Iraqi Kurdistan Proclaims its Right To Self Determination / Zvi Mazel
A dormant crisis flares up again in the Arab world: Iraqi Kurdistan proclaims its right to self determination
On December 12 Massoud Al 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, the Prime minister and the President of the parliament 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 - that is 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 none other than Jallal Talabani, the President of Iraq - [Top jobs in the government of Iraq are attributed on an ethnic/religious basis as is done in Lebanon; the President is a Kurd, the Prime minister Shiite Muslim and the President of the parliament is Sunni] gave immediately 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; 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 in the Kurdish region, workers unions, Islamic institutions and prominent political, cultural and parliamentary figures from all parts of the political spectrum all issued supporting declarations. It became evident that the Kurds of Iraq were united in their demand for self determination. Various speakers brought back the fact that Kurds had been forcibly included in Iraq by the British when they created that country and that the time has come to let them have their own independent state; others mentioned that 98.5% of the region population had 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 general secretary 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 self determination,"adding 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 their self determination like all peoples.
Ahmed Shalabi, head of the National Iraqi congress (He was once close to the United States and urged them to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, but they are now distancing themselves from him) said that Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein, mostly active abroad, had met in Vienna in 1992 and among other issues had recognized the Kurdish people right to self determination.
Official reaction in Bagdad was hesitant and weak. Government and party leaders, mostly Shiite today, kept silent. The Iraqi President, Talabani - a Kurd himself - chose not to comment on the issue while members of his Kurdish National Unity Party openly supported Barazani's declarations as we saw earlier. Prime Minister Al Maliki, who was then desperately trying to form a government and needed the support of the Kurds in the parliament also kept silent. Following suit, the main Shiite 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 Shiite members, received the most votes in the March 2010 general elections but that was not enough to form a government. Allawi reluctantly agreed, after long and tedious negotiations, to let the previous Prime minister, Nuri Al Maliki, who had been able to rally a majority of parliamentary representatives, form the new government and accepted to be part of it. Allawi himself 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 – Shiite party in what is essentially a Shiite Government, Allawi, a secular Shiite himself, could afford to condemn the Kurds for damaging the country's unity while Nuri Al Maliki did not dare utter a word.
Another party, that of extremist pro-Iranian Shiite leader Maktada 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 Baath party declared that Barazani's proclamation could be seen as a support for the American occupation which was working for the division of Iraq, adding 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 South Sudan 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 opposing the Kurds and the central Government. Kirkuk used to have a mostly Kurdish population, but many Kurds were forced away by the Saddam regime and replaced by Arabs. Following the first Gulf war in 1991, allied forces- American and British - imposed a No Fly Zone on the Kurdish region in order to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein and let refugees go back there 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 United States and the economy flourished. Iraqi Kurdistan developed rapidly and became a state within the state. With the fall of Saddam following the second Gulf war, the Kurds began expelling the recent Arab settlers from Kirkuk, with Kurds taking their place. The new central Iraqi Government set up by the Americans bitterly opposed the move - the more so since in and around Kirkuk are huge oil resources estimated at 4% of the world reserves. Negotiations brought about the inclusion of article 140 in the new Iraqi constitution. This article 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 a) what should be Kurdistan's part in the global budget of Iraq; b) can the Kurdistan government contract oil exploitations to foreign companies? c) the central government wants to integrate the Peshmerga into the national army, the Kurds refuse. But Kirkuk is by far the larger problem, and the aggressive declarations from both sides on the subject 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 to 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 impotency of the central Government in order to strengthen the position of their region. They saw a unique opportunity to extract from Maliki, who was facing great difficulties in forming a government, a maximum of concessions. 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, finally, Maliki presented his new government composed of 42 ministries to the parliament, but only with 33 ministers. Maliki kept for himself temporarily 9 sensitive portfolios among them the ministry of 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 main issues mentioned above have not been solved and very tough negotiations will follow.
The Kurdish problem has far reaching implications. Iraq neighbors - Turkey, Iran and Syria- follow with anxiety the Kurd awakening in Iraq. They all have large Kurdish minorities which have never been able to have their own state; they all had to deal with Kurdish organizations demanding if not independence, at least a measure of autonomy. There have been bloody clashes. Should 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 live and 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 and foment unrest throughout the Middle East.
Zvi Mazel Former Ambassador of Israel to Romania, Egypt and Sweden
Fellow of the Jerusalem Center fot Public Affairs