist (and anti-Kurdish) Arab rhetoric and incipient communal violence - all began to ring alarm-bells. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan autonomous region, made it clear that the Kurds would review their choice of remaining within Iraq if the agreed constitution was not implemented, or if civil war rages out of control.

The first condition will be tested in a referendum (scheduled for December 2007) on whether the city of Kirkuk should join the Kurdistan autonomous region. The second condition is already ripe. Sectarian killings have increased slowly but exponentially since early 2005 and have gathered greater momentum since the Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006. As a consequence, increasing numbers of Iraqis are fleeing their homes: from 30,000 people by the end of March 2006 to 138,000 by mid-August.

The displaced are families from areas of mixed Sunni-Shi'a communities escaping to parts of the country dominated by their own ethnic or religious group. Joseph Biden has argued in a Washington Post article (24 August 2006) that violence between Shi'as and Sunnis is now the main security threat in Iraq, surpassing even the insurgency and the presence of foreign terrorists in the country.

After Iraq

Is an independent Kurdistan viable? The answer is, most certainly, yes. Kurdistan is economically self-sufficient, more so than many member-states of the United Nations. The international climate is also more favourable. In the past, Turkey, Iran, Syria and other Arab countries have acted against progress in Kurdistan, and they were greatly aided by the fact that the United States found it in its interest to support a stronger (and anti-Iranian) Iraq at the expense of the Kurds and Shi'as. This circumstance has changed since the start of the war on terror.

Moreover, the people of Iraq no longer dispute the right of Kurdish self-determination. Privately and publicly, senior politicians in charge of government, parliament or the partisan media, treat the de facto state of Kurdistan as a reality and would accept a democratically managed separation programme. A minority of Iraqi Arabs would even prefer to have the Kurds out of the Iraqi equation, just as there are a minority of Kurds who would genuinely prefer to remain within the greater Iraq.

In response to the argument that Kurdish independence or the division of Iraq into federal entities is a dangerous proposal, it can be said that "united" Iraq has never been truly united and has always itself been dangerous to its people and its neighbours. The more important question is: what are the least dangerous alternatives?

The obvious options, which will have been considered by the Baker commission on Iraq, include:

    • allowing the current situation to evolve naturally: a high risk strategy with no end to a civil war.

    • suspending the constitution and parliament, allowing a dictatorial minority rule for an unlimited period (this may temporarily put a lid on the civil war and postpone the break-up of Iraq).

    • changing the constitution to centralise power in Baghdad, allowing majority (Shi'a) domination of Iraq (in this case civil war will continue and Kurdistan will go it alone).

    • dividing Iraq into several federal entities, capable of self-governing but loosely united within Iraqi boundaries (consistent with the adopted constitution).

    • dismember Iraq.

To end the spiralling civil war, secure democracy, contribute to a stable middle east and, crucially, protect American and British interests, the only viable two options available to the Bush administration are the last two. If the fourth were not orchestrated tactfully, the fifth is inevitable, with or without American help. The Biden-Gleb plan to "hold Iraq together" is indeed another way of achieving the fourth.

It is most unlikely that the US will be able to contain violence in Iraq without the help of Iraqis. This can only be accomplished by implementing the constitution, allowing local authorities within each province (federal unit) to fortify their boundaries and take control of their security and day-to-day affairs. Therefore, in reality, the Baker committee has little option but to recommend the least popular but most natural choice. This would involve supporting the Iraqi government to implement the current constitution, dividing Iraq accordingly into small federal units, securing a lasting peace and conducting a programmed withdrawal of coalition troops.

Iraq has never been truly united and never will be. Kurdistan is an independent state-in-waiting. Its birth was delayed, not by Turkey, Iran or the Arab world, but by the cold war world order. Things have changed in the post 9/11 world order. Preserving Iraq's territorial integrity, at the expense of the Kurds, is no longer an option. The only way to slow down or prevent Kurdistan's total devolution is by creating a democratic haven within Iraq and implementing the agreed constitution. If this does not happen, Kurdistan by 2008 is likely to become (after Kosovo?) the 194th member state of the United Nations.

The six Iraqi roundtable participants are: