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Kurds' Soft Sell for a Hard-Won Autonomy

U.S. officials are reluctantly accepting a long-oppressed minority's right to self-rule.

January 11, 2004|Brendan O'Leary | Brendan O'Leary is Lauder Professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs its Solomon Asch Center for the study of ethnic conflict. He also will be a constitutional advisor to the parliament and government of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

It is a maxim of politics that territorial autonomy is begrudgingly conceded by central authorities and ungratefully received by those to whom it is granted. That's one way to understand what is happening in Kurdistan, or what some still call northern Iraq. The Kurds of Kurdistan would like to be independent but will accept autonomy in a binational federation with Arab Iraq. Washington, Arab Iraqis and regional powers begrudgingly concede this emergent reality.

The Kurds are the largest nation without their own state in the Middle East. Greater Kurdistan was partitioned among Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq after World War I, even though it had a better self-determination case than most of the new states created by Woodrow Wilson and his allies. British colonial authorities in Iraq promised local Kurds autonomy in compensation but broke their word to appease Turkey and serve their petroleum interests. In independent Iraq, Kurds experienced coercive assimilation, expulsion and genocide at the hands of successive Sunni Arab-dominated regimes, most recently Saddam Hussein's. This history explains why they aspire to an independent Kurdistan.

Autonomy is the very least the Kurds will accept, and they have had it since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They have the only functioning government and parliament in Iraq. The Kurds were the sole locally organized group to contribute significantly to the recent U.S. war effort. They joined Arab opponents of Hussein to insist that any new Iraq should be federal, with their entity as one of its regions -- with emphasis on the word "one."

In accepting last week that Kurdistan must continue to exist, intact, throughout the post-June 30 transitional period, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the Coalition Provisional Authority's L. Paul Bremer III were recognizing their debt of honor. Yet, they accepted Kurdistan's reality without warmth or enthusiasm.

Kurds will tell you that one doesn't hear the Bush administration condemning Israel and Turkey as ethnic states, but the air last week was thick with proclamations that Kurdistan is -- or will be -- such an entity. Kurds observe that U.S. officials in part defend Israel's right to exist because of genocide against European Jewry, but in the same breath deny the right of Kurdistan to exist because it would reputedly be an ethnic state. That the Kurds of Kurdistan treat their minorities -- Turkmens, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Jews and Christians -- better than the Israelis treat their minorities is ignored. That they proclaim Kurdistan to be for all its citizens, Kurd and non-Kurd, is forgotten.

Kurds also say the same Turkish politicians who condemn Kurdistan as an ethnic entity can be heard insisting -- as vehemently -- that the Turks of Northern Cyprus should have maximum feasible territorial autonomy in a two-unit federation on Cyprus. They are often the same politicians who call for coercive assimilation of minorities into a Turkish ethos and ethnos. That the Kurds of Kurdistan treat their ethnic Turks much better than Turkey treats its Kurds is denied, but it is true.

So, why is Washington's recognition of Kurdistan begrudging?

Coalition authorities in Baghdad want to placate Arab opinion, both among their collaborators and those who resist the U.S. occupation. Arab liberals promote a federation for Iraq based on Hussein's 18 "governorates." It would have the effect of dividing Kurdish-dominated areas among four units. This vision wishfully implies that Kurds would settle for less than what they won by arms from Hussein in the Iraq war. (The regions of Mosul and Kirkuk, historically predominantly Kurdish cities, were mainly liberated by the peshmergas of Kurdistan.)

This vision died last week, and we are watching its funeral. The idea implied that Iraq could become like the United States when it cannot. America was a settler state, which displaced (and expelled) and swamped its minorities, building almost every one of the 50 states of its federation around a white (usually Protestant), English-speaking local majority. America has no historic indigenous people that comprises between one-fifth and one-third of the total federation, with its distinct language and dialects, customs, norms -- and territory.

Arabs and Americans preaching a nonethnic federation to the Kurds of Iraq are whistling in the wind. The Kurds rightly interpret calls for "a nonethnic Iraq" as disguised code for the restoration of an Arab Iraq. They tell the Americans and their prospective Arab negotiating partners to look to Canada, rather than the U.S., for a more appropriate federal vision for Iraq -- a binational federation, a partnership of two peoples, Kurds and Arabs.

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