Independence for Kurdistan?
Le Monde's Sophie Shihab reports from Arbil.
Kurdistan, which has become a Mecca for Iraqi party leaders hopeful of forming the first regular government for the coutry, continues nearly three years after the fall of Saddam to play the key role of mediator in preventing the breakup the country and of stabilizer in offering support to the Americans. It is all the more true after the stinging defeat in the December 15th elections of the secular list headed by Iyad Allawi on which Washington had banked.
However, for the Americans, the Kurdish issue is troubled by a paradox that both sides prefer to ignore : the kingmakers of Kurdistan are the least concerned by the future of Iraq. If one reads the Constitution, it could be the darkest of futures which the Kurds would prefer. The Constitution states that the unity of Iraq, dependent upon the will of the Iraqis, is protected by the text of the document itself. In other words, if the Constitution is not applied, if power in Baghdad takes on an antidemocratic or antifederal character seen as agressive by us or that of an Islamic state, we alone have the right to determine our future, explains Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff to Massoud Barzani, President of the Region of Kurdistan.
For no one in Kurdstan hides the fact that the future of which they dream is an independent Kurdish state. Although Kurdish leaders claim to have renounced the desire for independence on the condition of federalism for Iraq, they proclaim loud and clear that in an unofficial poll conducted in January 2005 the Kurdish people voted 98% in favor of independence, a goal for which they have struggled for decades. Moreover, given that the Iraqi Constitution is a collection of contradictory provisions, to believe that it has been "violated" presents no problem. But does this mean that all bets are off and that the Kurds of Iraq are merely waiting for the right moment to declare independence? The reality of the situation is far more complex.
First and foremost, it is the presence of the Americans which defines that reality. When President Barzani was received in the White House in November, it was officially to thank him for his good offices in bringing the Iraqi Constitution to life. In other words, the honor was not intended to bless his dreams of independence which, if realized, would plunge Iraq into turmoil between Sunni and Shi’a Arabs and destabilize its three powerful neighbors, all of which have a Kurdish minority —although Washington abounds with persons hopeful of such a dramatic scenario, which would have ramifications on the “evil” regimes of Tehran and Damascus. Former US Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith, now an advisor to President Barzani, believes that the United States must prepare for such an eventuality by removing some of its bases from Kurdistan, the only place within Iraq where they are welcome.
Sunni activists are shouting conspiracy, and point to the idea of the division of Iraq harking back to the desires of the founders of the Zionist movement who have always supported Iraqi Kurds in their struggle for independence. This is a compelling reason to discredit the nationalist aspirations of the Kurds in the eyes of nearly all Arabs, who closed their eyes and even applauded when the “allies of Israel” were massacred. As to the Kurds, they are not forgiving of this historic attitude, which is an overriding factor in the refusal of the Kurds to identify themselves as Iraqi.
These obstacles to a in the way of a unified Iraq could be overcome by a loose federation as provided in the Constitution —and by the fact that Kurdistan possesses its own armed forces, borders, laws and to a partial extent its own natural resources —especially oil, which the Kurds themselves explored and developed. Moderate Sunnis are resigned to federalism for their friends, the Kurds, but refuse to extend it to the Shi’ite Arabs of the South.
The Anglo-Americans also oppose extending federalism to the South out of fear of an Iranian takeover of the Shi’ite portion of the country, even it is well advanced there. Jack Straw, the British Foreign Minister, who is on a tour of Basrah, has recognized that Iraqi party leaders are not convinced in their hearts of the necessity of a unified Iraq, athough they may be certain in their minds.
But can one found a nation if passions oppose it? You would expect the answer to be no. But there are more than outside factors (i.e., the desire of neighboring states and of the occupation forces) that argue for a unified Iraq. Internal obstacles lie in the way of the breakup of the country, starting with, on the Arab side, the desire for unity of a portion of the Shi’ites (the secularists and supporters of Moqtada Sadr), the Sunnis and most of Iraq’s minorities. If the country were not in the throes of war, this shared sentiment would count a great deal.
These factions, which could even constitute a majority, are, however, too disparate to form a bloc. But even among the Kurds, independence remains a misty ideal for internal reasons: the rivalry between Massoud Barzani’s PDK and Jalal Talabani’s PUK, which rule in separate geographic districts in Kurdistan. The fusion promised by the two administrations is regularly postponed. They are waiting for the situation in Baghdad to play out and to see if current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is returned to his post. The Kurds are numerous in expressing the fear that war between the two chieftains may begin anew. It was only the necessity of maintaining a common front against other Iraqi factions that had cooled the embers.
The rivalry damages the “great cause” of Iraq’s Kurds: to recover Kirkuk and the other oil-bearing areas from which they were driven over the last few decades. To whom should Kirkuk be surrendered if the receivers do not agree to a mechanism? For the Kurds have an understanding that independence will not be declared before Kirkuk, their Jerusalem, is recovered. The only glimmer of hope on the regional chessboard: The Turkish generals have ceased their clamor that a Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk would justify an armed incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan. The start of negotiations with the European Union, the end to the myth of a Turkmen majority in Kirkuk, and the advice of their US allies have put a stop to these war plans.
But for now it will be up to the businessmen and the workers of Turkey —whether Turks or Kurds— who have come en masse to invest and to work in Iraqi Kurdistan, to sketch the contours of possible future regional cooperation, even if, in the meantime, there is a growing number of conferences in Iraqi Kurdistan on independence organized by various Kurdish émigré associations in Europe and in the United States.