April 18, 2004


Iraq's Kurds: Toward an Historic Compromise? (Middle East Report , 08 April 2004, International Crisis Group)

The removal of the Ba'ath regime in 2003 opened a Pandora's box of long-suppressed aspirations, none as potentially explosive as the Kurds' demand, expressed publicly and with growing impatience, for wide-ranging autonomy in a region of their own, including the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk. If mismanaged, the Kurdish question could fatally undermine the political transition and lead to renewed violence. Kurdish leaders need to speak more candidly with their followers about the compromises they privately acknowledge are required, and the international community needs to work more proactively to help seal the historic deal.

The Kurdish demand for a unified, ethnically-defined region of their own with significant powers and control over natural resources has run up against vehement opposition from Iraqi Arabs, including parties that, while still in exile, had broadly supported it. The Kurds in turn vigorously objected to the kind of federalism envisaged in the agreement reached in November 2003 by Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Interim Governing Council, which would have been based on Iraq's eighteen existing governorates, including three individual, predominately Kurdish ones, and have left them without control of Kirkuk.

A series of negotiations produced a compromise in the interim constitution (Transitional Administrative Law, TAL) signed on 8 March 2004 that recognised a single Kurdish region effectively equivalent to what the Kurds have governed in semi-independence since 1991 (that is, without Kirkuk), elevated Kurdish to official language status alongside Arabic and met another Kurdish demand by providing that a census would be held in Kirkuk before its final status was determined. In return, the Kurdish leaders accepted postponement of the knotty Kirkuk question until the constitutional process that begins only sometime in 2005 is complete and a legitimate and sovereign Iraqi government has been established through direct elections.

Meanwhile, away from the give and take of the negotiations in Baghdad, the Kurds are contributing mightily to a volatile atmosphere by creating demographic and administrative facts in Kirkuk, using their numbers and superior organisation to undo decades of Arabisation and stake a strong claim to the area. The Turkoman, Arab and Assyro-Chaldean communities are increasingly worried about Kurdish domination evident in control of key directorates, strength on the provincial council and the steady return of Kurds displaced by past Arabisation campaigns in a process that many see as reverse ethnic cleansing. In March 2004, rising tensions led the Arab and Turkoman members to resign from the Kirkuk provincial council. A pattern, new for Kirkuk, has begun to emerge of sectarian-based protests that erupt into violence.

Significantly, however, the tough bargaining and rhetoric during the TAL negotiations and the friction in Kirkuk mask a profound shift in Kurdish strategy that is yet to be broadcast and understood publicly. The top leadership of the two principal Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is offering Iraqi Arabs what amounts to an historic compromise: acceptance of an autonomous region as the maximum objective of the Kurdish national movement they represent and, even more importantly, a willingness, expressed in interviews with ICG, to abandon the exclusive claim to Kirkuk in favour of a sharing arrangement under which the city and governorate would receive a special status.

Regrettably, Kurdish leaders have yet to announce their decision or start preparing the Kurdish people for this profound and seemingly genuine strategic shift. Indeed, there is a growing discrepancy between what the Kurds want, what they say they want and what non-Kurds suspect they want.

The Sunni could have a similar arrangement if they'd deal with their own more radical elements or finger them and let us deal with them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 18, 2004 8:45 AM
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