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For Kurds, sovereignty easily beats out the Iraqi constitution

By Bashdar Ismaeel - posted Monday, 24 October 2005

After many long weeks of squabbling and protracted negotiations between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, the draft Iraqi constitution was finally delivered in late August amid controversy and pessimism. On Tuesday, September 13, 2005, negotiators approved a final document, with some modifications to the original, to be officially presented to the United Nations for distribution.

For the Kurds, the constitutional negotiations were as delicate as they were historic. Kurds had made their demands clear even before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, advocating a constitution based on a voluntary union between Arabs and Kurds, with Kurds as prominent partners in the new Iraq. However, though the draft was passed by the Kurdish Parliament with some reservations, the question of whether this will tie Kurds to the new Iraqi political structure in the long term is greatly doubtful.

To be sure, winning Kurdish trust in and co-operation with a new Iraq is a thankless task. The lives of Kurds have been too often tainted with tales of repression and suffering. For them, the constitution was a chance to reverse their turbulent experiences as part of the Iraqi state. Most Kurds advocate outright independence, as was made abundantly clear in the unofficial referendum held alongside the Iraqi elections earlier this year. Yet Kurds also feel they have been forcibly deprived of this goal.


The fortunes of the Iraqi Kurds spectacularly changed in the aftermath of the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, when a massive humanitarian crisis pushed the United States into creating a northern Iraqi safe haven protected by daily air patrols. The Kurds, finally free from Saddam's totalitarian grasp, were able to create for the first time a de facto independent state with economic, political and social freedoms. After that, Iraq's three northernmost provinces controlled by Kurds prospered while the rest of the country, under United Nations sanctions, fell behind. Today, the Kurdish enclave is a world away from rest of Iraq: the Kurdistan flag is ubiquitous and Kurdish forces ensure stability and security.

The result of those many years of autonomy is a highly sceptical nation that, in practice, probably lacks enthusiasm for the successful implementation of any constitution, even one replete with cast-iron guarantees. On paper, the Kurds are rejoining the Iraqi nation as equal partners; but in reality true reconciliation between Arabs and Kurds will be a difficult if not impossible task, giving the contending views of their own destiny and their difficult coexistence to date.

For example, the new Kurdish generation seldom speaks Arabic, with English commonly adopted as a second language. Crucially, although raised in an environment free from dictatorial rule, younger Kurds have been frequently reminded by an older and wiser generation about the harsh experiences under Arab-dominated rule.

The common feeling among Kurds is that they may be the only party at the negotiating table making major concessions in the new Iraq. Kurdish anxiety was illustrated by the mass demonstrations directed against the Iraqi constitution, from Zakho to Khaniqin in the north. Kurds remain ever eager to affirm their cultural and ethnic differences with Arabs. They are wary of a future Arab backlash once American forces leave, and of having an Iranian style theocracy hoisted on them by the Shiite majority.

Mindful of the strong and at times bitter feeling among their population, Kurdish politicians drove a hard bargain in the constitutional drafting process and refused to budge on certain "red lines" which they saw as their minimal legitimate rights. Ultimately, however, they did water down some of their demands under intense American pressure. A key Kurdish and Shiite stipulation, however, was federalism - adopted against the wishes of the Sunni community, which fears this will lead to the breakup of Iraq. The draft constitution submitted this week did very little to satisfy Sunni demands for a modification of the clauses on federalism.

In reality, strong federalism and a weak central government may already be a reality in Iraq. The Kurds were adamant in the negotiations to obtain a lion's share of oil resources, the return of Kirkuk as part of an expanded Kurdish-administered region, and the preservation of their militia force, the Peshmerga. With the Kurds controlling their own parliament and independent judicial system, no law from Baghdad can be passed against the wishes of the Kurdish nation. These conditions were designed to ensure that Kurds would never again be neglected by a strong Iraqi central government, but also to allow them to become economically self-sufficient and socially and politically free, as well as able to defend themselves against possible repression.


Even with the new rights offered Kurds in the draft constitution, winning over the Kurdish population to the document will not be easy. A prosperous and pluralist Iraq with Kurds as major players is not unimaginable; but many years will be needed before Kurds feel they are truly part of an Iraqi nation. Many do not have the patience to wait that long. It is also conceivable that federalism may not be a long-term solution, with Kurds believing that secession is now only a matter of time.

To Kurds, who dream of a greater Kurdistan covering parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria, even a sizable and independent state in Iraq may not be sufficient in quelling their dreams. In that context, what sway will the Iraq constitution have, particularly as many Kurds feel they were forced to accept concessions? As far as Kurds are concerned, they did not choose to become a part of the Iraqi nation when it was formed, and therefore they see no reason why they should accept a national arrangement that does not serve their purposes. This attitude is only exacerbated by a broad feeling in Iraq that the breakup of the country may be only a question of time, whether voluntarily or through an increasingly likely civil war.

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First published in The Daily Star on September 16, 2005.

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About the Author

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance writer and analyst, whose primary focus and expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq and Middle Eastern current affairs. The main focus of his writing is to promote peace, justice and increase awareness of the diversity, suffering and at times explosive mix in Iraq and the Middle East.

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