Iraq: Deadlock by Design

14 March 2005

Iraq: Deadlock by Design

By Gwynne Dyer

Six weeks after the 30 January election that White House press flacks hailed as the “purple revolution,” the new Iraqi national assembly opens (opened) on Wednesday, 16 March — but there is still no new government in Iraq. Partly that is because of the attitude of the Kurds, summed up last month by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in a “New York Times” interview: “If the Kurdish people agree to stay in the framework of Iraq in one form or another as a federation, then other people should be grateful to them.” And partly it’s because the US wrote the rules in such a way that the Kurds would have a stranglehold on the political process.

An opinion poll conducted in Iraq recently by Zogby International showed that 82 percent of Sunni Arabs, and 69 percent even of Shia Arabs, want the US out “now” or “very soon.” (The main reason for the high Shia turn-out in the January election was that their religious leaders told them a Shia-dominated assembly was the quickest way to get the Americans out.) But the Kurds of Iraq, around one-fifth of the population, want the US occupation to continue, as it guarantees a weak Iraqi state and maximum freedom of action for them.

Since Sunni Arabs, another fifth of Iraq’s population, largely boycotted the election, the new national assembly will be dominated by the Shia Arabs and the Kurds The coalition of religious Shia parties, the United Iraqi Alliance, won a slim majority in the new assembly — 140 seats out of 275 — which would entitle it to form a government almost anywhere else. But the rules written for the assembly by former US proconsul Paul Bremer require a two-thirds majority to pick the new president and vice-presidents, who in turn select the prime minister. That means that the Shia party has to make a deal with the Kurds.

The Kurdish parties managed to submerge their differences and offer the voters a single political front, the Kurdistan Democratic Alliance, which won 75 seats in the assembly. Any coalition government in which they are a key partner will not be able to demand that US troops leave Iraq (an outcome that would have appealed to Mr Bremer) — and the Kurds also have a few demands of their own.

What the Kurds really want is independence from Iraq, but their mountainous homeland in the far north of Iraq is next to Turkey, which worries about the separatist aspirations of its own large Kurdish minority and has threatened to invade to prevent an independent Kurdish state from emerging on its eastern border. So for now the Iraqi Kurds are willing to stay in Iraq for a price, but their price is very high.

The Kurds don’t just insist on the presidency (which the Shia have already conceded to them). They want an autonomous Kurdish region that elects its own government, collects its own taxes and decides how much to send to Baghdad. They want to keep their own separate army, the formidable Pesh Merga militia, allowing no other armed forces in Kurdistan without their permission. They want to control all natural resources on their territory and decide how revenues will be split with the federal government.

Moreover, their territory must be expanded southwards to include the Sinjar region, the city of Khanaqin, and the city of Kirkuk. None of these areas now has a decisive Kurdish majority, largely because Saddam Hussein encouraged Arab immigration into them and drove many Kurds north, but the Kurds are demanding the return of all Kurdish refugees to their homes (which often involves the expulsion of their current Arab occupants). Above all, they want the oil-fields around Kirkuk, which produce around half of Iraq’s oil.

It’s a long list, but in effect the Kurds already have it in hand, as they have controlled most of the territory they claim under US protection since the end of the first Gulf War in1991, and now control most of the Kirkuk area too. The new “Iraqi” army that has been created under the US occupation has no ability to drive the Kurds back — indeed, many of its troops in the north ARE Pesh Merga wearing a different uniform — and the US would not allow it to be used in that way anyway.

The Shia coalition cannot contest the Kurdish claims by force — but neither can it accept them without being seen by most Arab Iraqis (including its own Shia supporters) as a traitor to Iraq. That is why it’s taking so long to create a new transitional government in Baghdad, and may take quite a while yet. This is not just petty bickering over government jobs: the basic structure of the future Iraqi state is being negotiated between the Kurds and the Shia Arabs right now (with practically no Sunni Arabs present at the table).

Paul Bremer did not design this whole mess, but he did write the voting rules that give the Kurds an effective veto on any coalition government in the new assembly (and a veto on the new constitution, too, if and when it is finally written). One is tempted to see a Machiavellian calculation here: maybe we lose the rest of Iraq, but at least we get to keep Kurdistan and half the oil. However, the temptation should be resisted. The Bush administration hasn’t even accepted yet that it has lost in Iraq.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“What the Kurds…very high”; and “It’s a long…anyway”)