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KURDISTAN IRAQ: Federalism comes first

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Citadel of ErbilThe main issue, for the Kurds, is their status in the future Iraq. For once unanimous, the Kurdish political parties conceive only one solution: federalism. "Now we are independent, and we are asking for reunification. Federation is the only solution," claims the PUK’s Berham Saleh. Anxious not "to be left behind by the train," as Massoud Barzani puts it, the KDP put forward a draft constitution for Iraq and for the Kurdish region last autumn. Written by Kurdish constitutional law experts, this 15-page document lays down very clearly the relations foreseen between the Kurdish region and the central government.

Item one of the text, "General Principles of Federalism for Iraq," declares: "Iraq is a federal state with a republican, democratic, parliamentarian and multi-party system called the Federal Republic of Iraq." The envisioned republic will consist of two regions. The Arab region embracing central and southern Iraq along with the provinces of Mosul and Nineveh in the north, but excluding some districts.

The Borders of the Kurdish region

KDP peshmergasThe proposed Iraqi Kurdistan region includes the provinces of Kirkuk, Suleimaniya and Erbil, within the administrative boundaries in place prior to 1968, and the province of Dohuk and the sub-district of Zimar in the province of Nineveh, the districts of Khanakin and Mandili in the province of Diyala, and the district of Badra in the province of al-Wasit. "The geographic boundaries of the region shall be delineated in the Federal Constitution," concludes this section of the draft.

The anticipated federal republic will have a president, a judicial authority and a legislative body composed of two chambers. The National Federal Assembly, elected on a proportional basis, and an Assembly of the Regions, made up of members drawn in equal numbers from the two regional assemblies. On the council of ministers, a prime minister and a number of ministers will represent the two regions in proportion to the total population of the Federal Republic of Iraq. Each of the two regions will have its own legislative assembly, regional president, council of ministers and court system.

Four aspects of the Kurdish draft constitution are eye-catching. Item 14 states: "On the occasion of the election of the president of the Federal Republic of Iraq from one of the regions, then the prime minister of the Federal Republic of Iraq shall be from the other region." In other words, if the president of the federal republic is an Arab, the prime minister automatically will be a Kurd. After declining for decades to play a political role in Baghdad, the Kurds have finally understood that they must first exert power in Baghdad if they ever to do it in their home regions.

PUK peshmergaItem seven of the text specifies that members of government will be selected proportionally to the respective importance of the Arab and Kurdish populations in the federal republic. "Clearly," comments a KDP leader, "it means that the Kurds shall have at least one of the three most powerful ministries–defense, interior or finance.

Kirkuk shall be the Capital

Meanwhile, item five of the draft constitution states explicitly: "Kirkuk shall be the capital of the Kurdistan region," an article which provoked outreage from Turkey.

Finally, item 75 says notes: "The structure of the entity and the political system of the Federal Republic of Iraq cannot be changed without the consent of the Kurdistan Regional Assembly. Action contrary to this shall afford the people of the Kurdistan Region the right to self-determination." Loosely translated, this article means that in case of conflict between the central power and the regional administration, the Kurds will proclaim their independence.

Submitted to the Kurdish parliament in Erbil and to the other political parties of the Iraqi opposition this draft was approved with slight modifications.

But the real problems will begin when the draft constitution is submitted to the Iraqi people, either to the parliament, or directly to the population in a referendum. Until recently, most Kurdish leaders had not considered this eventuality. They were planning to have the draft constitution approved by a congress of the Iraqi opposition meeting somewhere in Europe, or by Washington. Many become disconcerted when presentend with the argument that a draft constitution must be validated by a popular vote within Iraq.

Some Kurdish officials think a federal constitution would be ratified by the Iraqi people, 60 % of whom are Shi’a and have suffered for decades under Sunni-dominated central governments. One official underlined that the Shi’a will compose about 75 % of the population of the envisioned Arab region. "If federalism is implemented, the Shi’a will have the power in their region. So we must play the Shia card."

But most Kurdish leaders are convinced the majority of the Arab population of Iraq, yielding to nationalist feelings, would reject a federal constitution. "The Iraqi Arabs are far too chauvinist," says one. "We cannot take our proposal to an Iraqi assembly. It would be killed off," asserts Hoshyar Zibari. From among the ranks of the PUK, Nour Shirwan states emphatically: "I will never put the federal issue to a referendum. I will not discuss it with the Arabs! The Shias support us so far. But if they seize power, I do not know."

"How could the Arabs reject a draft of a constitution which was approved by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC) in 1992, by the opposition conference in the US this year, and which is supported by the US?," speculates Kosrat Rasul. "If the new system is democratic, they will give these rights to the Kurdish people. We are two nations, we each have our land. We don’t ask for Arab land, but we were here before the Arab people. We have provinces that are bigger than some Gulf states. If federalism is bad, then let the Gulf states become a republic"

Kosrat Rasul acknowledges that if a democratically elected Iraqi parliament rejects the Kurdish project of a federal constitution, options for the Kurds are limited. "If we have a regime which has the support of the US, we cannot say that we shall fight against it. If America supports us, we will ask for more than a federal system." Aware of all these hazards, Roj Shawess, speaker of the KDP’s parliament, concludes that the Kurds cannot leave the responsibility for moving to a democratic government and to federalism in the hands of the Iraqi people. "It is a condition on our side. It should be approved before there is a transition regime, with international guarantees."

For the Kurds, federalism comes first. But the coming days are very uncertain.

(The Middle East magazine, June 2003)

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