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The Role of Kurds in Iraqi Politics

Author: Lionel Beehner
January 19, 2006
This publication is now archived.

What role will Kurds play in Iraq’s future government?

Kurds are expected to play a kingmaker role in forming Iraq’s new coalition government. Kurdish parties look likely to win around fifty-five seats in the 275-member parliament, making them vital players in Iraqi politics. No political bloc won the two-thirds majority required to form a government. Hence, Shiite and Sunni Arabs have courted Kurdish leaders to form a governing coalition. Some experts suggest that Kurds, most of them secular, may partner up with secular Shiite and Sunni parties to prevent Iraq from becoming too Islamist. But most experts expect the Kurds to align themselves again with the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), Iraq’s ruling Shiite bloc, which is expected to win around 130 seats.

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In general, Kurdish leaders have provided a moderate influence on Iraqi politics, arbitrating between Iraq’s more polarized Sunni and Shiite leaders. Kurds have also pushed for further decentralization of Iraq’s government and to exert greater regional autonomy, including issuing visas, establishing a foreign ministry, and negotiating exploration deals with foreign oil firms. Iraq’s Sunni leadership has accused Kurds, who have enjoyed near autonomy since 1991, of trying to split up Iraq. But most experts say Kurds are within their constitutional rights in their demands for self-government in Kurdistan. “All they’re doing is institutionalizing the authorities they already had, which are included in the constitution,” says Peter Galbraith, a former ambassador to Croatia and senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

What do the Kurds want from a political standpoint?

The biggest issue for Iraq’s 4 million-plus Kurds is federalism. Since 1991, Iraqi Kurdistan, a mountainous area in northern Iraq, has enjoyed “special status” as a semiautonomous region protected as a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone. Kurdistan has its own regional parliament, judicial system, and security forces—the 100,000-strong peshmerga. Kurds do not want to cede control of these institutions to Baghdad. “The federalism concept is non-negotiable for the Kurds,” said Qubad Talabani, Washington representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, in a May 2005 Council on Foreign Relations meeting. A poll taken last year indicates the majority of Iraqi Kurds prefer outright independence to federalism. Kurdish leaders, however, have been more moderate with their demands, experts say. “They would prefer a world in which they were independent but their deal under the constitution gives them substantial autonomy,” says Brendan O’Leary, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and former constitutional adviser to Kurdistan’s government.

Kurds also want to incorporate Kirkuk, an oil-rich and ethnically diverse city 150 miles north of Baghdad, into Iraqi Kurdistan. Many of the city’s Kurds were forcibly removed under Saddam Hussein as part of his “Arabization” program to alter the city’s demographics and bring in more Arabs. Thousands of Kurds have repatriated the city since Saddam’s ouster and have assumed control of many of its municipal institutions. Kurds are looking to 2007, when a referendum will be held to decide Kirkuk’s status. For Kurds, “Kirkuk is not about oil,” says Tanya Gilly-Khailany, director of democracy programs at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “It’s the place of their ancestors that they want to go back to. It has sentimental value.” Some Kurds have called the city “our Jerusalem.” Regardless of the referendum’s outcome, which is expected to go in the Kurds’ favor (the issue of Kirkuk’s future boundaries is less certain), O’Leary says some form of power-sharing arrangement will be required to make room politically for the city’s diverse population of Turkmen, Christians, and Arabs.

Which Kurds will remain influential in Iraqi politics?

Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s current president, may keep his position, experts say. “He has the natural charisma and legacy of being an overall unifier,” says Howar Ziad, the Iraqi ambassador to Canada. Talabani had threatened to withdraw his candidacy unless given more powers, partly to counterbalance the growing influence of the UIA. The Kurds say they are not involved with the UIA’s selection process for prime minister, but experts say they favor Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq ’s finance minister and member of the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), over current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who heads the UIA’s Dawa Party and has had testy relations with Talabani. Under the constitution, most executive powers go to the prime minister. While Ziad does not predict this constitutional rule will be formally amended, he foresees a “gentlemen’s agreement” to transfer more authority to the president.

What rights did Kurds win under the constitution?

Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of Iraq’s constitution in October’s referendum. That is because of the number of concessions Kurds won during the drafting process. For example, they were able to secure Kurdish, in addition to Arabic, as Iraq’s official language. Phrases on Iraq’s Arab identity were watered down (Kurds, though predominantly Muslim, are not Arabs), as was the role of religion (most Kurds are secular). Other important concessions include:

  • Stronger regional authority. The constitution gives the federal government authority over foreign affairs, finance, trade, and other issues. All other powers go to regional governments. Whenever a dispute between local and federal law arises, the constitution gives priority to regional authorities. Sunnis have sought to overturn this clause of the constitution, but with both Shiites and Kurds behind it, experts say the issue of federalism will not likely be amended.
  • Rights to future oilfields. Although “oil and gas is the property of all the Iraqi people,” experts say this applies only to existing oilfields. Revenues from future oilfields would ostensibly be collected by regional authorities. Sunnis, many of whom reside in Iraq’s oil-scarce center, have protested, fearing they may fall behind economically. Galbraith says their claims are overblown because of Iraq’s uneven development. “In terms of revenues, the north and south have been vastly underdeveloped compared to the center,” he says, “so these regions will be catching up.” The constitution further provides some form of compensation for regions “unjustly deprived” of oil revenues under Saddam Hussein's rule, which includesKurdistan.
  • Recognition of Kurdistan’s existing laws. Laws passed byKurdistan ’s regional government since 1992, including all contracts and court decisions, are recognized. Kurds say this includes production sharing agreements (PSAs) signed between Kurdistan’s government and outside oil firms. Sunni Arabs disagree, claiming the constitution does not validate all Kurdish laws and agreements.
What steps have Kurds taken toward asserting greater autonomy?

Much to the chagrin of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, Kurds have made a number of recent moves to assert greater autonomy in the north. These include issuing visas, establishing a ministry of foreign affairs, and circumventing the Ministry of Oil by negotiating directly with foreign energy firms. Jonathan Morrow, legal adviser with the United States Institute of Peace, says these actions are nothing new and are allowed under Iraq’s constitution. Kurds “have made no secret of maintaining their own relations with foreign governments, and it’s not as if Kurds are suddenly entering talks with oil companies.” O’Leary says Kurds are not allowed a ministry of foreign affairs, per se, but can constitutionally operate a ministry of external relations and have Kurdish representatives in Iraq’s embassies and missions abroad.

Why do Iraq’s Kurds want more autonomy?

Because of their sense of victimization, experts say. “Kurdish identity is born out of a century of betrayal, brutality, and disappointment,” wrote former CFR Fellow David Phillips in a June 2004 Wall Street Journal op-ed. In Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which recognizes self-determination, Kurds were promised regional autonomy, but they never won their rights. Later, under Saddam, Kurds were killed and displaced en masse from their homes. As many as 1.5 million Kurds were emptied out of Kurdish villages during the so-called Anfal campaign of the late 1980s. At Halabja, thousands were killed by chemical weapons in 1988. Proponents of federalism say this strategy of self-rule will defend against future discrimination of Kurds. “The danger has been eighty years of centralized dictatorship,” Galbraith says. “ Iraq has been a scene of great violence as Sunni Arabs have sought to hold it together by force.”

What is Turkey’s stance on a semiautonomous Kurdistan in Iraq?

Generally, Ankara has discouraged Kurds in the region from pushing for greater autonomy as it might encourage Turkey’s 6 million-plus restive Kurds to rise up and demand independence. That position has shifted in recent years, experts say. According to Qubad Talabani, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter last year to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani supporting for the first time the concept of federalism. For one, Turkish businesses have close ties to Kurdistan. Turkey has actively promoted oil firms to negotiate production-sharing agreements with Iraq’s Kurds, while other Turkish firms have built two new airfields and are involved in a number of public-works projects in the region. Also, Turkey realizes that “a de facto independent Kurdistan” in Iraq no longer poses a security threat to Turkey, Galbraith says. If anything, Turkey supports a buffer zone toIraq, which has grown less stable. On the other hand, some Turkish nationalists may protest if Iraqi Kurdistan incorporates Kirkuk, a city ruled by Turkey until 1923.

What will be the role of Kurdistan's armed forces in the new government?

Kurdistan’s local ministry of interior will retain control over the regional peshmerga forces. There is a law, supported by Iraq’s constitution, which bans the deployment of Iraq’s army on Kurdistan. A small number of Kurdish battalions will be incorporated into Iraq’s security forces but will be stationed in Iraqi Kurdistan. Most experts envision Kurdish forces policing Iraq’s north, Shiite forces policing the south, and a mixed force in the middle.

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