Iraqi Kurds consider autonomy

After UN vote, Kurdish leaders threatened to resign from the new government Wednesday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The United Nations Security Council's unanimous endorsement of Iraqi sovereignty this week has been widely hailed as marking the end of the US-led occupation and control. But history may view it as opening an Arab-Kurd ethnic fissure that will ultimately divide the nation of Iraq, say analysts.

Wednesday, the tension between Shiites and Kurds over Iraq's temporary constitution flared with Kurdish ministers threatening to walk out of the newly formed Iraqi government. The dispute over the UN resolution presents the week-old government with its first major internal crisis with three weeks to go before it assumes sovereignty.

Analysts say that the crisis is a symptom of the longer-term problem of reconciling Kurdish desires for self-determination with Arab insistence that Iraq remains whole and undivided.

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"The most complicated issue facing Iraq is that of the Arabs and the Kurds," says Saadoun al-Dulame, executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies in Baghdad.

The Kurdish leadership is furious that the United States and Britain omitted a reference to the interim constitution (known as the Transitional Administrative Law or TAL) in the UN Security Council resolution on Iraqi sovereignty which was passed unanimously Tuesday.

The TAL was excluded largely at the demand of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's preeminent Shiite cleric who has had a major influence in recent months over the transition process from occupation to sovereignty.

The TAL was adopted in February by the now defunct Governing Council to serve as a temporary constitution under which Iraq will be governed until a permanent charter is drawn up by the end of next year. It grants the Kurdish districts of northern Iraq a federal status and a potential veto over the permanent constitution, thus providing some reassurances to the Kurds after decades of persecution at the hands of Arab governments in Baghdad. Kurds comprise about 15 percent of the Iraqi population.

But the absence of any written guarantee that the interim constitution will be honored has sparked fears that it will be ignored once the new Iraqi government formally takes office on June 30.

Last week, Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal Talabani, who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, demanded that Washington ensure the TAL is binding on the new government.

"If the TAL is abrogated, the Kurdistan Regional Government will have no choice but to refrain from participating in the central government and its institutions, not to take part in the national elections, and to bar representatives of the central government from Kurdistan," the two Kurdish leaders said in a joint letter to President Bush.

But Shiites, led by Ayatollah Sistani, have deep reservations about a document that allows a minority group veto over a permanent constitution. Comprising 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million population, the traditionally marginalized Shiite community expects to reap the reward of their superior numbers in the new Iraq.

Sistani warned of "grave consequences" if the TAL was included in the UN Security Council resolution, and thousands of Shiites demonstrated in Baghdad on Tuesday afternoon shortly before the vote in New York.

Haidar al-Sittar, a Shiite student at Baghdad University, says a federal Iraq risks aggravating sectarian or ethnic divisions, citing the example of Lebanon which suffered a 16-year civil war.

"Just like what they [the Americans] did in Lebanon, they aim to do in Iraq by dividing it and starting a civil war," he says.

As top Kurdish leaders met Wednesday to discuss their response to the UN resolution, Nesreen Berwari, a Kurdish member of the interim government, said "Now our future is ambiguous.... The interim constitution would have been the clear and bright road map to all the components of the Iraqi people."

According to Associated Press, Mrs Berwari added that she would resign if asked to do so by the Kurdish leadership.

Even before the row over the UN resolution, the Kurds were unhappy in what they see as an underrepresentation in the new government, says Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish leader and former Governing Council member.

"If I was a party leader and a minister I would withdraw from the government," he says. "The TAL mentions human rights, citizens' rights, women's rights, separation of powers, democracy, federalism, and the Kurdish language.... It's a very good law, and we are disappointed it was not included in the resolution."

The Kurds have enjoyed effective autonomy in northern Iraq since 1991, and many are reluctant to yield their hard-won self-rule to an untested government in Baghdad.

"The Kurdish people suffered during Saddam Hussein's regime. We paid the price and now we want to enjoy democracy," says Osama Hourani, a Kurdish student at Baghdad University. "We all know Kuwait was part of Iraq and they got their independence. We speak a different language and have our own nationality but still we are not allowed this right."

Talk of Kurdish independence causes ripples of concern that spread far beyond the confines of Iraq. Turkey, Iran, and Syria all have sizable, and in some cases restive, Kurdish populations. Turkey has made it abundantly clear that it will not tolerate an independent Kurdistan along its southeast border.

"The Turks and the Iranians don't want Kurdish federalism and they are against Kurdish rights. They think it's a threat to them," Mr. Othman says.

For now, the Kurds say they are willing to remain within a federal and democratic Iraq, playing down their deep-rooted desire for an independent state.

But Mr. Dulame, the Iraqi analyst, says that eventually the Kurds will push for full independence.

"The Kurds are going to create their own state," he says. "It's just a matter of time. What they are doing now is just short-term political maneuvering."

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