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Iraq’s Kurds Torn Between Government Participation and Independence

Recently, a top Kurdish official criticized the U.S.-based bipartisan Iraq Study Group after it issued in December recommendations on an Iraq strategy without having visited his region for an assessment. Masoud Barzani in a statement called it a mistake to marginalize “the achievements of the political process in … the [Kurdish] region.”

Iraq’s second-largest ethnic group has long campaigned for an independent Kurdish state. But for modern Kurds, full independence has remained elusive ever since it was considered but never included in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Though Iraq’s Kurds have come closer than any of their regional kinsmen to reach that goal, the Kurdish people as a whole — roughly 25-30 million who also live in parts of Syria, Turkey, Iran and the former Soviet Union — are considered one of the largest ethnic groups never to have achieved statehood.

After U.S.-led coalition forces drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, British and American jets patrolled the skies over Kurdish Iraq, rendering the region almost completely off-limits to Saddam Hussein’s armies. The military success signaled the end, in large part, of a history of atrocities by Saddam against the Kurds, demonstrated most vividly by the March 1988 chemical weapons attacks that killed approximately 5,000 Kurds in the village of Halabja.

That British-American military umbrella also marked the beginning of a new phase of political life for the 15-20 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people who are Kurdish.

Papering over decades of infighting, the major Kurdish political parties — the Kurdish Democratic Party, associated with the Barzani clan and centered in the northern parts of Kurdish Iraq, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by the Talabani clan and concentrated in the southern reaches of Kurdish Iraq — created the Kurdistan Regional Government.

For the last dozen years of Saddam’s rule, that parliamentary body governed the three Kurdish provinces in relative autonomy. Though renewed infighting would paralyze the Kurdistan Regional Government later that decade, for part of the 1990s Kurds came tantalizingly close to independence.

In March 2003, Kurds greeted American forces rolling into Iraq with great anticipation, and Kurdish pesh merga fighters allied themselves with the liberating armies.

In the years following Saddam’s fall, Iraqi Kurds began to assume increasingly central roles in the country’s federal government. As a result, Iraq’s Kurds are finding themselves torn between their new leadership roles in the country’s affairs, and their historic desires for a Kurdish state.

On Jan. 30, 2005, Iraqis voted for a new transitional federal government. But on the sidelines of that election, another less public referendum unfolded at Kurdish polling sites when an estimated 95 percent of voting Kurds cast their lot with independence. Former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith wrote two days later in the New York Times that Barzani predicted “there will be an independent Kurdistan, and I hope to see it in my lifetime.” Though unbinding, the referendum put the rest of Iraq on notice.

New-found Kurdish power in Iraq’s central government could counterbalance the allure of complete independence. In April 2005, Iraq elected the first Kurdish president of an Arab nation, a largely symbolic role Jalal Talabani still holds. Barham Salih serves as deputy prime minister, and Hoshyar Zebari has held the post of foreign minister since the first post-Saddam government was installed.

These developments notwithstanding, the Kurds are increasingly isolated by the continuous violence wracking Baghdad and its surrounding areas.

The chaos and political discord in Iraq are creating a federalized state with a weak center, according to Galbraith, who says Baghdad lacks any real influence in the Kurdish region.

Galbraith, who helped document Saddam’s atrocities against the Kurds and has advised Kurdish leaders on political issues, points to the booming Kurdish economy, the preference for Kurdish flags over Iraqi banners, and the confident Kurdish armies, as signs of the Kurdish region’s political maturity — all of which raise hackles in other capitals of the Middle East.

For over 20 years Turkey has fought Kurdish separatists near its border with Iraq. Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said in a Dec. 19 NewsHour interview that Iraq’s breakup — code for Kurdish independence — “is something that we do not even want to think about, because for us the territorial integrity for Iraq is very important. The territorial integrity of Iraq is important for Iran and Syria and all the neighboring countries in the region.”

Another major concern for Iraqi and Kurdish leaders is the status of Kirkuk, in oil-rich Tamim province. Saddam worked to displace Tamim’s Kurds with Arabs. But with an eye to its potential oil revenues, Kurds have placed historical claims on the province. And Kurdish politicians won an important battle when, in return for their support of Iraqi constitution, they inserted a constitutional provision requiring a provincial referendum by December 2007 to determine whether Tamim should join Iraq’s three other majority Kurdish provinces.

That plan has not been universally popular.

The Iraq Study Group, led by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, cautioned a referendum “would be explosive and should be delayed,” and that no region should have control over future oil revenues.

In its January 2007 bimonthly report on human rights in Iraq, the United Nations noted that other ethnic groups in Kirkuk “face increasing threats, intimidations and detentions, often in KRG facilities run by Kurdish intelligence and security forces. … Such violations may well be the prelude of a looming crisis in Kirkuk.” But Kurds have rejected suggestions that the referendum be delayed, and hinted they would consider withdrawing from the Iraqi government in that event.

For now, all signs seem to indicate the Kurdish provinces will remain part of Iraq. President Bush’s new strategy has emphasized a “unified” Iraq, and the Iraq Study Group cautioned that the “[c]osts associated with devolving Iraq into three semiautonomous regions with loose central control would be too high.”

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