Kurdish Reality in an Emerging Iraq

Kurdish Reality in an Emerging Iraq

Salih, Khaled

The Bush administration’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime from power in Iraq might turn out to be a watershed in the modern history of Iraq and the Middle East. Whatever our personal opinions on this regime change, Iraq’s different national, ethnic and religious groups now have a unique opportunity to redefine, negotiate and reshape the nature of the state, the division of power and what is generally called “Iraqi national identity,” a collective identity that does not necessarily need to have one single group’s symbolism and cultural imagination. A new Iraq would be reconstituted on new bases of legal plurality, decentralization, devolution or what is generally referred to as federation. In this way, dividing power will allow territorial communities to manage their own affairs, control their own resources, and make their own policy choices. The nature of the federation, however, will be the main source of tension and negotiation in the coming year or so.

From a Kurdish perspective, there are several options: independence; a binational federal arrangement already proposed by the Kurds through a parliamentary bill (first issued in October 1992, and then renewed in October 2002); a binational, multiethnic, multireligious and multiregional federation; a federacy; and resistance (in form of military confrontation with the emerging government in Baghdad).

Since independence has not been presented as an organized political demand by any of the major Kurdish political forces in Iraq, there is no clear strategy and negotiation process to talk about. Kurdish leaders, intellectuals and private persons might generally feel that they would prefer to be independent like other peoples around the world. Despite the fact that even this political dream has not been on the agenda of the political parties, neighboring governments and outsiders (academics, journalists and media commentators) have repeatedly over-emphasized this option when they have expressed suspicion about the ultimate Kurdish goals. Some do this because they are not willing to allow the Kurds the same basic rights they demand for their own nations and kindred peoples. Others cannot think outside the dominant paradigm that national self-determination has only one meaning, a sovereign and independent state.

I will argue that national self-determination does not necessarily entail only one option, and that the Kurds in Iraq, like other stateless nations,1 are committed to new forms of national affirmation beyond statehood. They have developed a perspective in which Iraq is viewed as a society with deep diversity,2 thereby demanding not merely devolution of some state competences in a new Iraq but a meaningful recognition of the Kurds as a distinct national community and a stateless nation within a binational, multiethnic and multireligious Iraq. While the Kurds are demanding substantial self-government, they equally want to negotiate an arrangement that will safeguard their influence and political power in the center.

There is a widespread misunderstanding of the terms nation-building, state-building, nationality, sovereignty, statehood and self-determination among politicians and supporters of modernization theories, as well as academics and commentators on current political developments. The most obvious is that American politicians and academics use the terms nation-building and state-building interchangeably because in the American context nation is a synonym for state. In a new book by the Rand Corporation, the authors perpetuate this confusion by calling it America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq.3 Neither the content nor the analysis in the book is about nation-building in Germany, Japan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The issues dealt with are solely about traditional state-building, ranging from security challenges, humanitarian situations, administrative reform and state reconstruction. In this usage, a nation is a state and a state is a nation. But the reality of the modern world rejects this equation.

Others who comment on political developments in Iraqi Kurdistan usually miss the essential point of what has happened on the ground. Typically, when they are sympathetic to the demands of the Kurds, they think within the limits of the modern nation-state, asserting that the Kurds have the right of self-determination, which means the right to secede and nothing more. Kanan Makiya, a well-known writer on Iraq with public sympathy for the Kurdish cause and a representative of the Iraqi National Congress in the CPC (the 25-member Constitutional Preparatory Committee), is a very good example in this context. He has told the International Crisis Group that the Kurds “see the constitutional process purely through the Kurdish prism. They say that the right to self-determination means they have an inalienable right to federalism. I told the Kurds that no, we need to convince the Iraqi people of a federal solution; you only have the right to secede. We’ll support you if you choose independence, but if you opt for federalism, you will have to work with us and develop a workable arrangement for Iraq. Any Iraqi solution necessarily concerns all.”4

Others who give free advice on how to organize the new Iraq are either hostile to the expectations of the Kurds or propose arrangements that do not meet their minimum demands. Examples of the last group are Adeed and Karen Dawisha5 and Hakan Yavuz (in this issue). Without giving due regard to Kurdish political demands and the fact that a great part of Iraqi Kurdistan has been without any direct link to the central government for more than a decade, these writers propose a federal arrangement based on Iraq’s 18 existing governorates. They imagine that this is the best solution for Iraq. To start with, the Dawishas’ proposal is contradictory. While they propose continuation of Iraq’s “present administrative structure, under which the country is divided into 18 units,” they also argue on the same page that “any attempts on the part of Iraq’s Arab elites to once again grant the Kurds autonomy – without also giving them substantial control over their territory as a unit in the federal structure – will likewise be doomed to fail.”6 If the Kurds are “offered” only one territorial unit by the Dawishas, the rest of the units in Iraq could not add up to 17. The more problematic part of the Dawishas’ argument is the fact that the model they advocate is a national federation model, presupposing one people and consequently one nation. But Iraq consists of at least two peoples and other ethnic and religious groups. Their examples of national federations, the United States and Germany, are different from Russia and the United Kingdom.7 Hakan Yavuz, more or less dismisses Kurdish nationalist demands by portraying Kurdish nationalism as an archaic, narrow-minded, tribal, ethnic, divisive movement in the service of neoconservatives in the current Bush administration. he is willing to give the Kurds “the right to full self-determination,” only “if Iraq becomes another authoritarian entity in the hands of Sunni or Shiite Arabs.” Throughout his article he proposes, in a state-centered Jacobin tradition, a unified Iraq without considering the political struggle of the Kurds since the creation of Iraq at the beginning of 1920s.

Looking at the future of Iraq from the constituent components of its society, it should be self-evident that representatives of various groups must decide on the future of their state and societies. A viable federal model might be a binational, multiethnic, multireligious, pluralist state based on consociation.8 From a Kurdish perspective, any future arrangement must be based on renegotiation of the constitution, political system, distribution of power, geographic demarcation and institutional barriers to nullify any signed agreement. One has to remember that the Kurds have consolidated their national identity in recent years, partly because of international circumstances, partly because Saddam Hussein decided to withdraw government institutions from Kurdistan, and partly because the Kurds were forced by necessity to strengthen their emerging institutions. These new institutions have become primary political reference points for the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan. The political parties, despite competition and internal fighting, have moved towards a post-sovereign stance.9 In their proposed negotiations they have come up with ideas that might be radical not only for Iraq but for the whole Middle East. The Kurdish proposals for constitutional negotiations are about shared sovereignty and multiple spheres of action, not an ‘exit’ strategy for independence, as viewed by Hakan Yavuz. In this context, Kurdish nationalism is developing along the lines of what Michael Keating calls “a new form of nationalism,”10 that shares an important feature with classical nationalism, a belief in the right of self-determination despite internal divisions.

For a variety of reasons, Kurdish leaders in Iraq decided to “return” to Iraq, after more than a decade of de facto sovereignty. But their return is rooted in their belief that any future association with the rest of Iraq must be a voluntary arrangement and the product of a pact that is now open for renegotiation instead of imposition and subjugation. The Kurds have now embraced the idea that national self-determination implies that they can decide their own future in a voluntary federation as long as other groups in Iraq are willing to negotiate. If they fail to achieve that goal, they have equally the right to propose a federacy,11 in which Iraqi Kurdistan will have a federal relationship with the central government but will leave it to other groups in Iraq to decide their own future, whether they go for centralist, governorate-based units or other options. At the same time, Kurdish leaders are painfully aware of the fact that if they opt for independence, their geography and power bases are strongly against them. In such an unlikely situation, independence goes most probably through a military confrontation not only with Iraq, but with neighboring states and possibly with U.S. forces. It is difficult to imagine that Kurdish leaders would undermine their best chance to renegotiate their future and throw themselves into another wave of political violence.

1 M. Keating, Nations against the State. The New Politics of Nationalism in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland (New York: Palgrave, Second Edition, 2001).

2 C. Taylor, “The Deep Challenges to Dualism,” Quebec, State and Society, 2nd Edition, ed. A.G. Gagnon (Scarborough, Ontario: Nelson, 1993); C. Taylor, “Why Do Nations Have to Become States?” Reconciling the Solitudes. Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism, ed. C. Taylor (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).

3 J. Dobbins, J.G. McGinn, et al., America’s Role in Nation-Building. From Germany to Iraq (Santa Monica, Rand, 2003).

4 ICG, Iraq’s constitutional challenge, Middle East Report No. 19, November 13, Brussels and Baghdad, lnternationl Crisis Group, 2003.

5 A. and K. Dawisha, “How to Build a Democratic Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 3, 2003, pp. 36-50.

6 Ibid.

7 J. McGarry and B. O’Leary “Federation, Conflict-Regulation and National and Ethnic Power-Sharing,” paper prepared for delivery at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 2003.

8 B. O’Leary, “Multi-national Federalism, Power-Sharing, Federacy and the Kurds of Iraq,” The Future of Iraq and Kurdistan, eds. B. O’Leary, K. Salih and J. McGarry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

9 M. Keating, Plurinational Democracy. Stateless Nations in a Post-Sovereignty Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

10 M. Keating, Nations against the State. The new politics of nationalism in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland, op. cit.

11 B. O’Leary, “Multi-national Federalism, Power-Sharing, Federacy and the Kurds of Iraq,” op. cit.

Khaled Salih, University of Southern Denmark

Copyright Middle East Policy Council Spring 2004

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