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Kurds win in Baghdad

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The old Kurdish guerrilla leader is savoring his most recent victory, won not on the field of battle but in the arid drawing rooms of Baghdad”s constitutional convention.

In three weeks of talks here, Massoud Barzani, the former guerrilla leader, quietly secured in the new Iraqi constitution virtually everything the Kurds were asking for, enshrining powers of autonomy that approach those of a sovereign state.

“Let me tell you, politics is much more difficult than war,” said Barzani, 59, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, who was a warlord when he was younger. “In politics, there are so many more fronts.”

''The Kurds act as if they are representatives of a state and we in Iraq are another state'' - Shiite leader

The new Iraqi constitution, which will go before voters on Oct. 15, grants the Kurds vast lawmaking powers, control over their 60,000-man militia and authority over new discoveries of oil and gas.

The Kurds even secured a deadline of Dec. 31, 2007, for bringing back tens of thousands of Kurds expelled by the armed forces of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.

The constitution limits the exclusive powers of the central government in Baghdad to a few important areas like control over currency, foreign policy and defense.

Policy making in areas like health care and the environment would be “shared” between the Kurds and Baghdad, but the Kurds would have the right to change most federal laws if they conflicted with local legislation. That includes federal taxes.

The new constitution would ratify all laws passed by the Kurdish regional government since 1992.

In effect, the new Iraqi constitution formally ratifies the quasi-independent status the Kurdish region has held since 1991, when the murderous postwar rampages of Saddam prompted the United States to set up an aerial security umbrella that allowed the Kurds to flourish outside the control of the central government in Baghdad.

In the new constitution, the Kurds did not achieve significantly new powers, but they did not give any up, either.

The one significant concession made by the Kurds in the constitutional talks was the deletion of language allowing them the right to secede, under certain circumstances, from the Iraqi state.

Kurdish leaders say they regarded the secession clause as mostly symbolic. They leave little doubt that they regard the new constitution as but a way station on a journey to eventual independence.

“In the last decade, major changes took place in the world that gave many people their freedom,” Barzani said. “I would not be surprised to see such changes in our region.”

But he chose his words carefully, so as not to offend his friends, like the Americans, or his adversaries, like the Turks and the Iranians, who have significant Kurdish minorities in their countries that they fear might make similar demands.

The new constitution would ratify all laws passed by the Kurdish regional government since 1992.

“The constitution should not just be ink on paper,” Barzani said. “Until such time, we will adhere to it.”

It was no small irony that the negotiations over the constitution, which is intended to hold this fractious country together, took place inside the Baghdad compound of Barzani, who has spent much of his adult life trying to keep the rest of Iraq at bay.

Indeed, some of the most crucial talks over the constitution unfolded beneath a portrait of Mustafa Barzani, Massoud”s father, a guerrilla leader who founded the Kurdish Democratic Party in 1946.

For most Iraqi leaders, Kurdish autonomy was so firmly entrenched, and its existence so morally compelling, that it could not be seriously disputed in the negotiations. In the 1980s, Saddam and his forces are believed to have killed many Kurds, many with poison gas.

But some Iraqis do worry that the precedent set by Kurdish autonomy could ultimately spell the end of Iraq - first by Kurdish secession, and later by similar designs by others, like Iraq”s majority Shiites, who secured the right to set up an autonomous region of their own.

The critics also worry that the new constitution, by declaring that control over resources like water must be shared, may also have sown the seeds for future conflicts.

“The Kurds act as if they are representatives of a state and we in Iraq are another state,” said Wael Abdul Latif, a Shiite member of the Iraqi constitutional committee. “Under this constitution, Kurdish independence is just a matter of time.”

At a news conference this week, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador here, suggested that granting the Kurds extensive powers of self-rule - that is, setting up a federal system - was the only realistic option. The Kurds, he said, would not have tolerated anything less.

“The Kurds say they will not come back unless Iraq is federal,” Khalilzad said, using the word for strong regional autonomy.

It is evident that the Kurds have longer-term goals. In a nonbinding referendum held in Iraq”s three Kurdish provinces in January, some 98 percent of those who voted cast ballots in favor of independence. If the central government in Baghdad tried to curtail Kurdish powers, the demands would grow more insistent.

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