The Magazine

Erbil Remedy

Federalism is not a panacea for Kurdistan.

Jan 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 18 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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ON CHRISTMAS DAY in Erbil--the semi-official capital of the semi-official entity known as Iraqi Kurdistan--over 100 delegates from across northern Iraq gathered in a meeting hall that resembled nothing so much as an inner city high school auditorium, complete with rows of battered faux-leather chairs and dim fluorescent lighting. An improbably huge Kurdish flag was draped across the rear of the stage--three stripes of red, white, and green, with a golden sun at the center.

The assembly was a cross-section of Iraqi society: a bespectacled professor of law from Sulaimaniya in a prim three-piece suit; a Yezidi doctor from Sinjar; a turbaned cleric; representatives of the Turkmen and Chaldean parties from Erbil and Dohuk, respectively; even a lone, octogenarian Arab who had driven up from Kirkuk. Their stated purpose in coming together? To advocate a referendum on the political status of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Such a vote would grasp the nettle of two contentious questions: the terms on which the region, which has been de facto independent since 1991, should be reintegrated with the rest of the country, if at all; and where the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan, which many Kurds insist must include territory outside their present control--most notably, Kirkuk--should be established.

On the former question, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) initially embraced a vision for a federal Iraq divided into the 18 traditional governorates. Of these, 3 would partition the territory now under Kurdish administration. Kurdish politicians unanimously rejected this approach, pressing instead for "ethnic" federalism, with a single, unified Kurdish government distinct from "Arab" Iraq. For the majority of delegates assembled in Erbil, however, this too was insufficient; they saw the referendum as a means to pull even further from Baghdad's orbit.

"Federalism cannot fundamentally resolve the Kurdish question," Sherko Bekas, a Kurdish poet, publisher, and principal organizer of the referendum movement, lectured me the week before in his plush Sulaimaniya office. "We do not see ourselves as Iraqis. We are Kurds." The first speaker to the dais in Erbil took up the theme: "The aim of the referendum is independence. We do not want life in Iraq. We want life in Kurdistan."

Life in Kurdistan, however, is politically dominated by two parties--the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)--which fought a civil war and partitioned the territory between them in the 1990s. Without their support, a referendum is unlikely to get much traction. The party leaders in turn recognize that independence is not practicable right now, given the opposition of the United States, neighboring countries, and other Iraqis. "As a people, we have a right to self-determination, but we are condemned to terrible geopolitics," explains Barham Salih, prime minister of PUK Kurdistan. "We have two options: Either we commit to this dream, or we do something tangible and seek a federal, democratic Iraq."

Even as they sit on the Interim Governing Council, however, Kurdish leaders are sufficiently savvy to realize that the threat of a freely organized referendum--which would almost certainly give democratic imprimatur to the widespread Kurdish desire for independence--gives them leverage in Baghdad. Thus, the KDP and PUK have refrained from adopting a formal position on the referendum, while warning, off the record, that "we will have no choice but to support the referendum if the Americans do not give us what we need," in the words of a KDP minister.

"The Kurds have adopted Yasser Arafat's post-Oslo strategy," explains one CPA official. "Agree to whatever Baghdad wants, but do not prepare the population in any way for a compromise. Then, when push comes to shove, say that the people will not accept such a compromise."

These maneuverings on the referendum fit into a broader pattern of assertiveness by the KDP and PUK, which have calculated that the United States, in its mad dash to return sovereignty to Iraqis by summer and its preoccupation with the violence in the Sunni Triangle, has limited enthusiasm for meddling in an otherwise stable north. In addition to playing a leading role in derailing the Turkish troop deployment in November, the Kurds now appear to have strong-armed Washington into accepting federal autonomy at least through the transitional period.

In the eyes of some, these are just deserts for a people, who--having been gassed by Saddam Hussein and harried by Islamic terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda--can now assume their rightful place as America's natural allies in the post-9/11 world. "The Kurds participated in the coalition against Saddam Hussein. They helped liberate the country," insists Col. Dick Naab (ret.), who ran "CPA North," responsible for Iraqi Kurdistan, for nine months last year.