On December 12 Massoud Barazani, president of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region
of Iraq, threw a bombshell at the opening session of the 13th general assembly
of his party – the Kurdish Democratic Party – in the region’s capital Arbil. The
Kurdish people has a right to self-determination, he said, and the Kurdish
identity of the town of Kirkuk is not a matter of negotiation. There was no
reaction from the Iraqi president, prime minister or parliament speaker, who had
come for the occasion, but the political storm which followed shows no sign of
Barazani added that the Kurds were a separate and united nation
and that their right to self determination – to decide their own fate – was
self-evident and based on international treaties stipulating that all peoples
had that right. Implementing that right would now be the immediate goal of his
The prime minister of the Kurdish region, Barham Salah, one of the
leaders of the Kurdish National Unity Party, whose president is Jallal Talabani,
the president of Iraq – top jobs in the government are designated on an
ethnic/religious basis as is done in Lebanon, the president is a Kurd, the prime
minister a Shi’ite and parliament speaker a Sunni – immediately gave his
support. Salah declared that it was the natural right of the Kurdish people, and
that it was compatible with the Iraqi constitution.
According to him,
that constitution states that the unity of Iraq is based on the will of its
What he wanted to say was that if any of these
components no longer wanted to be a part of the Iraqi people, it had the right
to secede. Another speaker from the same party said that the right to
self-determination had been the main goal of the Kurdish National Unity Party
since 1985, when it began its fight for independence in the mountains of
After the two main Kurdish parties, both members of the ruling
coalition, had spoken with one voice, opposition parties, unions, Islamic
institutions and prominent political, cultural and parliamentary figures all
issued supporting declarations. It became evident that the Kurds were united in
their demand for self-determination. Various speakers pointed out that the Kurds
were forcibly included in Iraq by the British when they created that country,
and that the time has come to let them have their independent state; others
mentioned that 98.5 percent of the region’s population opted for
self-determination in the referendum held a few years ago.
representing minorities living in the Kurdish region, such as Christians and
Turkmens, made known their enthusiastic support. The secretary- general of the
Party of the Turkmen People declared, “We, the Turkmens, are part of the Kurdish
people and therefore we support with all our heart the declaration of President
Barazani concerning selfdetermination.”
He added that this right was
based on the fact that the Kurds were a separate people with their own national,
historical and geographic specificity.
A spokesman for the Assyrian
(Christian) party stated that the Kurds had the right, as a people, to demand
self-determination, like all peoples.
AHMED CHALABI, head of the Iraqi
National Congress (he was once close to the US and urged it to topple Saddam
Hussein’s regime, but Washington is now distancing itself from him), said that
the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein, mostly active abroad, had met in Vienna
in 1992 and had recognized the Kurdish people’s right to
Official reaction in Baghdad was hesitant and
Government and party leaders, essentially Shi’ite, kept silent.
President Talabani chose not to comment, while members of his Kurdish National
Unity Party openly supported Barazani’s declaration. Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki, who was then desperately trying to form a government and needed the
support of the Kurds in the parliament, also kept silent. The main Shi’ite
parties did not react.
The Iraqi List, headed by Iyad Allawi, issued a
communiqué expressing its regret and called on the Kurds “to distance themselves
from such declarations,” since they “damage the country’s unity.” The communiqué
also referred to the Kirkuk issue and stated that “the question of Kirkuk’s
identity is a red line that must not be broached and all parties must respect
The Iraqi List, a secular party with Sunni and Shi’ite members,
received the most votes in the March 2010 general elections, but not enough to
form a government. Allawi reluctantly agreed, after long and tedious
negotiations, to let the previous prime minister, Maliki, who had been able to
rally a majority of parliament, form the new government and agreed to be part of
Allawi would head the Higher Security Council, which is supposed to
be invested with extensive prerogatives in the fields of foreign relations and
As the only representative of a Sunni-Shi’ite party in what is
essentially a Shi’ite government, Allawi, a secular Shi’ite, could afford to
condemn the Kurds for damaging the country’s unity, while Maliki did not dare
utter a word.
Another party, that of extremist pro-Iranian Shi’ite leader
Muqtada al-Sadr, condemned the move as “distorting national unity.”
the government remained silent, Sunni opposition parties were vocal in their
condemnation. A spokesman for the Ba’ath Party declared that Barazani’s
proclamation could be seen as a support for the American occupation, which was
working for the division of Iraq. He added that it had been made at a time when
in Sudan, another American- Israeli plot was at work to tear apart the country
with the secession of the south following the referendum scheduled for January.
He also accused the Arab League of not doing anything about that attempt to tear
away parts of the Arab nation.
Other parties representing political and
religious Sunni organizations said they would never agree to a division of Iraq
and would fight it with all their might.
The question of Kirkuk is one of
the most difficult issues between the Kurds and the central government. Kirkuk
used to have a mostly Kurdish population, but many Kurds were forced away by
Saddam’s regime and replaced by Arabs. Following the first Gulf War in 1991,
American and British forces imposed a no-fly zone on the Kurdish region to
protect the Kurds from Saddam and let refugees return after the
Their protection made it possible for the Kurdish autonomy to
prosper. Institutions of government were created, a local army, the Peshmerga,
was set up with the help of the US and the economy flourished. Iraqi Kurdistan
developed rapidly and became a state within the state.
With the fall of
Saddam, the Kurds began expelling the recent Arab settlers from Kirkuk, with
Kurds taking their place. The new central government set up by the Americans
bitterly opposed the move – all the more so since in and around Kirkuk are huge
oil resources estimated at 4 percent of the world’s total.
brought about the inclusion of an article in the new Iraqi constitution which
sets down ways to settle the dispute over the areas in question, among them
holding a census of the population, followed by a referendum or further
The census was never carried out and the conflict is still
THERE ARE other thorny issues between the Kurdistan region and the
central government, such as what should be Kurdistan’s share of the Iraqi
budget; can the Kurdistan government issue oil exploitation contracts to foreign
companies; and the Kurds refusal to integrate the Peshmerga into the national
army as the central government wants. But Kirkuk is by far the largest problem,
and the aggressive declarations from both sides hint at a very real threat of
Following Barazani’s declarations, the government of Kurdistan
ordered all Peshmerga units to merge into one army and four new regiments to be
created. These units had previously been affiliated with the two main coalition
parties (as a result of the 1981 revolt). All told there will be 20 regiments, a
considerable force. This move was undoubtedly a provocation showing that the
Kurdish region is getting ready for all eventualities.
statements from the Kurdish side have tried to play down the crisis. While Kurds
have the natural right to demand self-determination, they said, this does not
mean that Kurdistan is about to secede from Iraq; indeed Kurdistan intends to
remain “within the framework of the Iraqi nation.” One can assume that the
leaders of Kurdistan were taking advantage of the impotence of the central
government to strengthen the position of their region.
They saw a unique
opportunity to extract a maximum of concessions from Maliki, who was facing
great difficulties in forming a government.
They submitted a list of 19
demands, including those mentioned earlier, as a condition for joining his
government. Without Kurdish support, there can be no viable central government.
Last week, Maliki finally presented his new government, composed of 42
ministries, to the parliament, but with only 33 ministers. Maliki himself
temporarily kept nine sensitive portfolios, among them Defense, because of lack
of agreement with some of the parties. The Kurdish bloc got six ministries, but
the conflict is far from over.
The Kurdish problem has far-reaching
implications. Iraq’s neighbors – Turkey, Iran and Syria – follow with concern
the Kurdish awakening in Iraq. They all have large Kurdish minorities, and they
all had to deal with Kurdish organizations demanding if not independence, at
least a measure of autonomy.
There have been bloody
Should the Kurds in Iraq become independent or get greater
autonomy, this would lead neighboring Kurdish minorities to make similar claims.
It could also lead to unrest in other Arab countries where large minorities are
not happy with their destiny, such as Berbers in Algeria and Morocco or Copts in
Egypt. Thus Kurdistan’s fight for autonomy might have a domino
effect.The writer, a former ambassador Romania, Egypt and Sweden, is a
fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.