What Iraq do the Kurds want?

September 5, 2008

In the absence of a permanent United States presence in Kurdistan–something that would be welcomed by almost every Kurd–the Iraq that the Kurds and most Iraqis want when US troops withdraw is one that is at peace with itself and the world. They want a federal democracy with a good democratic government that upholds the values of the free world: an Iraq where all citizens are equal and their rights are respected.
The elements of this dream are there. The constitution, referred to by many politicians as the cornerstone of the new Iraq, provides for all of the above. The foundations for the new Iraq are being laid now, but the project is not likely to be completed in the near future. The political process still needs to mature. It is still hostage to the principles of quota and consensus among participating parties that are mostly identified along religious and sectarian lines.
This weakens a common national identity and strengthens the sectarian and ethnic divide in society by empowering the political parties that represent these identities, rendering it a lot more difficult to separate religion from the state. In fact, we still depend heavily on the role of religious figures. On many important issues, the final word is still that of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
While Iraqis realize that a true democratic Iraq will obviously entail the rule of the Shi’ite majority, they are also convinced that the days of exclusive rule by one group are over. The first 80 years of Iraq’s history clearly demonstrate that no single group or leader alone can rule the country. The only guarantee for minorities is a federal structure that empowers local and regional governments and allows the various Iraqi communities to conduct their own affairs.
Baghdad does not seem ready to digest the concept of federalism. This is still a new concept for Iraqis. They have become used to a strong central state with a strong leader. The Kurds are the only people who are actively seeking to hammer out a federal structure for the country. Yet federalism should be not only a Kurdish cause,www.ekurd.net but an Iraqi cause. “They seem to have forgotten what strong centers and strong leaders did to them,” remarked a Kurdish political analyst recently about Iraqis in general. Thus the current debate between the Kurdistan region and Baghdad is over a true federal status for the region and the shaping of a federal architecture for the new Iraq.
Some in Baghdad feel that over the past few years “concessions” were given to Kurdistan due to Baghdad’s weakness and that with the security gains Baghdad is making, “this must stop.” This is simply the wrong attitude to take. Powers should be devolved to the regions out of Baghdad’s understanding of the strengths involved in having a true federal system. The country will be owned by all, as opposed to being owned by the center only.
The Kurds still need some time to develop confidence in Baghdad. Talks over oil contracts, the share of the budget and the status of Peshmerga forces are all issues whose settlement will provide the Kurds with assurances that the old days are not going to be repeated. For example, the dispute over oil contracts is not about the size of the revenue the Kurds want to get. Rather, to the Kurds, a national oil policy rather than a central one will enable the Kurdish areas to benefit from developing the oil industry of Iraq.
The Kurds realize that they are in a marriage with Baghdad and divorce is not an option. At the same time, they feel disappointed by their allies and counter-signatories to the constitution. They feel they have performed their obligation toward Baghdad. “When they need us to fight terrorists, we are their partners, but when it comes to our rights in deciding for ourselves, we become adversaries,” said a Kurdish politician involved in the talks with Baghdad recently.
Ironing out the differences and reaching a workable relationship with Baghdad will need some time. The help and presence of the US is vital to settle these issues. A federal structure will allow more room for development and good governance and less room for corruption and putting the blame on the other side. Iraqis are still picking up the rubble of the destruction caused by the former regime, the terror campaign and the internal fighting that followed. In this process, people usually look for someone to put the blame on. But when people are busy building their own regions, they don’t usually ask whether the builder is Shi’ite or Sunni,www.ekurd.net Kurd or Arab. Rather the test is, can they do the job or not. Of course corruption and mismanagement may take place, but it is a lot easier to fight them at the regional rather than the national level, provided there exist the right anti-corruption bodies and they are not politicized.
While the Kurds are looking at internal arrangements for their future, they are also mindful of the regional dynamics that could dictate the future of Iraq as a whole and the Kurdistan region in particular. They are quietly eyeing the showdown between Iran and the international community. If Iran survives this, it will have a huge say in the future shape and nature of Iraq and the Middle East.
The Kurds also realize the importance of their neighbor Turkey. It is key to a peaceful future that Turkey be at peace with a Kurdish federal region on its border. Similarly, the Kurds will have to assure the Turks that they are not a threat to them. They will have to demonstrate that they serve as a factor of stability rather than irritation.
After all and if all else fails, Turkey is the only access the Kurds have to the free world.
This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

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