Self-Determination: The Kurds and the Iraqi Divorce

The invitation by the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, to members of his party to vote on a demand by the Kurds of Iraq for self-determination, came as no surprise. This call did not come out of the blue. In addition to the old and well-known Kurdish dream of autonomy, which Barzani’s father Mulla Mustafa Barzani sought and led for years against the former Saddam Hussein regime, the foundations of the Iraqi state collapsed after this regime fell, granting the Kurds of Iraq the opportunity to recover, which they had always sought.

The Kurdistan region has recovered economically, socially and politically; it even became a refuge for those fleeing from security chaos that prevailed in Iraq, and for everyone seeking investment opportunities. Thus, thousands of Iraqi Christians responded to Masoud Barzani’s invitation to take refuge in the Kurdistan region, after the recent waves of violence that struck their neighborhoods and places of worship.

While the Kurds have benefited from the right to establish an autonomous region that was granted to them by the new Iraqi Constitution, the other Iraqi regions were taking the path of fragmentation and the dominance of a single (sectarian) colour. The country, which was unified by the force of oppression once, saw its constituent parts come apart and scatter. In the south, the Shiites were dominant, while the regions of the centre maintained their Sunni majority; the federal foundation that the new Iraq was built on strengthens all of these aspirations, which some have translated into separatism or independence, according to their desires and the circumstances they face. Among these circumstances, for instance, are the difficulties faced by the formation of a new Cabinet, which prompted some Sunni tribal sheikhs to call for the formation of their own region in order to manage their affairs themselves.

Barham Saleh, the prime minister of the KRG, did not exaggerate when he said that when the Kurds demanded a federal state in Iraq, they meant it as an expression of autonomy, and they have never given up this right. This call comes as the Kurds enjoy a political situation in Iraq that they never enjoyed throughout the history of the Kurdish movement in any country where they live, ever since the independence of the region’s states, as the Kurds were deprived of having their own state. Today, the president of the Iraqi Republic is a Kurd, as is the foreign minister, and these are among the state’s highest and most important posts, not to mention the Kurds’ right to other top-ranking positions.

However, the Iraqi situation as it stands today does not resemble the tempting image of maintaining unity through this make-up, or not abandoning it, whether with regard to the Kurds or others. When the institutions of a single state are unable to provide the minimum level of rights regarding belonging to their citizens, these institutions are no longer capable of protecting them. This is how the “clarifications” of Nechirvan Barzani of his uncle Masoud’s statements can be understood: the demand for the right of self-determination “is in harmony with the coming phase.” And this phase also prompts the Sunnis to seek protection in regions in which they still form a majority, after they were subjected to attempts to exclude them politically. Meanwhile, the governate of Basra, with a Shiite majority, is getting ready to hold a referendum on instituting a federal region.

To all of these items, we can add news agency reports, quoting Kurdish sources, on the Kurds’ move toward organizing a private army of 80,000 fighters, made up of the Pesh Merga and some autonomous security protection forces in areas with Sunni and Shiite majorities, to complete the picture of disintegration that threatens Iraq’s unity.

The allure of remaining under a single state is collapsing in our region. Northern Iraq is not an exceptional case, as the south of Sudan is also preparing for a divorce. Those who fear that referendums or calls for autonomy will push things toward the disintegration or partition of the state should think carefully about the circumstances that afflict Iraqi regions still under the authority of the central government, and the degree to which this government can protect these regions. They should also think about the reasons that prompt the people of southern Sudan to search for an alternative to rule by Khartoum.

Elias Harfoush

Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on Dec. 14, 2010.

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