The Kurds Lose Again?

28 July 2009

The Kurds Lose Again?

By Gwynne Dyer

It was a triumph of democracy. On 25 July, in a free election, Iraq’s Kurds finally elected a real opposition party to their regional parliament. According to preliminary results, the Change Party won 25 of the 111 seats in the parliament, breaking the monopoly of the autocratic traditional parties. But this democratic shift also suggests that Iraq’s Kurds are going to lose again.

Lose, that is, in terms of their maximum objectives as defined by their leaders over the past twenty years. Those goals included an independent Kurdish state in what is now northern Iraq, or at least a region so autonomous and self-sufficient that it was independent for all practical purposes. For the government of that country or autonomous region to be self-sufficient economically, it had to control the oil-producing area around the city of Kirkuk.

Achieving such ambitious goals required unshakeable unity, for the Kurds are only six million of Iraq’s thirty million people, and neither the Arabs of Iraq nor their other neighbours, the Turks and the Iranians, like the idea of a Kurdish state. The outcome of this month’s election shows that the reflexive unity among the Kurds is now fading fast.

It is fading partly because younger Kurds are fed up with the corrupt and oppressive rule of their traditional leaders, who have dominated Kurdish affairs for more than a generation. The Barzani family reigns in the west of Kurdistan (Massoud Barzani succeeded his father as the general-secretary of the Kurdish Dem ocratic Party thirty years ago). The Talabani family rules the east (Jalal Talabani created the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan thirty-four years ago and has led it ever since). And both families have become very, very rich.

The families earned their roles by leading the fight for Kurdistan’s independence or autonomy over decades of struggle against Baghdad governments of every hue. The rival parties they created, the KDP and the PUK, plunged the Kurds into a nasty civil war in the mid-1990s, but since then they have cooperated in keeping the Kurdish region separate from the violence and chaos down south.

So long as independence or something very like it was the long-term goa l, the traditional leaders could demand and get the obedience of most Kurds: unity came before everything else. But now that a measure of stability is returning to Arab Iraq, the prospect of Kurdish independence is dwindling – and there is even a dawning suspicion that the KDP/PUK alliance has left it too late to take control of Kirkuk. In that case, what’s the point of leaving them in charge of everything?

The Change Party came out of a split in the PUK, and it won almost half the votes in Jalal Talabani’s home province of Sulaymaniya. Dissatisfaction with the current system is just as great in the rest of Kurdistan, and the KDP/PUK alliance could have lost the whole election= Aif there had been a similar revolt within the KDP.

In due course, there probably will be, because Kurdistan is going to spend the next generation as part of Iraq. One sign of the changing balance of power is the fact that the election on 25 July was not accompanied, as planned, by a referendum on the draft Kurdish constitution, an explosive document that declares oil-rich Kirkuk and other disputed areas to be “historically” and “geographically” part of the Kurdish homeland.

Since those areas are currently under Arab rule, entrenching this claim in the Kurdish constitution would lead to confrontations between Kurds and Arabs. US Vice-President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister No uri al-Maliki both leaned on the Independent High Electoral Commission, which obediently said that “for technical reasons” it could not hold a referendum in Kurdistan on the same day as the election. This was patently untrue, and the Kurds had to decide whether or not to defy Baghdad.

In effect, the central government just said “no” to the draft Kurdish constitution, or at least “not now” – and the outgoing Kurdish parliament meekly accepted the decision. It voted to postpone the referendum indefinitely. That is the new reality in Iraq.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the only time when the Kurds might have achieved their maximum ambitions was right after the US invasion of 2003. To do so, however, they would have had to defy their only ally, the United States, and neither Barzani nor Talabani was willing to take the risk.

Fearing a clash with the Americans, they did not seize Kirkuk and ensure an overwhelming Kurdish majority there when they had the military power to do so. Fearing a Turkish invasion, they did not dare to declare independence. Now they can’t do either, for Iraq has a functioning army again and Kurdistan’s whole budget depends on oil revenues sent north by the government in Baghdad.

This is not necessarily a tragedy. A prosperous, democratic, secular Kurdistan, using its own language and running its own institutions, within a rather less democratic and more theocratic Arab-majority Iraq that hands over a fair share of oil revenues and leaves the Kurdish minority alone, would be an outcome beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations of Kurds.

It is still within reach, if the bitter question of Kirkuk can be finessed. And it doesn’t need the Talabanis and Barzanis at all.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“The families…south”); and (“Since…election”)