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IRAQ: The Kurds' Agenda

Author: Esther Pan
February 2, 2004
This publication is now archived.

What do the Kurds of Iraq want?

Kurdish leaders on the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) are pushing for an autonomous federal state in the new Iraqi nation. Kurds, who make up some 20 percent of Iraq's population of 25 million, have a lengthy history of often-violent campaigns for independence. Since 1991, they have enjoyed virtual autonomy in northern Iraq, which they call Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Experts say the Kurds are trying to lock in their special status before the scheduled transfer of authority from the U.S.-led coalition to an Iraqi government on June 30, 2004. Objections from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's senior Shiite cleric, may interfere with that timetable.

Does the Kurdish proposal differ from Coalition Provisional Authority

Yes. The CPA and IGC are currently debating different proposals, one of which would organize Iraq into 18 provinces based on the governing system used by Saddam Hussein's regime, experts say. Howar Ziad, the United Nations representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish parties, says another idea on the table, proposed by members of the IGC, would create provinces for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds based on where each group has historically resided. The CPA and most members of the IGC generally agree, experts say, on some issues: all private militias in the country should be banned and disarmed, and the central government will have authority over national policy decisions on budgets, foreign policy, national security, natural resources, and monetary policy. They point out, however, that debate continues on these issues and the Kurds' status.

How have non-Kurdish Iraqis reacted?

Many experts say Sunni and Shiite Iraqis strongly oppose the Kurdish proposal. It is not clear who was responsible for suicide bomb attacks on February 1 that killed 67 at the headquarters of two Kurdish political parties or whether the attacks were related to the autonomy plan. Still, many Shiites and Sunnis fear the Kurds' plan will inflame ethnic tensions and jeopardize the unity of a new democratic state of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni and favored members of this branch of Islam. Sunnis now resent their loss of influence and don't want it to pass to the Kurds, experts say. Shiites, an estimated 60 percent of the population, suffered under Saddam Hussein and now want proportionate influence in the new nation. It is unlikely that either group will give in to Kurdish demands, and that, some experts say, explains why the Kurds are pressing their case while the Americans are still in charge.

What are the details of the Kurdish plan?

The five Kurdish members of the IGC envision a federal Iraq with regions for Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, Ziad says. Their proposal would expand the existing area of Iraqi Kurdistan and give the Kurds control over northern Iraq's oil, estimated at 40 percent of the nation's total reserves. The Kurds also want some control over their peshmerga, or resistance fighters—who would be integrated into the Iraq National Army but serve in regional commands in Kurdish areas—and over Iraqi troop movements in their region. A Council of Kurdish Ministers, with the power to approve decisions made by the central government in Baghdad, would also be created under the proposal.

What is the most controversial part of the Kurdish proposal?

The issue that generates the most heated debate is the status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in the north of Iraq. The Kurdish proposal would add Kirkuk and its environs to Duhok, Erbil, and Suleimaniyah, the provinces currently under Kurdish control. Areas in the ethnically mixed provinces of Nineveh and Diyala would also be annexed to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Are the areas to be annexed predominantly Kurdish?

Many of them were historically Kurdish, experts say, but Saddam Hussein's regime altered their ethnic makeup. It ethnically cleansed Kurdish villages in the 1980s, experts say, and instituted an "Arabization" policy that moved Arabs and other groups into the area in a bid to eradicate Kurdish cultural identity. The Kirkuk region has residents of Arab, Turkomen, Assyrian, Chaldean, Jewish, and Christian descent, many of whom resist the plan for Kurdish autonomy. Thousands of Arabs and Turkomen marched in the streets of Kirkuk on December 31 to protest the plan; four people were killed.

What concessions will the Kurds make for their plan?

In return for their demands, Kurdish leaders promise to equitably share oil revenues from Kirkuk with the central government and give up agitating for an independent Kurdistan, which would unite the approximately 25 million Kurds in the region and include Kurdish-populated areas of Turkey, Syria, and Iran.

What are the chances the Kurdish plan will be implemented?

Observers disagree. Michael Amitay, executive director of the advocacy group Washington Kurdish Institute, says it's "inevitable" that Iraq's Kurds will win autonomy, though probably not by June 30. "The only other alternative is civil war," he says. "The United States cannot force the Kurds to accept less freedom than they [currently] have." But Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the outcome is by no means assured. The governing council faces complex negotiations, she says, about balancing the Kurds' demands against the desires of other Iraqi groups. "The Shiites and Sunnis don't like the idea of an ethnically based federal system, because it would cut into their power," she says.

Do all Kurds in Iraq agree on the new proposal?

Many do, say experts, who stress that the Kurds' urgent focus on negotiating a favorable position for themselves in the new Iraq has superseded even the bitterest of old rivalries. Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and Jalal Talabani, the PUK leader, were deadly enemies for many years.

What is the history of the rivalry between the two main Kurdish leaders?

Talabani was once a friend and ally of revered independence leader Mustafa Barzani, the founder of the KDP and father of current KDP leader Massoud Barzani. However, the two men clashed, and in 1975 Talabani left the KDP to start the rival PUK. In Iraqi Kurdistan's first elections in 1992, the two parties split the vote evenly. A bitter turf war followed, and Talabani invited Iranian forces to support his campaign to wipe out the KDP. In return, Massoud Barzani allied with Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army. A U.S.-brokered cease-fire ended the violence in 1998, and the two leaders (who sit on the Iraq Governing Council together) have put their former enmity behind them.

How were Kurds treated in Saddam Hussein's Iraq?

In 1968, when the Baathist government was established, its resistance to Kurdish demands for a unified and autonomous Kurdistan led to extended warfare between peshmerga fighters--led by Mustafa Barzani--and Iraqi troops. The fighting continued throughout the '70s and '80s. Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds many times during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), when Kurdish leaders, with Iranian backing, rebelled against his rule. Iraqi forces used poison gas against Kurdish villages, including the town of Halabja, and systematically executed Kurdish men to put down resistance. Human Rights Watch estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds were killed in these campaigns. Saddam Hussein brutally crushed another attempted Kurdish uprising that was encouraged by the United States after the Gulf War in 1991. Some 1.5 million Kurdish refugees fled to Turkey and Iran. Many returned after the United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 688 in April 1991, which authorized humanitarian efforts to help the Kurds and led to a no-fly zone over northern Iraq patrolled by U.S. and British fighter planes. Elections were held in 1992.

Do the Kurds have experience governing their own society?

Yes. Protected from Saddam Hussein's forces by the no-fly zone, the Kurds established an "autonomous region" in 1992. The KDP and the PUK split the vote and eventually divided control of the region between them. Each party governed its section of Iraqi Kurdistan; they are now in the process of unifying the separate governments. "The Kurds are much better prepared to [govern themselves] than either of the other groups [i.e., Shiites or Sunnis]," says Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army officer and author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World." "They've had the training wheels on the bicycle for a while."

How would an autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq affect the region's security?

Many experts worry that a strong, unified Iraqi Kurdistan, with control over oil and peshmerga fighters, could ignite Kurdish separatist passions in neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria. There are roughly 13 million Kurds in Turkey, 5 million in Iran, and 2 million in Syria. The United States and those nations oppose any talk of secession by Iraqi Kurdistan, which some experts say could doom the vision of a unified, democratic Iraq. "Clearly the Kurds wish, in some way, to preserve their historic identity and to link it in some way to geography," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on January 6. "But I think it's absolutely clear that part of Iraq must remain part of Iraq."

What are Turkey's concerns?

Turkey fought a 15-year guerrilla war against Kurdish separatists concentrated in the country's impoverished southeast. Experts say Turkey fears that giving Iraqi Kurdistan too much power will stir separatist longings among Turkey's Kurdish minority and spark renewed violence. Turkey also fears that Iraqi Kurdistan could become a U.S. favorite in the region, reducing Ankara's strategic significance. "During the war, when the Turks failed [to assist American military efforts], the Kurds stepped up to aid the United States," says David L. Phillips, senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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