March 30, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 168

Iraqi Kurds at Crossroads

March 30, 2004 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 168

With an uncommon degree of frankness and transparency permitted only occasionally in the former Iraqi daily Babil, which was owned by Saddam’s son Uday, a reporter filed an article from the Kurdish city of Erbil entitled: “Iraqi Kurdistan [is] a State within a State—Ambiguity Surrounds its Future.”

He wrote: “This is supposedly an Iraqi land but no one utters the name ‘Iraq’… Here they use cellular phones called Kurdistell, they watch a Kurd T.V.… In officials’ bureaus large maps hang on the wall with Kurdistan inscribed in large letters, large enough to arouse the ire of the neighboring countries… Kurdistan has escaped from Baghdad’s grip since the end of the 1991 war and is protected by the American and British no-fly zone … 3.6 million Kurds receive 18% of oil revenues under the Oil for Food program. Kurdistan benefits from illegal exports of oil to Turkey and from its commercial transactions with Iran. We find in Kurdistan internet coffeehouses. There are 30 registered political parties. Its people argue that they enjoy freedom unknown to neighboring countries… Unbelievable changes have taken place here. Imagine: most of the children born after 1991 do not speak Arabic… The surrounding neighboring countries of Syria, Turkey and Iran do not wish to see [Kurdistan] as a model for their minorities. Iraqi military forces are camped at the south of Kurdistan and would not hesitate to attack it if they were able to. Since Turkey has hinted of a military intervention in the north, the use of the word ‘independence’ is forbidden. ‘We want democratic, multifaceted and federal Iraq,’ is the official line pronounced by Ibrahim Hassan, who is in charge of public relations in the Kurdish Democratic Party headed by Mas’oud Barazani. Kurdish officials repeat in private that independence is not to their advantage even though they represent 23 million people - the largest group without a state in the Middle East. Current circumstances require the Kurds to act with caution. If the United States attacks Iraq, the ensuing confusion in the region will deprive the Kurds of the benefits which have prevailed for ten years… The Iraqi Kurds provide a cautious support to the United States against Baghdad and they still covet the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul which remain under the control of Baghdad… It is a difficult balance between the dreams of independence and the requirement for insuring the continuity which the Kurds are required to maintain. [One official is quoted saying] ‘We are hostage of American moves.’” [1]

Although the Saddam regime has fallen and a new reality in Iraq is evolving, the main thrust of the Babil article represents the Kurds’ current concerns and aspirations and reflects their achievements. After 80 years of oppression by the various Iraqi regimes, the Kurds were finally able to enjoy a considerable measure of political autonomy and personal freedoms as consequence of the defeat of Iraq in the war in Kuwait and the subsequent protection of their territory by the U.S. and Britain under the no-fly zone program. The current debate in Iraq about the relationship between the Kurds and Iraq remains very much the way it was portrayed in the Babil article. It is a debate about the Kurds’ insistence for preservation of the accomplishments made since 1991 within a newly-constituted federalism in Iraq in which the Kurds can maintain their national identity unfettered by intrusions from Baghdad and without the constant threat of military action against them by the Iraqi armed forces. These are also promises made to the Kurds by their Iraqi partners in exile whose common goal was to overthrow Saddam’s regime and replace it with a federal form of government that would fulfill the Kurds’ political aspirations. As has often happened to the Kurds in the past, former friends and allies appear ready to renege on old promises and old understandings.

Regional Federalism vs. the Federalism of Provinces

While there is a consensus among most Iraqi political groups about the establishment of a federal form of government in the post-Saddam Iraq, there is a disagreement about the nature of such federalism. Without exception, the non-Kurdish Iraqi majority favors the federalism of the provinces. Iraq is divided into 18 provinces and, according to this view, each province should have some degree of autonomy within a federal framework that leaves much of the power at the center in Baghdad. Since most provinces, including those in the north, have a mixture of ethnic groups including Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and Christians, this scheme will loosely limit the Kurdish control over at most three provinces - Sulaymaniyya, Erbil and Dhouk - that have enjoyed political autonomy since 1991. [2]

By contrast, the Kurds have insisted on regional federalism that would bring into one region, and one political framework, all the provinces with substantial Kurdish populations, including the oil producing city of Kirkuk. The additional Kurdish insistence on keeping Kirkuk as part of the regional federation scheme stems from their argument that the city was historically a Kurdish city but has gone through a process of Arabization under the Saddam regime. The idea of the federation of provinces is rejected, according to Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and a member of the Governing Council, because “throughout its history, the Kurdish people have struggled to prevent the separation of the Kurdish provinces from each other and to protect the integrity of the historical Kurdish borders…” [3] In the words of Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Governing Council, the annexation of Kirkuk into a Kurdish region is not meant to “Kurdicize” the city but to remove the relics of its Arabization. According to Othman, the 1959 census has shown a majority of Kurds in Kirkuk and that majority should be the sole criterion in determining its future. [4]

The Content of Federalism from a Kurdish Perspective

The debate about the nature of federalism in Iraq, regional vs. provincial, revolves around three practical issues: First, the application of the Iraqi law to the Kurdistan region; second, the future of the Pesh Merga, or the Kurdish militia comprising about 50,000 members under arm; and third, the Kurdish share in oil revenues originating from the Kirkuk area.

Under the Kurdish scheme for regional federation, the Kurdish region would include four provinces – Erbil, Kirkuk, Dhouk and Suleimaniyya, in addition to a number of cities with Kurdish majorities in the province of Mosul. The Kurds use the figures from the 1957 census which showed them to constitute a majority with 48% of the population. By contrast, the 1977 census, carried out by the Saddam regime and was the last official census in Iraq, showed that the Kurds represented 37.6% while the Arabs were 44.4% and the Turkmen 16.3%.

The Application of Laws

The Kurds demand that laws enacted by the federal government not be applied automatically to the Kurdish region unless they are approved by the Kurdish local parliament. The Kurds remain suspicious of the central authorities in Baghdad that would likely emerge after the sovereignty is restored to the Iraqis. They want to anchor their demands into written legal documents. They do not wish to be confronted later with a fait accompli that might be harmful to their interests.

The Future of the Pesh Merga

Through the history of the Iraqi state which came into being in 1920 the Kurds have been victims of Iraqi army incursions into their cities, towns, and villages. Not only do the Kurds demand that no Iraqi army should, in the future, enter their autonomous region but that they should keep their militia, the Pesh Merga as an independent force from the future Iraqi army. The Kurdish position has run into objections from members of the governing council and Ambassador Bremer.

Bremer has objected to any individual militias outside the national army. As a compromise the Kurds would call the Pesh Merga 'The National Guard of Iraqi Kurdistan'. The Kurdish leaders would like to surrender the nominal authority over the Guard to the national government but keep the actual control in the hands of the regional Kurdish government. [5] The future of the Kurdish as well as other militias is currently being debated in Iraq although the Coalition Provisional Authority insists that they should all be disbanded.

Kirkuk – The Center of Conflict

The oil rich city of Kirkuk is at the heart of the conflict concerning Kurdish demand for federalism. In the decade of the nineties and the first two years of this century, when the process of Arabization was at its height, Saddam expelled as many as 150,000 and some say 250,000 Kurds and Turkmen to the southern regions of Iraq and replaced them with Iraqi Arabs. The Kurds argue that, historically, Kirkuk had a Kurdish majority and a de-Arbization will restore them to their historical weight. The Turkmen, working closely with the Arabs, argue that Kirkuk is a predominantly Turkmen city and should remain as part of unified Iraq. Turkey supports their claims. “Kirkuk is the jewel in the Kurdish throne and a powder keg concerning the unity of Iraq.” [6] In the eyes of an Iraqi daily, the controversy over Kirkuk has to do with its oil. “Oil alone is the reason for the Kurdish insistence, Arab refusal, Turkmen protests and the regional sternness. If Kirkuk were not an oil city we would not have heard all the historical and geographical arguments from all sides.” [7] Ambassador Bremer has shared the views of the majority of the members of the governing council that the issue of Kirkuk should be resolved by the elected government. [8]

The Strength of the Kurdish Demands

Kurdish demands rest on two factors which appear to work in their favor:

First, the Kurds argue that they have enjoyed autonomy since 1991. They have their own elected parliaments, governments, flag, security forces, newspapers and television stations as well their own schools and universities where Kurdish is the language of instruction…

Second, they have established a strong presence in the Governing Council and built alliances with some elements of the political spectrum in Iraq during years of opposition to Saddam’s regime. Some of these alliances are proving ephemeral but not entirely lost.


The opponents of federalism demand that the creation of a federated Kurdistan be subject to a plebiscite by the Iraqi people. The Kurds argue that such a plebiscite is unjust because it throws the issue into the hands of voters who have no appreciation or understanding of the suffering of the Kurdish people in the last 80 years. Moreover, a new generation has grown up in Kurdistan who do not speak a word of Arabic and who do not see Baghdad as their capital. Due to racial discrimination, not many Kurds have received university education in Iraqi universities outside of Kurdistan. In order to reintegrate the Kurdish population into the Iraqi social fabric; the Kurds insist that their historical rights must be given full recognition. [9]

The Kurds accept the principle of plebiscite for the city of Kirkuk provided it is conducted after the return home of all the former city dwellers expelled by the Saddam regime and provided it is conducted under international supervision. [10]

The State Administrative Law

After years of oppression and sacrifices, the Kurds made the most tangible progress under the State Administrative Law for Iraq, the equivalent of a transitional constitution, which was signed by all members of the Iraqi Governing Council on March 8, 2004. The following are some highlights of the law which affect the future of the Kurds in the Iraqi state.

Para. 4 calls for the establishment of a republican, federal, democratic, multiparty system of government in Iraq, and the division of power between the central government in Baghdad and the provinces.

Para. 9 establishes that Arabic and Kurdish are the two official languages of Iraq, including the official gazette, national assembly, the council of minister, and the courts

Para. 53 recognizes the government of the Kurdistan Region as the official government of the territories by that government on March 19, 2003 [the start of the war in Iraq] and includes the provinces of Dhouk, Erbil Sulayminayya, Kirkuk, and the cities of Dyala and Nainawa.

Para. 54 gives the Kurdistan government the power to control internal peace and order and the right to levy taxes and fees inside the region.

Para. 61 (c) states that the draft constitution shall not be deemed approved if it is not approved by two thirds of the voters in three provinces.

It is a significant list of rights and powers granted to the Kurds under the law. However, it was the last paragraph 61(c) which has proved to be the most controversial and has coalesced many political forces against it.

It is viewed as tantamount to granting the Kurds with a veto power over the approval of the constitution if two thirds of the voters in three provinces have decided to vote against it. From the Kurdish perspective, the provision is a “fundamental guarantee” that no constitution will be promulgated that would deny them any of the rights enumerated in the other paragraphs of the State Administrative Law.

The issue of Kirkuk is another controversial issue not only because it is sitting on huge oil reserves but also because there are large Arab and Turkmen populations in the city, in addition to Christians and Assyrians, who consider themselves Arabs and who do not wish to be included under a Kurdish autonomy. The Shi’a bloc in the Iraqi Governing Council wants to stipulate that the three provinces should be specified as referring to the Kurdish provinces and that their rejection of the constitution would apply only to the Kurdish region. By this amendment they want to deny the Sunni provinces from voting against the draft constitution. [11]

A leading Sunni member of the governing Council, Ghazi Ujail Al-Yawer, criticized the Kurdish position: “The Iraqi Kurds have unified their words and action … [for] a federal government in their region. Their demand is new and strange from the perspective of Iraqi politics and, indeed, from the perspective of the politics of the [Middle East] region as a whole. The demand is obscure, susceptible to rumors, suspicions and rigidity… They wish to impose this federalism on the Iraqi people in the absence of a census, before the conduct of elections or referendum. They want to impose a racial federalism whether the Iraqi people want it or not.” [12]

In addition, and perhaps more significantly, the Shi’a leading cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, expressed reservations about 17 paragraphs, including the controversial 61(c). [13] Al-Sistani went further by stating his refusal to meet with a United Nations delegation that was due to arrive in Iraq to discuss the transfer of power unless the delegation publicly repudiates the State Administrative Law. [14]

The Turkish Factor

The Turkish position has been adamant that federalism in Iraq is tantamount to the division of Iraq and the creation of a Kurdish state that would encourage separatist movements among other Kurdish minorities, particularly that in Turkey. Turkish armed forces went as far as threatening “a difficult and bloody future” for any federalism in Iraq based on ethnicity. [15] Turkey is particularly opposed to the incorporation of the city of Kirkuk into a Kurdish region because of what they consider as a danger to the Turkmencitizens of the city. The Turkish ambassador in Iraq declared that the Turkish position has been conveyed to the CPA, adding that the CPA has no authority to grant a piece of land to anyone in Iraq. [16] The Kurds themselves have gone to a great length to assure Turkey that no Kurd who remains on Kurdish soil would be allowed to carry out any military action against Turkey. The Kurds are quite convinced that as long as American forces are present in the area no Turkish army would enter the Kurdish region for any excuse. [17]

* Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst at MEMRI.

[1] Babil (Iraq), October 16, 2002.

[2] Al-Zaman (Iraq), January 9, 2004.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 21, 2003.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 12, 2004.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 22, 2004.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), February 4, 2004.

[7] Al-Shiraa (Iraq), January 10, 2004.

[8] Al-Taakhi (Iraq), January 11, 2004.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (Londond), January 18, 2004.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), January 6, 2004.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 14, 2004.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 15, 2004.

[13] Al-Mashriq (Iraq) March 20, 2004.

[14] Al-Zaman (Iraq), March 21, 2003.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 17, 2004.

[16] Al-Shiraa (Iraq), January 10, 2004.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 11, 2004.

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