Arab World: Fighting for autonomy

A dormant crisis flares up again in the Arab world: Iraqi Kurdistan proclaims its right to self-determination.

Barazani 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Barazani 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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 abating.
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 party.
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 ethnic components.
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 Kurdistan.
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.
Organizations 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 self-determination.
Official reaction in Baghdad was hesitant and weak.
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 it.”
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 it.
Allawi would head the Higher Security Council, which is supposed to be invested with extensive prerogatives in the fields of foreign relations and security.
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.”
While 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 war.
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.
Negotiations 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 negotiations.
The census was never carried out and the conflict is still open.
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 violence.
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.
Official 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 clashes.
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.