Playing by the rules: Kurds Shia and Sunni Iraqis

Playing by the rules: Kurds Shia and Sunni Iraqis

Dlawer Ala ‘Aldeen

In: Iraq since the Gulf War, Prospects for Democracy. Editor: Fran Hazelton, for CARDRI. Zed Books Ltd. London & New Jersey. 1994. Chapter 18, pages 232-243

The artificial boundaries of the modem state of Iraq, which were laid down by the British in the 1920s and have been protected ever since by the major powers, created a heterogeneous combination of ethnic and religious groups. The British, militarily dominant after the First World War, drew the map of Iraq by annexing the southern part of Kurdish lands - the Ottoman province of Mosul - to the Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia inhabited mainly by Arabs, namely Baghdad and Basra. In the process, they denied the Kurdish people any right to an independent Kurdish state. The Kurds of southern Kurdistan have been through seventy years of forced co-existence with the Sunni and Shi’i Arabs under the rule of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad. The division of Kurdistan and amalgamation of these divergent groups created one of the most unstable countries in the Middle East. The plight of the Kurds (and their armed struggle for basic human rights) and the plight of the Shi’i Arabs in the south have been major contributors to instability in the entire region.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the southern Kurds somehow adapted to the new reality and started thinking in the context of modern Iraq. This was at the expense of their national identity and their human and political rights. With the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in 1958, Britain finally lost influence as an imperial power within Iraq and the fate of the Kurds was left entirely in the hands of a series of undemocratic Arab nationalist governments. Without exception, these regimes — all of which were supported by either, or both, Cold War superpowers -- refused to recognize the Kurds’ democratic rights or demand for self-determination. Since the Ba’thists came to power - first in 1963 and then in 1968 - the very existence of the Kurds has been at risk. To the superpowers, the violation of human rights and suppression of the people of Iraq were no more than ‘internal affairs’ so long as the regime was deemed indispensable for trade and most recently for preventing the spread of the Shi’i Islamic revolution.

The ‘sacred’ boundaries of Iraq and exclusively Sunni rule in Baghdad became the only recognized image of Iraq during the era of the two superpowers. All policies were worked out around those boundaries which ensured that they remained unquestioned. However, with the emergence of the United States as the leading, or the only, master of the world, international relations have changed and old policies are no longer applicable. The clock must now turn the American way. Sadly, however, there is no evidence that the USA has developed any well thought-out policy towards Iraq. Its only obvious policy has been a reaction to events, and too little too late. Many observers have the impression that the US administration changes its policies frequently. This, and the way the USA conducted the Gulf War, demonstrates their ignorance of Iraq’s social and political structure.

The USA has long valued Saddam Husain as an economic and political partner. However, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, it strongly indicated that he was no longer a partner and should go, hence General Schwarzkopf’s desire to march all the way to Baghdad. But when, in the intifada of March 1991, the Iraqi people had the opportunity of removing Saddam Husain and replacing him with a Shi’i-dominated opposition, the Americans pulled away the rug and actively sought to prevent his downfall. Not having prepared a ‘friendly’ alternative (a military dictator with a different name), the USA accepted Saddam Husain as the ‘devil they knew’, preferable to the one they did not. They allowed the ‘internal affairs’ to carry on. The Shi’is were slaughtered in the south and the Kurds were left in the wilderness.

The British, however, are acknowledged to have a better understanding of the area, and have long conducted the policy they see as in their best interest. British policy has nevertheless time and again proved to be catastrophic for the people of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. The British have had more knowledge, but always followed the USA, who have no thought-out policy. Fortunately for the Iraqi people, by the time of the mass exodus of refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan in April 1991, Margaret Thatcher had her own personal policy towards Saddam Husain. She had developed a deep dislike for him and, although no longer in power, was strong enough to make people listen in Britain and the USA. She initiated a sequence of events that resulted in John Major’s passionate move to intervene militarily in Kurdistan (with or without the Americans). Instead of letting the British take the moral high ground, the Americans jumped in ahead and led the way into the ‘quagmire’ to save lives. This was a classic example of US policy. Lives were saved in Kurdistan and George Bush became Hajji Bush. But the ‘safe havens’ were set up only in a part of Iraqi Kurdistan, less than half the area from which the refugees had fled. As for the Shi’is in the south, their untelevized suffering remained an ‘internal affair’.

Kurdish safe haven

The Allies made a deliberate effort to limit the Kurdish safe haven to the province of Dohuk where no more than 800,000 people had been dis placed. The majority of the refugees (1.2-1.5 million) were fleeing eastward towards Iran from the major cities of Kirkuk, Arbil and Sulaimaniyya. Operation ‘Provide Comfort’ was an attempt to appease Turkey. Great efforts were made to stop the refugees entering Turkey by providing immediate aid on the mountains, Refugees were actively encouraged to return to their homes under the impression that the Allies would stay there to protect them. Turkey closed the border from day one and succeeded in creating enough pressure to have the refugee burden shouldered internationally. The Iranians, while opposed to the whole idea of the safe haven and regarding it much like a second Israel, tried to play the Turkish game and announced the closure of their border in the face of the tide of refugees. Their calls for others to shoulder the burden were largely ignored by Western governments (except for some limited aid mostly from non-governmental organizations), and fortunately they never closed the border, The Kurdish refugees along the Iranian border cried for help and for [ extension of the safe haven, but they too were ignored. Masses of refugees fleeing the provinces of Kirkuk, Arbil and Sulaimaniyya remained in the open at Saddam’s mercy without aid or protection. They were trapped between the Iraqi army and the border with Iran, far from the safe haven in Dohuk province to the north-west, adjoining the Turkish border. Iran did not allow international aid to cross its border. The 36th parallel, which provided air cover for less than half of Iraqi Kurdistan, was not sufficient to inhibit Iraqi army advances south of the line. Thus, Allied protection not only remained inadequate throughout the period but, more sadly, the whole of operation ‘Provide Comfort’ was abandoned in July 1991. The Allies left the area before their task was completed.

In October 1991, the Iraqi government suddenly withdrew from the three main Kurdish governorates of Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyya and imposed a strict embargo on the entire area, leaving the strangled Kurds as the sole authorities in charge. The purpose of the Iraqi government’s gamble was not entirely obvious. It was believed to be a blackmail attempt which assumed that Iran, Turkey, Arab countries and the Allies would rush in to prevent the Kurds from running their own affairs for fear of a Kurdish independent state being established. Iran, Turkey and Syria began holding regular meetings to discuss the Kurdish situation, and publicly declared that they would not tolerate any talk of Kurdish independence or the break-up of Iraq. Nevertheless, the Kurdish parties were left alone to run a de facto state, with no income and no direct foreign support. None of the Western governments have offered direct financial support to the elected Kurdish administration which is seeking to lead, feed and police between 3.5 and 4 million people. One US government aid official attempted at a London conference in July 1993 to justify his government’s lack of action, by referring to the Kurds’ inability to eliminate the corruption inherited from Saddam’s regime. He ignored the need for financial support to combat corruption and the fact that Western support enabled Saddam to establish such corruption in the first place.

Saddam Husain’s government is able to extract, refine and sell oil. It is still able to provide people with basic services, while the Kurdish region has been deprived of the means of providing such services. No attempt has been made to relieve the sanctions on the Kurds or allow them to generate some hard-currency income. Even the small amount of money made available to the United Nations for relief in Kurdistan was wasted through Baghdad. Furthermore, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are no longer backed to provide alternative support for the Kurds, and some have clearly been instructed not to deal directly with the legitimate, elected authorities in Kurdistan.

Southern Iraq

The uprising in the south of Iraq had a different tragic fate. Thanks to Iranian interference with the Shi’i uprising and the Allies’ lack of interference in Saddam’s counter-attack, Iraqi Shi’is were badly defeated. Tens of thousands of people were massacred during and after the uprising, and the true figures of those killed may never be known. Since the intifada, the level of repression of the people and destruction of their historical religious institutions has intensified to such an extent that the entire Shi’i cultural legacy is in danger. The ‘modernization’ of mosques, construction of highways over holy cemeteries and the ‘reorganization’ of the structure of the Shi’i clerical school have all accelerated since 1991.

The Marsh Arabs are one of the most ancient communities in the Middle East. They are now facing total destruction of their community and way of life. Like all other Iraqi communities, they suffered a great deal from oppression and from the Iran-Iraq war. Iii addition, the hard-to-govern marshlands form a refuge for army deserters and opposition members. This meant they have suffered government military offensives, including air attacks, the use of chemical weapons, underwater mines, burning of reed beds and water poisoning. Having failed so far to achieve total control of the Marsh Arabs, the government’s last resort has been to speed up and expand the southern desalination project (the so-called ‘Third River’ project). The clear purpose of this project is to drain the marshes and facilitate the government’s control over the area, thereby eliminating it as a base for political opposition. However, a spin-off is the desalination of the areas between the Tigris and Euphrates and possibly the exploitation of oil-fields under the marshes. Drainage has probably reached an irreversible stage, with vast areas already drained and dried.

All this is actively taking place south of the 32nd parallel, under the nose of Allied surveillance aircraft. Protective air cover has not stopped the Iraqi regime on the ground continuing to violate both human rights and UN Resolution 688. Saddam’s bombardment of the area has, if anything, intensified since the creation of the no-fly zone. Air cover without monitoring on the ground has proved almost as inadequate as not providing any cover. A no-fly zone with no safe haven for the Shi’is in the south means continued persecution, humiliation, starvation and destruction of long established social and religious structures.

The opposition and the future political system

Since the creation of modern Iraq, the Sunni Arab minority has monopolized power. This was convenient for the former superpower but catastrophic for the Kurdish and Shi’i populations and the rest of the Middle East. With an ethnically and religiously diverse population forcibly combined within artificial boundaries, Iraqi governments failed to minimize the country’s potential for disintegration by establishing a civilized constitution that would secure people’s rights and strengthen the affinity between them.

For a long time, the Iraqi opposition has remained disunited. This is hardly surprising. The various groups come from different backgrounds and have distinct interests. Their diverse backers include Iran, Syria, Sa’udi Arabia, Turkey and the USA. However, sharing a single enemy, their common sense dictates the formation of a low affinity coalition. This has never been easy.

Clearly, the sections of the Iraqi opposition that enjoy wide popular support and have a strong organizational base inside Iraq are the Kurds and the Shi’ is. Alliances between Kurdish and Shi’i political organizations are therefore vital for any progress by the opposition, even though they are not monolithic groups. The rest of the opposition groups, important though they may be, are mainly loose organizations with little fame or following inside Iraq. Despite the diversity of the Iraqi opposition, there is fortunately at present a higher level of understanding among the various groups than ever before. All have accepted multi-party democracy as the only alternative to Saddam Husain, though they do not seem to have achieved unanimity on the issue of a future federal system for Iraq.

The Iraqi opposition has had to pass many tests before being able to present itself to the world as a credible alternative to Saddam 1-lusain. It has been expected to demonstrate that it represents the views of all the people of Iraq and enjoys the moral authority to act on their behalf. But its biggest test is to demonstrate that it has understood the rules of the game and can project itself as a coalition of professional, moderate statesmen who can relate to the West. It has not passed all the tests yet. It has not been able to prove that it would contribute to peace and stability and would not disturb the balance of power in the region; that it would not pose a threat to the West’s lifeline interest (the oil in the Gulf) or to Israel; that it would establish a capitalistic, pro-American free-market economy. It may even be expected to guarantee the Americans a lion’s share of the future reconstruction contracts (as in Kuwait) to repair Iraq’s crippled infrastructure, which is estimated at around $200 billion.

In the same way as dictatorship by the minority Sunni Arabs has proved catastrophic, the dictatorship of any other ethnic or religious groups will undoubtedly have a similar consequence. For instance, in the absence of complete democracy, a future Shi’i government based on clerical dictator ship will be suicidal. The non-Shi’i Iraqis, including Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Christians, have good reasons to fear such a dictatorship. All these groups, however, accept that a parliamentary system with a Shi’i majority is legitimate, tolerable and acceptable. Iraqi Shi’i leaders, willingly or not, seem to have accepted such a scenario, although the fundamentalists among them (and many so called ‘moderate’ Shi’i leaders) cannot accept Kurdish demands for limited autonomy, let alone self-determination. Many nationalist Sunni Arabs share the same feelings about the Kurds. Therefore, only a fully democratic constitution can guarantee human rights for all Iraqis and the creation of a stable country.

Since the March 1991 intifada, the Iraqi opposition in exile has come together and developed more mutual understanding than ever before. All parties are clearly convinced that their only chance of survival and of creating a formidable alternative to Saddam Husain’s rule is to reach such consensus, This perspective is shared, albeit with varying emphasis, by all three main communities that comprise Iraqi society: Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shi’is.


The Kurds have long realized the grave risk in the sort term of insisting on an independent Kurdish state, and have accepted the current boundaries of Iraq. The only hope for them of securing some of their desired rights in the foreseeable future seems to lie in them committing themselves to an integral but democratic Iraq. The ‘State of Kurdistan’ remains the dream of every Kurd in the same way as every Palestinian dreams of the ‘State of Palestine’. Nevertheless, the Kurdish political organizations are genuinely insisting on coexisting with the Arabs in Iraq. The Kurdish leaders have recently come under growing pressure from sections of the Kurdish population for greater commitment to the Kurdish right of self-determination (including independence). However, the leaders have so far skilfully and successfully managed to resist pressure, persuading people to weigh risks against interests.

Looking back at the history of Baghdad’s Kurdish relations, it becomes apparent that the more aggressive the regime has been in treating the Kurds, the more demanding the Kurds have become. From the 1920s to the 1950s the Iraqi monarchy ignored the cultural and political rights of the Kurds, but treated individuals as full citizens. During those years, the Kurdish movement, for its part, restricted its political demands to little more than cultural rights. Since the 1960s, under republican rule, succes sive regimes have further denied Kurdish tights and stepped up their suppression. At the same time, Kurdish desire for self-rule increased and ‘autonomy’ became the slogan of the armed struggle.

Under Ba’thist rule and after a decade of genocidal war, coexistence with Baghdad has become increasingly difficult. The Kurds have developed a stronger desire for divorce from Baghdad. Indeed, the deteriorating relationship between Baghdad and the Kurds may soon reach a point of no return where mutual trust and coexistence become impossible. This is why only multi-party democracy with a parliamentary constitution can enhance Baghdad-Kurdish affinity, which a federal system will hopefully sustain into the foreseeable future.

Sunni Arabs

The loose term ‘Sunni Arabs’ refers to a heterogeneous combination of tribal, semi-tribal and non-tribal peoples occupying the triangle of Iraq between Mosul, Ramadi and Baghdad. This collection of non-religious, mainly nationalist Arabs is the social base of the Ba’thist oppressive machinery, with its monopolization of absolute power. Opposition to the Ba’thist regime is at its weakest in this region, and almost all Sunni Arab anti-Saddam activists are abroad. They enjoy less popular support than the Shi’is or Kurds and inside Iraq they are virtually unheard-of.

Among the Sunni Arab political organizations, there are many extreme pan-Arab nationalists who stress Iraq’s Arab identity and its role as a potential leader of the ‘Arab national liberation movement’. Groups such as former Ba’thists and the current pro-Syrian Ba’th Party not only insist on a firmly integrated Iraq and think that democracy will dismember it, but also see the expansion of Iraq and the formation with Syria of a giant United Arab Republic as a dream ticket. These ‘leftist Ba’thists’ count on Saddam’s Ba’th Party as their organizational base in Iraq, hoping that Saddam’s downfall will allow the exiled Ba’thists to fill his vacant post and continue Ba’thist domination.

The rest of the Sunni Arab opposition (i.e. the majority) consists of moderate democratic groups which are genuinely interested in establishing a constitution based on a Western-style democracy. They have long accepted that without this, the disintegration of Iraq is inevitable. Some have gone so far as to suggest a federal system (with a federal Kurdish state) for Iraq. It is important, however, that most of the organizations which have been arbitrarily labelled ‘Sunni Arab organizations’ are not founded on the basis of such an ethnic/religious identity. They all have a wide spectrum of membership, including Shi’is, Kurds and Christians.


The terms ‘Shi’i organizations’ and ‘Shi’i opposition’ have been incorrectly used to describe Shi’ i political/religious organizations or the people of southern Iraq. Apart from the purely clerical organizations, which recruit on the basis of Shi’i-Islamic religious commitment, the rest arc largely party-political organizations driven by the plight of the people of the South. Shi’is in Iraq suffered from persecution under the Ba’thists simply because of their religious identity, just as the Kurds were persecuted because of their ethnic identity. However, it is important to stress that not all Shi’is in Iraq support the Shi’i clergy or the Shi’i political’ religious organizations, and not all Shi’is wish to see an ‘Islamic state’ in Iraq. All the various political viewpoints and affiliations can be found in the Shi’i community, developed according to personal ideologies and interests. Nevertheless, the way that the Iraqi regime has insulted the spiritual symbols of Shi’is and denied them their human rights has in creased support for the clerical leadership abroad.

Such support is split between party-political organizations, like the Da’wa Party and the more religious pro-Iran clerical groups led by Al-Hakim. Al-Hakim is the son of one who epitomizes the Shi’i religion for many Shi’is and is regarded by many as a symbol of their struggle against Saddam. More importantly, al-Hakim is now the head of the Tehran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the umbrella organization of all Iraqi Shi’i groups. It is interesting to note that there is no unanimity within SCIRI on Iraq’s future. Some have no problem with a modern Western-style democracy and accept the open market economy in principle. Others would accept nothing short of a pure Islamic state with a Shi’i-clergy dictatorship. During the Gulf War, members of SCIRI prayed for an Iranian victory which would carry them to power in Baghdad.

The end of the Iran-Iraq War and the changed circumstances it brought about helped lend a new dimension to Iraqi Shi’i thinking. More importantly, years of bitter experience in opposition have eventually enabled Shi’i organizations to understand the rules of the game of modern international politics. Whether they play by these rules is another matter; they ignored them for years and only recently have they given some indications of abiding by them. Nowadays, moderate Shi’i personalities are given a higher profile in international lobbying than the mainstream radicals of SCIRI. They have openly endorsed a Western-style democracy and are actively keen to be seen as truly modern statesmen. It is important to note that most Shi’i organizations no longer style themselves as the ‘only’ alternatives to Saddam Husain. Behind the scenes, however, a great majority of SCIRI members have not thoroughly digested the above rules, or the notion of a Western-style democracy in Iraq, let alone the rights of ethnic and religious minorities or the notion of a federal system.

The obvious dependence of the Iraqi Shi’i organizations, particularly the SCIRI leadership, on Iran, has had tragic consequences for the Iraqi opposition and the spring 1991 intifada, as it has masked the fundamental differences and genuine disagreements between the Iranian clergy and the Iraqi Shi’i party political leaders. There are innumerable religious and political differences between the two sides. For a start, the Iraqi Shi’i organizations do not believe in the same Wilayat Al-Faqih, in which ultimate power is concentrated in the person of al-faqih. Such differences are deep rooted and go back centuries. More importantly, the Iraqi Shi’is strongly resent Iranian interference in their internal affairs and in Iraqi opposition affairs. On a private level, Iraqi Shi’ i leaders do complain about this interference. Publicly, however, they would not put down their ‘religious brothers’ as the Western media do, because this would not serve their purposes. Also, they see no reason for giving up a ‘brother’, especially as they still await a gesture of good will from the West or its allies in the Arab world. It is unfortunate that the notion of Iran’s Islamic state or Shi’i fundamentalism has been generalized to include all Iraq’s Shi’i population in the South. Iranian attempts to export the Shi’i revolution to Iraq, Sa’udi Arabia, Afghanistan, the Lebanon and the former USSR made East and West unite in opposition.

It is tragic that the Iraqi Shi’i organizations have underestimated the power and danger of an unrivalled superpower. But the bigger tragedy lies in the illiteracy of this superpower which is yet to demonstrate skill and logic in manipulating the world. The only logic applied to US policies is ‘protection of the US national interest’, with no serious attempt to under stand local politics and cultural values. Thus, the US administration has yet to demonstrate an understanding of the differences between Iraqi and Iranian Shi’i, and the very complex nature of their relations. In the same way as Shi’ I organizations have realized that their only hope of participa tion in power is to accept Western-style democracy, the Americans should realize that without the participation of Shi’i political organizations in power there will be no stable, united and peaceful Iraq. Furthermore, as the Kurdish population of Iraqi Kurdistan will not settle for anything less than a federal state of Kurdistan within a federal Iraq, the Shi’is will not settle for anything less than full participation in any future governing institution. Unless the rights of these two long-suppressed groups are secured, and unless the West starts winning the good will of these people, there will be no guarantees for a stable market in Iraq or secure business with future governments.

The time for dictatorial rules in Iraq is over, and the time for democracy is now long overdue. The only system capable of saving Iraq’s integrity is a genuinely democratic multi-party parliamentary system. Until recently, many believed that in an Islamic developing country of the Middle East it would be difficult to establish such a Western-style democratic system. These views, however, were put to the test in May 1992 in Iraqi Kurdistan, with the first historical opportunity to establish a parliamentary system in part of Iraq.

The Kurdish federal state as a model for Iraq

Kurdish internal politics has many similarities with that of Iraq as a whole. It has comparable ingredients of conflict and bellicosity. Politically, there are the two main bitter rivals, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in addition to the communists, right-wing nationalist parties, Islamic parties, Christian parties, and others. Ethnically, there are Kurds (Soranis, Bahdinis, Hawramis, Failis), Turco mans, Assyrians, Armenians and Arabs. Religiously, there are Muslims (Sunnis and Shi’is), Christians and Yazidis. In fact, Kurdistan is more heterogeneous than any other part of Iraq. Nevertheless, it was possible to combine all these diverse groups under one legislative and executive system in which all parties (political, ethnic or religious) are represented. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to see leaders of the KDP and PUK even dine together; now they dine, travel and rule together. Both parties have realized the importance of the success of the experiment on which their own future and the future of their people depends. Their high level of collaboration and mutual compromise has provided security and reassurance for the people of Kurdistan.

This experience shows that irrespective of the ethnic and religious multiplicity, cultural diversity and geographical location of the nation, it is possible to establish a truly democratic system with a considerable degree of harmony. The actual constitution need not be an exact replica of that of any of the Western systems. In the same way as different Western countries have developed their own systems, Iraq can develop its own. The initial set-up of the current democratic system in Kurdistan was agreed before the election of 1992 by the different rival parties under the coalition of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front (IKF). The end result was the establishment of a unique parliamentary system which is well adapted to local politics and cultural values. Also, the rights of minorities like Christians have been secured through special mechanisms. As time goes by, the parliament will gradually develop the constitution and put down the roots of the system.

Despite the absence of any real income or external support, and despite the double imposition of sanctions, the democratic system in Kurdistan has managed to survive and grow in strength. The vast majority of its current problems are due to lack of funds and/or political security. How-ever, there are a few problems which are purely local and require immediate attention. For instance, the problem of the supreme leader of the Kurdish Federal State, locally named ‘the head of the Kurdish Liberation Movement’ has proved difficult to resolve. In the circumstances, one could argue that the people of Kurdistan were lucky that this issue was not resolved in 1992, because not all parties were convinced of the necessity of such a leader and they had not agreed on the extent of his or her executive power. The whole concept of the election of such a leader was raised only days before the 1992 election, and arguments about the powers of the post continued until election day. Even now, the rival parties have not resolved the issue.

Failure to elect an outright leader in the first round of voting meant that the two most powerful individuals in Kurdish politics - Jalal Talabani and Mas’ud Barzani -remained outside the system of government in Kurdistan. Without them, the Kurdish parliament and the Kurdish government remained relatively weak and financially poor. Throughout the past decade and a half these two leaders have had the ultimate decision-making power and they now jointly head the military coalition of the IKF. Even though they have remained outside parliament and have not been given any state positions, they constitute the ultimate authority behind the governing body in Kurdistan. They have retained the power to appoint (or fire) a prime minister, choose his cabinet and appoint (or fire) the speaker of the parliament. Furthermore, on the international platform, they act on behalf of the Kurdish parliament and its government. Their absence from government has been seen as a weakness, both in the internal authority and in the international standing of that institution. Their inclusion in the legislative and/or executive bodies, in whatever capacity, is an absolute necessity. The two leaders of the KDP and PUK have demonstrated their genuine interest in supporting the elected bodies and demanded that the Peshmerga forces and the general population see them as their legitimate rulers. Indeed, without the blessing of the two leaders, the whole experiment could have failed.

However, careful consideration clearly must be paid to the kind of executive and legislative powers to be given to the sovereign leader. His/her relation with the legislative and executive institutions must be well defined before the election battle is conducted and such definition has to be formulated in a way that leaves ultimate authority with the parliament. There is no reason why a single leader cannot be elected by the people of Iraq.

The experience in Kurdistan showed that the vast majority of Kurds had not decided who they would vote for until near the election date, when they were still examining manifestos to see who would protect their interests best. The same thing should apply to the people of Iraq, including those in the south. The people are sufficiently sophisticated politically to think in terms of peace, justice, economic well-being and freedom rather than religious fundamentalism or Arab supremacy.

Currently, the Iraqi opposition has chosen a council of joint leaders consisting of a Kurd, a Shi’i and a Sunni, but the ultimate test for people’s choice should be determined by a direct free election with nothing to stop any candidate becoming president, regardless of whether he/she is an Arab Sunni, a Kurd, a Shi’i, a Christian, a Turcoman, a Yazidi or a Communist. In Kurdistan the candidates for the leadership contest included representatives of four different parties, two of which were relatively small. One was an Islamic party represented by a Sunni clergyman, the other was socialist. One of the major candidates was a Bahdini Kurd while the others were all Soranis. Many Sunni clergymen and religious Kurds voted for agnostic political parties rather than the Islamic one, and many Sorani Kurds voted for the Bahdini candidate and vice versa.


There remains a wide gulf between the Allies and the Iraqi opposition, and between different groups within the Iraqi opposition. The first has resulted from a lack of understanding between the two sides, caused by the ignorance and obsessive approach of Western governments (particularly the USA) towards the Iraqi opposition, and its fear of the unknown when it comes to alternatives to Saddam Husain’s regime. On the other hand, some Iraqi groups (particularly the Shi’i organizations) have not yet learnt to play by the rules of modern politics under the supremacy of the USA. Each side, it seems, will have to begin to learn from the other. The Shi’i groups need to demonstrate true independence from Iran and the Allies need to demonstrate more skill and sophistication to help them achieve just that. Without winning the good will of the Iraqi people and the inclusion of Shi’is in the game, Iraq will neither be a stable country in the region, nor will it be a peaceful market for the West.

The gulfs between the Kurds, the Shi’ is and the rest of the Iraqi opposition have largely been created by the stubborn demand of the pro Iranian Shi’i groups for an Islamic State of Iraq, with a clerical dictatorship and the absolute denial of the aspirations of other ethnic and religious groups. Sunni Arab nationalists are just as undemocratic and stubborn. Both groups fear the disintegration of Iraq and resent the Kurdish movement and the declaration of a Federal State of Kurdistan. The Kurds have not yet fought for an independent state and have done their utmost to reassure all Iraqis, but further denial of their rights will undoubtedly fuel enthusiasm for such a fight. Iraqi opposition parties need closer ties and better understanding than ever before. Replacing one dictatorship with another is certainly no longer acceptable to lraqis. Democracy is the only alternative to Saddam Husain that will secure stability and peace.

The six Iraqi roundtable participants are: