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June 9, 2004
Kurds May Pull Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory

Winston Churchill once said that one of his great regrets after World War I was the failure of the Great Powers to establish an independent Kurdistan out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. In the 80 years since the settlements from the Great War, the Kurds have been instead relegated into minority status in a number of countries, including Iraq, and most of them dictatorships (Turkey is the only exception). As a result, Kurds rarely achieve any political power, partly due to their fierce independence and unwillingness to assimilate, but mostly due to the attitudes of the dominant cultures in each of these countries.

In Iraq, the Kurds have enjoyed a level of self-government the past twelve years never experienced in their history. Due to the cease-fire arrangements, the US and UK kept Saddam from exercising any authority in Northern Iraq, where Iraqi Kurds instead established an autonomous representative democracy. Due to this twelve-year experience, the Kurds fought strongly to retain their autonomy in the Irqai Governing Council's debates to draw up an interim constitution, guaranteeing a federal system with certain vetos for the Kurdish provinces that annoyed the Shi'ite majority.

Now, however, some Kurds want to throw away all of their political gains and established goodwill with the West simply because the UNSC resolution doesn't explicitly endorse the interim constitution under which the newly legitimized Iraqi government runs:

Kurdish members of Iraq's government will resign if called upon to do so by their leaders after the failure of the latest U.N. resolution to recognize Kurdish autonomy, a senior Kurdish minister said Wednesday. "If the leadership calls on us to withdraw from the government, then we will do so," Public Works Minister Nasreen Berwari told Reuters.

"All the struggles we made last year have been lost...we've seen how democracy can be usurped," she said in reaction to the Security Council resolution, unanimously passed late Tuesday. ...

Before the U.N. vote, Talabani and Barzani, who lead the PUK and KDP parties respectively, threatened to withdraw Kurdish officials from the interim government, said Kurds would not take part in national elections next year and would "bar representatives of the central government from Kurdistan."

Not to hit this with a rhetorical sledgehammer, but the Kurds have to have lost their minds if they believe that this deliberately general resolution has any meaning at all towards their negotiated status. The resolution does endorse a "united federal republic" for Iraq, which is what the Kurds wanted and received. Moreover, the UNSC resolution recognizes the new interim governmeant as constituted, and expresses no new conditions for it to meet except to hold elections as soon as possible. It doesn't even spell out when foreign forces have to depart, leaving that for the Iraqis to work out with the CPA.

Fortunately, not all Kurds have succumbed to the dog-in-the-manger strategy. The new Iraqi Foreign Minister, a Kurd, acknowledges the UN's position that the UNSC resolution recognizes the de facto arrangements in their constitution:

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the first Kurd to hold the post, said he had lobbied unsuccessfully for the interim constitution to be acknowledged in the resolution during his meetings with the Security Council last week.

But he said he was satisfied that the "spirit of the Transitional Administrative Law" was there.

The Kurds have reached new heights of self-government and are on the brink of being real players in a united an federal Iraq. Their political parties, however, may take them off a cliff if they don't drop the all-or-nothing tactics they currently exhort. The Kurds' best hopes can only be realized through representative, democratic republics in a federal system that allows for autonomous provinces, and they can only hope to have that system succeed in Iraq by retaining their friendships with the West as the Iraqi system becomes permanent.

In that sense, the UNSC resolution is irrelevant; the UN will recognize just about any permanent government in Iraq that has the backing of the Shi'a there, simply because they comprise 60% of Iraq. The Kurds would do better to work within the system they've already built than to take their ball and go home now. Otherwise, they will isolate themselves and probably wind up very displeased with the results. Their history instructs them to avoid engagement, but in this case their history does not apply.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 9, 2004 5:35 AM

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