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Kurds Deserve a State

June 22, 2003|Shlomo Avineri | Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM — The current difficulties faced by the United States and Britain in building a representative government in Iraq could have been foreseen. If we have learned one thing from watching East European countries struggle to establish democratic systems in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, it is this: Democracy is not easily exported. The job will be particularly difficult in Iraq because of its unique history and its ethnic and religious composition.

Perhaps the starting point to building a relatively nonrepressive society should be an admission that Britain's creation of Iraq in the 1920s by stitching together three Ottoman provinces (Mosul, Baghdad and Basra) into one body politic was far from successful. The enormous social engineering project almost guaranteed Iraq would become -- as it had even before Saddam Hussein -- the most repressive regime in the Arab world.

With a well-defined Kurdish region in the north and a majority Shiite population in the south, the Sunni elites of central Iraq found themselves thrown into the almost impossible task of governing two large groups resistant to their rule. Consequently, Iraq's leaders engaged in almost constant repression and massacres of the Kurds and Shiites, as well as of Turkmens and Christian Assyrians.

Hussein's use of poison gas against his Kurdish citizens in Halabja was only one in a long list of atrocities perpetrated by Sunni-dominated Iraqi regimes against those who were ethnically or religiously different.

The most obvious route toward a less-repressive political culture in Iraq would be to accept the right of the Kurds in the north to self-determination. Just as the Palestinians should have the right not to live under Israeli rule, so the Kurds in northern Iraq should not have to live under Arab rule.

The U.S. and Britain have expressed a commitment to "preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq." But preserving the territorial integrity of a country makes sense only so long as the country remains a coherent entity. When this is no longer the case -- as we saw with both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia during the 1990s -- legitimacy disappears and other alternatives have to be sought.

At this point, the only argument against Kurdish self-determination is one of crude realpolitik: Turkey, with its repressive policies toward its own Kurdish minority, would not tolerate a Kurdish state carved out of northern Iraq.

But just as Israel's territorial claims must not ultimately be allowed to trump the Palestinian right of self- determination, so Turkish claims should not be allowed to trump the rights of the Kurds of northern Iraq to a polity of their own. And after its ambivalent role in the Iraq war, Turkey should carry much less weight with the U.S. than before.

Iraq's Kurds are obviously a nation -- though, like many emergent nations, still in a process of formation. They have enjoyed, since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, some measure of independence, and they have used the experience to build some rudimentary democratic institutions and traditions. Forcing them to abandon these attempts and squeeze themselves back into an Iraqi state where they are unlikely to enjoy the same degree of self-determination could be harmful not only to the Kurds but to the prospects of Iraq as a whole. As we saw in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia -- and even in Czechoslovakia -- attempting to force different nationalities into a single (and often Procrustean) state leads to friction and violence and ultimately hinders democratic development.

Though the atrocities of the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia were unspeakable, there is no doubt today that Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia have a better chance of developing working democracies as independent states than they would have had if the world had tried to keep a dysfunctional nation together despite deep ethnic rifts. And the future of democratic development in Kosovo depends ultimately on the province's becoming independent from Serbia, where ethnic Albanians would always be a feared and oppressed minority.

There is no universal formula for ethnically diverse states, but when a minority is oppressed by the ruling elite, when violent ethnic clashes are commonplace, then minorities have a right to create their own sovereign communities.

This raises the question of oil, which presents both a barrier to a Kurdish state and an opportunity. Iraq has one of the richest oil deposits in the Middle East, and some of it is in the north, where Kurds are in the majority. The dominant Sunni minority in Iraq would not be eager to relinquish petroleum-rich areas. On the other hand, if the Kurds were to gain control of a share of Iraq's oil -- say, by being given control of the oil-rich and once predominantly Kurdish city of Kirkuk -- a Kurdish entity would be much more economically viable.

Even without the Kirkuk fields, the rest of Iraq would still possess enough oil resources to guarantee its population prosperity and economic development on a much greater scale than under Hussein.

Arab public opinion, which has been universally supportive -- and rightly so -- of the Palestinian right of self-determination, will probably see in an attempt to create a Kurdish state another American, if not outright Zionist, plot. It may be difficult to calm such Arab fears. Yet universal values demand granting the Kurds their place in the sun. And the rest of Iraq would then also have a better chance for a bright future.

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