One-letter Word – Key to Iraq’s Future Stability

The unanimous compromise on Iraq’s draft constitutional achieved late Sunday, February 29, in Iraq’s Governing Council calls for Islam to be the official religion of the country, but not the “sole source” of its legislation. Another clause states that no laws will be enacted in contradiction to the tenets of the Islamic faith. That sounds almost like an oxymoron.
The document provides a legal framework for provisional government until elections are held and a permanent constitution is drafted. Its compilation was essential for the handover of rule to Iraqis at the appointed date of June 30 as promised by the United States.
For the sake of the compromise attained by the 25-member council of diverse faiths and ethnicity, Islam was termed “a source” of legislation and not “the source,” as orthodox Shiite clerics had previously demanded. Indeed, over this very point, eight of the 13 Shiite members stormed out of the constitutional conference and held up the sealing of the draft or two days. The formula agreed means that signing can take place Wednesday, March 3.
The dispute over a single word, the article “a”, is not hair-splitting but a matter of principle. It recalls a similar argument never resolved to this day over a single word in the November 1967 UN Security Council resolution 242 carried 37 years ago. The resolution was designed to put an end once and for all to the armed violence between the Arab states and Israel, five months after the Six Day War in which Jordan, Egypt and Syria lost territory to Israel.
The resolution called for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” and went on to affirm”…the right (of every state in the area) to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
The Arabs claimed “territories” implied “the territories” – hence every inch of territory captured in the war must be relinquished – whereas Israel claimed the locution “territories” without the definite article signified a withdrawal short of total.
The dispute over this one word subsequently fueled at least three full-scale Arab-Israeli wars and numerous military actions involving Israel and the Palestinians, with the Lebanese Hizballah climbing aboard. Therefore, any compromise that depends on the omission of the indefinite article “a” – as does the Iraqi draft constitution, is fragile, at best, and a loaded recipe for future strife, at worst.
This is not just an internal Iraqi problem. The Bush administration went to war to oust a secular tyranny and replace it with a democracy. Nearly a year later, and up against the spiraling savagery of joint Baath guerrilla-fundamentalist al Qaeda resistance, Washington is trapped in the inevitable Middle East clash between Islam and democracy – a far cry from the Bush administration’s vision of a New Middle East.
Explosive Kurdish Question
A similar collision is innate in the textual compromise on Kurdish autonomy.
Although the Kurds constitute only 20 percent of Iraq’s population, their 45,000-strong pesh merga militias and intelligence agencies militia have provided the Americans with a vital prop in Iraq, holding the line of the guerrilla offensive, helping them capture Saddam Hussein and leading US forces to his sons’ hideouts where they were killed. Had the Musharraf regime in Pakistan rendered the same measure of assistance in the American war against al Qaeda and Taliban in its northwest border regions with Afghanistan, Washington might not now be caught up in endless skirmishing with disaffected Pakistani tribes and, if not Osama bin Laden, then Mullah Omar might have been in US hands by now.
Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, leaders respectively of the Patriotic Kurdish Union – PUK, and the Kurdish Patriotic Party – PDK, know exactly how much the Americans owe them. They hardly interfered in the dickering over phrases in the Governing Council, except to ascertain that the Kurdish autonomous status was not spelled out precisely in the document.
The draft endorsed the principle of a federal system of government with the right of Kurdish administered areas to self-rule and the permission to retain their militias in those areas. However, the final map of Kurdistan will be determined after a national assembly is elected. The document is deliberately vague on the pesh merga’s position in the national army and the precise relationship between autonomous Kurdistan and the federal government in Baghdad.
The US administrator Paul Bremer had no choice but to leave these road mines in place.
In the last issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly 147, sources in Baghdad revealed secret visits last by Bremer last month to the northern Iraqi cities of Suleimaniya and Irbid to try and persuade Talabani and Barzani to moderate their demands ahead of the June 30 handover of sovereignty and the run-up to a general election.
Bremer returned to Baghdad empty-handed. He found the Kurdish leaders had bound their contingency plan for northern Iraq with iron staples. (DEBKA-Net-Weekly 140 revealed its outlines on January 2: “Talabani’s Fallback Plan for his Own Kurdistan”)
Kurdish demands were presented to the US in their entirety on a take it or leave basis – or else forfeit the continued cooperation of the Kurdish leadership. They wanted an autonomous Kurdistan in a federal Iraq, a ban on federal interference in internal Kurdistan affairs and the entry of federal armed forces into their region – a prohibition applying equally to American-trained Iraqi forces, and the establishment of a Kurdish army.
On one issue, the two Kurdish leaders were flexible: they accepted that Washington would on n circumstance relinquish control over Kirkuk and its oil fields.
For the rest, Talabani and Barzani again warned Bremer in Baghdad: “Have no illusions. If you object to our terms, we shall declare Kurdish autonomy unilaterally.”
To drive their position home, a group of Kurdish leaders submitted a petition in Baghdad said to have been signed by 1.7 million Kurds that called for a referendum on whether their region should remain part of Iraq.
The Kurdish campaign so irked Turkish leaders that, on the day the Governing Council in Baghdad agreed on its draft, they took the extreme step of canceling the 16 Turkish passports issued to Jalal Talabani and his PUK deputies ten years ago. This was revealed by debkafile‘s sources in Ankara and Baghdad. Barzani was never awarded this privilege. Since Saddam Hussein denied the Kurds Iraqi passports, Talabani and his faction were the only Kurdish leaders able to travel overseas in their people’s cause via Turkey – whether to the United States, Europe or even Iran and Syria.
The Iraqi Governing Council as a provisional body does not issue passports. In any case they would not be recognized anywhere. Washington, preoccupied this week in Haiti, has not had a much of a chance to address the problem of Kurdish travel papers or the Kurdish question as a whole, but it is one that could suddenly blow out of control.

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