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The new Kurdish struggle 14 septembre 2006

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient.

Mideast Mirror / September 11, 2006 Monday

The battle over raising the Kurdish flag in northern Iraq, is much more than a
struggle over symbols, says Salim Nassar in al-Hayat

Iraqis began pulling down the many statues and portraits of Saddam Hussein that were erected throughout Iraq as soon as the regime was overthrown in April
2003, writes veteran Lebanese commentator Salim Nassar in the pan-Arab daily

Arbil flag: And although most reporters and news organizations concentrated on the pulling down of the statue in Baghdad’s Firdaws Square, that of the statue in Arbil was more significant. This was because the former Iraqi leader had deliberately sought to project his Arab identity through the statue he erected of himself in that Kurdish city as a challenge to the Kurdish people. That was why the Arbil statue portrayed him in an Arab robe and headdress – in contrast to statues elsewhere in the country, which always showed him in western attire.

At the time, reporters who witnessed the destruction of the Arbil statue saw it as an attempt to eradicate the deep-seated fear of Saddam among the Kurds.
Certainly, the behavior of Arbil residents – young and old alike – when they
were dragging away parts of Saddam’s bronze bust revealed much of the scars
caused by the Baath regime to the Kurdish psyche.

For Saddam’s Iraq had come to represent the epitome of Arab chauvinism, to which the very idea of an independent Kurdish state was anathema, and whose policies constituted a permanent threat to the prospects for such a state ever coming into existence.

In spite of the fact that the former Iraqi regime (and Saddam in particular) signed a peace deal with the Kurds in 1970 that recognized the Kurds’ distinct
identity, a climate of distrust made sure that that deal was not implemented. The Baghdad regime pursued a policy of Iraqization similar to the ‘Russification’ policy implemented by Stalin in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan – a policy based on altering social and racial constitutions such that indigenous populations are encouraged to leave. It was thanks to such a policy that thousands of Kurds left Kirkuk to be replaced by Arabs and Baath Party apparatchiks from Baghdad and other Iraqi towns.

On March 16 1988, [Iraqi Baathist leader] Ali Hassan al-Majid used chemical
weapons on the civilian population of the Kurdish town of Halabja. In a
wide-ranging military operation (termed ‘al-Anfal’), the Kurds were subjected
to systematic genocide and more than 180,000 of them lost their lives.
The Baath regime thus continued to oppress the Kurds until after its forces were
ejected from Kuwait in 1991. It appears that the Kurds misread the US position
post-Kuwait, and perhaps that was why they decided to rebel alongside the
Shiites. And since the United States during the first Bush administration was
against the partition of Iraq, it allowed Saddam’s forces to crush the two
rebellions and thwart their dreams of secession.

Yet that did not prevent the UN Security Council from passing a resolution that prohibited Iraqi forces from maintaining a presence in northern Iraq. This allowed Mas’ud Barzani (leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party) and Jalal Talbani (of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) the opportunity to rebuild the Kurdish region and provide its inhabitants with a secure environment.

Under an American-enforced no-fly zone, the Kurdish authorities created a
semi-independent, US- and EU-supported entity. It was natural that this Kurdish
entity – wedged between four hostile countries – should thrive after the
downfall of the Baath regime. This task was helped along by the fact that three
of those countries – Syria, Turkey, and Iran – have since the fall of Baghdad
been preoccupied with efforts to fill the power vacuum created by Saddam’s

Kurdish leaders readily admit that they have learned lessons from their nation’s
painful history since the fall of the Kurdish ‘Republic of Mehabad’ and Mustafa
Barzani’s subsequent rebellion. That was why they restricted their efforts to
developing the neglected north of Iraq.

The Kurdish leadership used the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the influence
wielded by [post-invasion] American proconsuls Jay Garner and L. Paul Bremer to consolidate their political and military hold over northern Iraq. This effort
was aided by the fact that US and British forces have largely been busy
combating the insurgency in hotspots such as Baghdad, Tikrit, Najaf, and Basra.

In the last Iraqi election, the Kurdish parties agreed between themselves to make a strong appearance at polling stations. The result was that they won 75
of the Iraqi parliament’s 275 seats. And despite making up no more than 17
percent of Iraq’s population, the Kurds ended up with five of the top jobs in
the new Iraqi government, including those of president and foreign minister.
On the day Talbani was sworn in as President of Iraq, newspapers reported that
Bremer allowed the incarcerated Saddam to watch the proceedings on television.
It was said that the ex-president was beside himself with rage upon seeing the
former Kurdish rebel take his place at the presidential palace.

In his memoirs, Bremer wrote that he advised the Kurds not to make too many
demands, and not to exploit the protection afforded to them by U.S. forces to
pursue a secessionist agenda. Nevertheless, the Kurds continued expanding their zone of influence well beyond the ‘green line’ defined by the U.S.-enforced
no-fly zone.

Since Saddam’s overthrow, the Kurds have increased the area under their control by about 20 percent – including Kirkuk, where Saddam had implemented a policy
of ethnic cleansing of sorts. When Iyad Allawi became prime minister, he permitted 100,000 of Kirkuk’s former Kurdish inhabitants to return to the
oil-rich city.

Kurdistan Regional Government president Mas’ud Barzani says that the Kirkuk problem will be settled according to Article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution, which states that the city’s fate should be determined through a referendum.
According to Barzani, Kirkuk is the Kurds’ ‘holiest of holies.’ Bremer is said to have been angered by this description; he was reported to have criticized the Kurdish leader by reminding him that one Jerusalem is enough, and that the
world does not need another.

Yet the ‘Kurdish Jerusalem’ is – to Mas’ud Barzani and millions of other Kurds – nothing more than a moral objective. Since his father Mullah Mustafa rebelled against Baghdad, Kirkuk has acted as a unifying force, bringing together various Kurdish factions.

The Kurds believe that they were saved from annihilation by two factors: the fastness of their mountainous country, and the [Kurdish militia] peshmerga. Numbering more than 80,000, the peshmerga (‘those who face death’ in Kurdish) is a militia made up of elements of the PUK and KDP.

However, Mas’ud Barzani rejects the description of the peshmerga as a militia. He says that the Iraqi constitution has settled the issue of its status in a way that does not conflict with the creation of an Iraqi army. As Barzani sees it, the peshmerga will eventually become part of the new Iraqi army, but with the express responsibility of defending the Kurdish region.

In other words, he is against disbanding the peshmerga and merging it with Iraqi army units stationed in Arab provinces. Barzani could have been influenced by the Americans, who encouraged peshmerga deployment in the cities of northern Iraq in order to confront insurgents.

State of warlords: Many foreign correspondents warn that Iraq could well become a state ruled by warlords as Lebanon was during the civil war years, the reason being that – in common with the Kurds – Supreme Council of the Islamic Republic of Iraq (SCIRI) also refuses to disband its Badr militia and merge it into the Iraqi army.

Badr is a 15,000 man Iranian-trained force that SCIRI leader Abdelaziz al-Hakim – a member of the Iraqi government – wants to ensure security in the southern federal entity he intends to set up.

On a visit to Baghdad last week, British foreign secretary Margaret Becket tried
to persuade Hakim not to press for a southern federation until after the formation of a viable Iraqi security force is complete. Becket told Hakim that
Britain will withdraw its troops from Iraq at the end of 2007 if the security situation improves.

But these reassurances did nothing to assuage the concerns of Hakim, the Shiite Alliance, the Sadr current, or other Shiite parties. The reason being that U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad personally attended the inauguration of the fifth Kurdish regional government (a PUK-KDP coalition) and gave it his strong backing.

In that inauguration ceremony held on May 7 Nuchirvan Barzani prime minister of the Kurdish region spoke of economic regeneration, self-sufficiency, and the use of Kurdish as an official language. A UN representative expressed his organization’s support for the Kurdish regional government, which, in his words, represented the first Iraqi federal government.

Observers in Baghdad expect Hakim to renew calls for creating a federation of the south and center, especially after the Kurds announced that they were about to issue passports in their own language – an act which is sure to encourage those seeking sectarian ethnic solutions. The Kurds maintain that the right to use their own language is guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution.

According to a number of Iraqi ministers, the announcement by Barzani that only the Kurdish flag would henceforth be flown in the north was the main reason for this sudden surge of separatist emotions. President Talbani backed Barzani’s
stance, saying that the current Iraqi flag represents the crimes of the Saddam
era, including the repression of the Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north as well as the invasion of Kuwait.

MP Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of the National Dialogue Front, responded by reminding Talbani that it was under the same flag that he was elected president.

Talbani tried to bring the argument to an end by saying that he prefers the idea
of adopting the flag used during the rule of [post-1958 revolutionary leader] Qassim until a new one is agreed upon.

As a matter of fact, during his tenure as rotating president of the Iraqi Governing Council, former Prime Minister Allawi instructed the ministry of culture to organize a competition to design a new flag and compose a new national anthem. But because of the short period IGC members served as rotating
presidents, the issue was referred back to the IGC – which in turn asked
architect Rif’at al-Chadirchi to design a new flag for Iraq.

A prominent Iraqi architect and designer, al-Chadirchi was jailed for two years
under Saddam Hussein’s predecessor Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. The flag he proposed was inspired by the values of liberalism, pluralism, and renewal.

The white background stood for the new liberal era that Iraq was supposedly
embarking on. The two blue lines at the bottom represented the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers. The flag also had a yellow crescent at its center.

In short, al-Chadirchi’s flag avoided any references to such sensitive issues as religion, nationalism, ethnicity, etc. It is hoped that the Iraqi parliament can settle the flag issue by choosing a replacement for the current one before it becomes a cause for destroying Iraq’s future – especially since September 16 is the constitutional deadline for the establishment of new federal entities.

Observers fear that that date would signal the beginning of the end for the Maliki government and its flagship policy of national reconciliation.


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