Iraq’s Kurds Feel Cheated – Twice

The UN Security Council resolution that stamped Iraq’s provisional government with international approval threatens to confront that government with its first crisis. The Kurds are threatening to walk out, dismayed by the omission from the text of any reference to the interim constitution which enshrined Kurdish autonomous rule in three northern Iraqi provinces. The crucial provision was excluded – notwithstanding the Herculean efforts of the two Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani – thus satisfying Iraq’s majority Shiites and most of the Arab world.
Iraqi’s new public works minister, Nasreen Barwari, a Kurd and one of six women in the 33-member government, expressed shock at the UN decision. “All the struggles we made last year are lost…I question how the document stands up legally. If the leadership calls us to withdraw from the government, we will do so.”
The unanimous Security Council vote was hailed by the US as a major breakthrough to international legitimacy for the provisional government, the handover of sovereignty and the US-led foreign troop presence in the country. For the Kurds, it was a second betrayal. Last week, they were handed what they regarded as the short power-sharing stick in Baghdad by the US president’s special Iraq envoy, Robert Blackwill, and UN special Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Both top posts of president and prime minister went to ethnic Arabs.
As long as US administrator Paul Bremer laid down the law in Baghdad, the Kurds were given to understand they would be well looked after in the post-liberation government. For some months, PUK leader Jalal Talabani entertained hopes of the premiership. He had his first rude awakening during a visit to Washington two months ago.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported on May 14, this veteran US ally was brought up short by an unpleasant surprise, the outcome of the Bush administration’s new accommodation with the European Union and the United Nations. He had come for US guarantees for the Kurds’ future in sovereign Iraq. Instead, he found himself under attack, accused of breaking faith with Bremer.
“You undertook not to relocate your people or forces outside present lines,” one US official chided the stunned Talabani. “But that’s exactly what you have been doing, pushing out of those lines towards Mosul in the west and also out in the direction of Kirkuk, Makhmur and Khanakin. This has got to stop before you get into a fight with the locals. They already feel directly threatened.”
Talabani, an astute politician, had no trouble picking up the administration’s subtext: Washington’s cards were now stacked against him, a far cry from his standing in 2003 as the Bush administration’s blue-eyed boy, pillar of US influence and prop of its intelligence efforts in Iraq before and after the invasion. He translated the US turnabout as a move under European influence to undermine his program for merging the two Kurdish entities ruled by himself and Barzani into a strong and united Kurdistan. Washington was now intent on mending its breach with Arab governments, especially those with Kurdish minorities. The way the provisional government was put together was another step in the same direction and its logical corollary was the exclusion of any guarantee of Kurdish autonomy from the UN resolution.
After the provisional government was installed in Baghdad, a senior Arab statesman confided elatedly to DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
“Bush has returned to the old political fundamentalism of the Middle East. It is good for us and it is good for him. “It is a Middle East every Arab leader knows, a Middle East in which we also function best. I am certain that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Syrian president Bashar Assad will support the new president, Ghazi al-Yawar, and trust him not to neglect their interests in Iraq.”
On June 1, Talabani and Barzani voiced their bitterness over the marginal role assigned them in the new government in a personal letter to President George Bush that nonetheless left the door open to bargaining. Here are some telling passages:
“America has no better friend than the people of Kurdistan. A year ago, our peshmerga forces fought side by side with the American forces for the liberation of Iraq, taking more casualties than any other US-led force. Today, Kurdistan remains the only secure and safe part of Iraq. No coalition soldier has been killed in any area controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
“Our (government) has given up many of its freedoms in the interest of helping your administrative authorities reach compromises with other Iraqis.
“We believe the decision to use sectarian quotas for the top two jobs directly contradicts the coalition’s repeatedly stated position that democratic Iraq’s interim government should not be based on ethnic or religious criteria, a position the US wrote into the Transitional Administrative Law (interim constitution).
“The people of Kurdistan will no longer accept second class citizenship in Iraq. In Saddam’s time Kurds were frequently given the vice presidential deputy positions which were window dressing for power. We had hoped the new Iraq would be different for the Kurdish people.
“Ever since liberation, we have detected a bias against Kurdistan from the American authorities for reasons that we cannot comprehend. At the outset, the coalition seized the oil-for-food revenues that had been specifically earmarked for Kurdistan and redistributed them to the rest of Iraq… notwithstanding the fact that our region was the most destroyed by Saddam Hussein. CPA actively discouraged the equality of the Kurdish and Arabic languages…
“Specifically, we ask that:
1. The Transitional Administrative Law be incorporated into the new UN Security Council resolution… (Ed. This did not happen). If TAL is abrogated, the Kurdistan Regional Government will have no choice but to refrain from participating in the central government and institutions, take part in the national elections and bar representatives of the central government from Kurdistan.
2. That the US commit to protect the people and government of Kurdistan in the event insurrection or disorder lead to a withdrawal from the rest of Iraq.
3. That the coalition carry through on commitments to prevent the Arabization of Kurdish lands and move forward to settle the status of Kirkuk.
4. That the oil-for-food revenues unfairly taken from Kurdistan last year be restored in their entirety and that Kurdistan receive its per capita share of the $19 billion in reconstruction assistance appropriated by the US Congress.
5. That the United States support our plans to own and manage Kurdistan’s natural resources.
6. The US and UN will state that Kurds are eligible for the posts of prime minister and president.
7. If ethnic criteria are to be used to exclude Kurds from the two top positions in the interim government, we think it fair that Kurdistan be compensated with a disproportionate share of relevant ministries in the interim government. Signed: Masoud Barzani, Kurdish Democratic Party. Jalal Talabani, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.”
In their letter, the two Kurdish leaders outline areas of possible negotiation on their grievances to avoid a destabilizing cabinet crisis in the short weeks between the installation of the Allawi government and its receipt of sovereignty on June 30. They seek control of Kirkuk, a stake in the oil resources located in their territories and a respectable share of the reconstruction appropriations approved by the US Congress.
Talabani is not without clout in the region should he decide to turn the screw to achieve Kurdish goals. While his support for the United States is not in question, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources note his particularly close ties with the hardline rulers of Tehran where he is a frequent and welcome visitor, and his broad and varied network of international connections.

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