What do the Kurds want?
Prominent Kurdish politician Mehmud Osman writes about the concerns and aspirations of Iraq's Kurdish population
Following the ousting of former President Saddam Hussein's regime, the Iraqis have been faced with a new reality on the ground, one that has since been dominated by the difficulties wrought by the United States-led occupation. And although it is well-nigh impossible to assess a period of 14 months in one article, I believe the Americans have made many mistakes in the post-war period. They have failed in their attempt to rule the country, and have instead added new complexities to an already difficult situation.
The Americans would have been better off had they allowed the Iraqis to rule the country themselves right after the war ended. The Interim Governing Council (IGC) -- of which I was a member until it was dissolved -- was not a successful experiment because it lacked the powers it needed in order to be able to function independently from the occupation authorities.
As far as my own prerogatives are concerned, I joined the IGC in order to represent the Kurds, and I think it safe to say that during our term the Kurdish members tried hard to work with their fellow Iraqis. I think one of the major fruits of such cooperation was the agreement reached between the IGC's Kurdish and Arab members on the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), issued last March, which recognised the Kurdish language as official, and supporting federalism as an accepted political order in post- war Iraq -- therefore preserving the Kurdish rights for self-rule. But most importantly, the law also rendered it possible to expose and eliminate the policies of ethnic cleansing which were followed by the previous regime.
In all, the law addressed many long-standing Kurdish concerns, while constituting a good step towards a national reconciliation between Iraq's two major ethnic groups -- the Kurds and the Arabs. It includes a complete bill of rights. The law is good for both the Kurds and for all others in Iraq because it is based on the idea of having a secular Iraq state in which people will have their rights respected, not violated. At the same time it guarantees the preservation of Iraqi unity -- not by force, but through understanding and cooperation.
The TAL was supposed to be supported by the United Nations Security Council, but Resolution 1546 -- proposed by Britain and the US -- failed to recognise the law at all. This added to the Kurds' disillusionment with recent US policy in Iraq in general. This sense was clearly manifested in the joint memo written by the two Kurdish leaders Masut Barzani and Jalal Talabani to US President George W Bush last month in protest of the occupation authority's failure to include the law in the UN resolution.
This act of protest led to the Kurds being portrayed in a very negative light, especially in the Arab press. I believe that many misperceptions about the Kurds are propagated by the media, when all that this group has been asking for is that its rights must be respected and the history of its oppression must be taken into account in working out the final status and political structure of Iraq.
Meanwhile, we are working to ensure that a united and peaceful Iraq emerges from this dark period and that the occupation of our country comes to an end. We also want to see that government gradually regains control of the country and take us to the first general elections, and eventually form a permanent constitution which ensures that the rights of all Iraqi citizens will be respected and put into effect.
Our more immediate concerns, however, also have to do with the policies of two of Iraq's neighbours, namely Turkey and Iran. Though they may not wish to admit it, the two countries have problems with their Kurdish populations. Based on the difficulties facing Kurds in those states, it seems legitimate to be concerned about any possible Turkish or Iranian meddling in Iraq's internal affairs. For these states think that the Kurds represent a threat to their own national unity and security, and are thus wary of any attempt by Kurds across the region to improve their lot.
But what the Kurds really want is to have their long-standing problems settled once and for all. The legacy of Saddam's regime needs to be redressed, and the history of oppression balanced. The situation in Kirkuk is indicative of a widespread problem: the Kurds who were forced to leave their homes almost 20 years ago want to go back again, while the Arab residents do not want to leave a place they have been living in for so long. In order to address such problems in a fair and just manner, the Iraqi government ought to run a census in those areas so that their fate can be decided in a democratic way.
To those who are sceptical of Kurdish intentions in Iraq, perhaps it should be emphasised that when we talk of federalism in Iraq, we do not necessarily mean to imply that the Iraqi Kurds have separatist tendencies. After all, the Kurds have already been quasi-independent from the central government in Baghdad for the past decade.
It was only after Saddam's fall that the Kurds returned to Baghdad, and that was because we wanted to become involved in Iraq's fight for national unity, but on an electoral basis. According to our understanding of federalism, the central government would be responsible for all issues relating to national sovereignty. In other words, there would be one army, one foreign policy, one Iraq. But within this Iraq there would be a recognised Kurdish entity. There would be no separation, and federalism would only constitute a channel leading up to the achievement of a true and fair unity among Iraqis, rather than a force of division.
Another issue which stirred a heated debate -- particularly in the Arab press -- and led many commentators to question the Kurds' political agenda was the claim about an Israeli presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. As far as I know -- and I would have reason to know, given that I have close contacts with the governments in the two states -- there are no Israelis in Iraqi Kurdistan. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, we did have a relationship with the Israelis, but this relationship was quickly shown up to be both detrimental to our interests as Kurds and outright dangerous, and therefore it is clear that we do not want to maintain it.
I think such claims have originated from agents seeking to drive a wedge between the Arabs -- particularly in Syria -- and the Kurds. Some of this propaganda may have come from Israel itself. We have always welcomed all those seeking to find out for themselves to come to Kurdistan and verify that there truly is no such association. And if there were, the Kurds would have admitted it.
In any case, it seems clear to me that there are much more pressing issues facing Iraq right now. The main problems emanate from the legacy of Saddam's regime and from the occupation of Iraq. Americans troops are still stationed in the country. The violence has by no means subsided.
When qualifying the situation in Iraq, one has to be very careful. Those movements which use violent methods in order to further their cause are by no means homogeneous. As far as I can see, they include foreign terrorists who mainly target Iraqi civilians, police and corporations. The second group is basically composed of those who were privileged during the Saddam years and are seeking to reinstate the old order.
Finally, there are groups of disaffected Iraqis who are simply opposed to the occupation, and their acts of resistance are a natural reaction to the situation that they find their country faced with. They neither belong to Saddam's camp nor to Al-Qaeda. I believe that dialogue should be established with the resistance factions, and that in order for a secure peace to be established in Iraq, their members should be granted amnesty and a sincere attempt should be made at integrating them into the ongoing political process.
For what Iraq needs now, more than anything else, is to press on with its process of national reconciliation. This is the only way to bring stability to the country, and to prepare the ground for a new, democratic Iraq.
Mehmud Osman was formerly chief adviser to the Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani. In 1975, he left the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to form the Kurdish Socialist Party of Iraq. He is now an independent Kurdish politician, and was a vocal member of the now dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. The column is based on an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.