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A Plan for Iraq's Kurds

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
June 10, 2004
Wall Street Journal


Progress towards the restoration of Iraq's sovereignty would be seriously undermined if Iraqi Kurds follow through on their threat to cut ties with Baghdad and boycott next year's national elections. The Kurdish ultimatum was provoked by plans to modify the interim constitution. Adopted on March 8, 2003, the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) enshrines democracy, federalism and human rights. However, this week's United Nations Security Council Resolution derogated previous understandings about Iraq's future governance. With the transition sharpening differences and entrenching sectarian politics, communal tensions could easily escalate into violence and civil war. Iraqis should take a step back and look over the horizon. Focusing on future arrangements for constitutional power-sharing will reduce the likelihood of Iraq's bloody breakup.

A federal power-sharing arrangement would preserve Iraq's territorial integrity while addressing the demands of Iraq's diverse tribal, ethnic, and religious communities. Saddam Hussein used brute force to keep the country together. With such a legacy, no citizen of the "new Iraq" would tolerate abuses by the central government or domination by another group.

Iraqi Kurds are especially wary of being victimized. Kurdish identity is born out of a century of betrayal, brutality, and disappointment beginning with President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which recognized the right of Kurds to self-determination. That was followed by the 1920 Sevres Treaty giving Kurds the right to independence. Neither Wilson's pledge nor the treaty was ever implemented.

And when Iraq became independent in 1931, no special arrangement was made for the Kurds. While Ba'athists promised autonomy, they committed genocide instead. During the "Anfal campaign," which started in 1988, 1,700 Kurdish villages were destroyed and 1.5 million Kurds were displaced. In March 1988, thousands died when Halabja was attacked with chemical weapons. Iraqi Kurds were also betrayed after the 1991 Gulf War when the U.S. incited a Kurdish uprising but then stepped aside allowing reprisals by the Republican Guard.

Given their tragic history, Kurds insist on federalism as an antidote to abuses of power by the central government. Naturally, Kurds would actively resist subjugation to an overbearing power, but to prevent abuses they are strong supporters of a federal democratic Iraq. Federalism offers a greater guarantee than simple autonomy, which can be easily revoked.

A power struggle over Iraq's interim constitution has emerged, with Kurds embracing the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) while many Shi'a oppose it. Kurds like the TAL because it enshrines federalism as Iraq's system of future governance. But many Shi'a political and religious leaders including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani objected to two things: a provision giving Kurds an effective veto over the final constitution and the limited role of Shari'a in shaping Iraqi law.

The real struggle for power will be over Iraq's final constitution. Though it will only be drafted after elections in January 2005, it is not too early to begin laying the groundwork. To be an effective tool for conflict prevention, Iraq's constitution must harmonize the demand for democracy with the need for unity.

One solution would be a federal entity called "Iraqi Kurdistan" that controlled all affairs not explicitly reserved for the state. Local self-governing institutions would include a local executive, legislature, judiciary, and police.

The state would be responsible for border control and collecting customs. The constitution would allocate responsibility for levying and retaining taxes to Iraqi Kurdistan. Customs duties would be shared between Iraqi Kurdistan and the state. Iraq's central bank would govern monetary policy, and Iraqi Kurdistan would use Iraqi currency.

In addition, Iraqi Kurdistan would have responsibility for cultural affairs. It would have authority over the educational system, including academic curricula taught in Kurdish. Iraqi Kurdistan would have its own flag and seal. The Kurdish New Year -- "Newroz" -- would be observed.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, powersharing is complicated by the mosaic of ethnic groups, which includes Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians. The first order of business will be to define the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The demarcation would establish Iraqi Kurdistan as a federal unit, reversing the 1974 Revolutionary Command Council's decree that divided Kirkuk province. Instead of becoming the capital, Kirkuk should be placed under international supervision with its final status to be determined via a popular referendum. But first a Kirkuk Property Claims and Compensation Commission should be established to manage the return of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen who were forcibly displaced by the Baghdad regime. Then an internationally supervised population census should be organized and voter roll prepared for elections in January 2005.

To prevent conflict over Kirkuk's rich oil fields, a portion of Iraq's total energy revenues equal to the percentage of Iraqi Kurdistan's population should be returned to Iraqi Kurdistan. Baghdad and local authorities should also establish a joint energy development commission to consider future energy development for Iraqi Kurdistan and negotiate production-sharing agreements.

Iraq's neighbors are concerned that chaos in Iraq could destabilize the region. In the past, Turkey worried that a federal state of Iraqi Kurdistan would inspire Turkish Kurds to rebel. This concern still exists. However, Turkey's military has grown more worried about the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq. As a result, it has come to see Iraqi Kurdistan as a bulwark against the threat posed by radical Islam. To cement Turkish-Kurdish cooperation, Kurdish leaders should re-affirm their commitment to Iraq's territorial integrity.

Compromise and consent are needed when it comes to power-sharing. A showdown between Iraqi Kurds and Arab Shi'a is in no one's interest. To maintain a modicum of stability, Iraqis must accommodate the democratic aspirations of the Kurds. At the same time, Kurds must be flexible so that Iraq's Arab Shi'a will believe they are not seeking independence. Flexibility would also show Arab Sunnis that power-sharing can effectively promote minority interests. It would send a clear signal of Kurdish commitment to Iraq's territorial integrity.

In the current volatile and rapidly changing environment, it would be a mistake to sell out the Kurds who have endured historical hardships. If Kurds withdraw from Iraq, recent progress establishing a legitimate interim government would be undermined. For all Iraqis, but especially the Kurds, it is a moment of both peril and opportunity.

Mr. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relation.

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