- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Stability will set in when basic rights are recognized In what might be called a tragic irony, Wajeeh Barzani, a son of the late Kurdish leader Mula Mustafa Barzani, was critically injured in a friendly fire incident in northern Iraq April 6. It is tragic, because as he and his Kurdish peshmergas — “those who face death” — were advising U.S. special forces about Iraqi targets in the moments before the attack, the foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey were meeting in Ankara to conspire against his people — the long-suffering Kurds of Iraq. Wajeeh Barzani and thousands of Iraqi Kurds have literally put their lives on the line to assist American forces in liberating Iraq. They have done so because they believe that President Bush will keep his promise to liberate the Iraqi people and ensure that a federal, pluralistic and democratic system of governance emerges out of the ashes of Saddam’s Iraq.As President Bush rightly recognizes, regime change in Iraq does not assure the end of dictatorship and aggression; it does not guarantee a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq at peace with its own citizens and its neighbors. Any roadmap for a peaceful transition in Iraq must take into account the multiethnic, multireligious nature of Iraqi society. Iraqis and their American partners in liberation must commit themselves to establishing a system of governance rooted in the principle of pluralism.Since the establishment of the British Mandate of Iraq in 1921, the Arab Sunni community — some 15 percent to 17 percent of the population — has ruled with an iron hand over a multiethnic, multireligious society in which Kurds outnumber Sunni Arabs and Shi’as form the largest communal group. Turkey and Iran — who see eye to eye on very little with respect to foreign policy concerns — are in complete agreement when it comes to their mutual obsession with what they perceive as their common “Kurdish problem.” Why? Turks and Iranians, who have yet to provide full political and cultural rights for their own Kurdish communities, fear that the decade-long Kurdish experiment in democracy and self-rule which has flowered in the Kurdish autonomous enclave in northern Iraq will be institutionalized through a federal arrangement with a new central government in Baghdad. A new Iraq in which Kurds express their internationally recognized right to self-determination through a federal arrangement with Baghdad constitutes an existential threat to states like Turkey and Iran whose vision of national identity is rooted not in concepts of citizenship, pluralism or common values but in exclusionism. Reza Pahlavi and his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey adopted a late variant of European nationalism — known as “official nationalism” — in which national identity was constructed on the basis of ethno-linguistic factors — Persian language and culture in the one case and Turkish in the other. Constructing a national identity on this basis in a homogeneous society is one thing — imposing it on a heterogeneous reality is yet another. Thus, as recently as the early 1990s, Turkish diplomats in Washington were still referring to Turkey’s large Kurdish community as “mountain Turks.”A key question here is whether the current model for maintaining stability in the Middle East, predicated on U.S. support for friendly autocratic states, will cause the Bush Administration to back away from the challenge of constructing a federal, pluralistic and democratic Iraq. There is a precedent for this. In 1991, the first Bush administration made a strategic decision not to support the Iraqi uprising due to concerns about the stability of key U.S. allies in the region — Turkey and the oil-producing Arab states. U.S. troops in Iraq stood on the sidelines as Saddam’s security apparatus brutally crushed the uprising that was spearheaded by Kurds in the north and Shi’a in the south. Contrary to the model of stability embraced by the first Bush Administration in 1991, real stability emerges from meeting the basic human needs of a society, including political and cultural rights for all ethnic and religious communities. While regime change can open the door for transition to a pluralistic democracy in Iraq, the transition process will only succeed in the long run if it is an indigenous process — rooted in the active participation of a broad spectrum of Iraqis in the political process. Although no one can yet speak for some 20 million newly liberated Iraqis, the 4 million Iraqis in the Kurdish autonomous zone have been free to express their views for a decade. They overwhelmingly support a democratic and federal Iraq and are now debating the fine points of a new Iraqi constitution in their regional parliament. Likewise, since 1992, the Iraqi opposition in exile — including the Iraqi National Congress — has been consistent in its support for a democratic and federal Iraq, precisely because it recognizes that Kurds and Shi’a must have a place at the table and that federalism is the best framework for governance in a pluralistic society.The creation of the Kurdish safe haven and northern no-fly zone in 1991 produced a unique situation in which democratization and civil society-building have begun to take root through the efforts of the Kurdistan regional government and the millions of Iraqis who live in the protected region. The Kurdish experiment in democracy can provide a model for the rest of Iraq in the transitional phase. Moreover, there are important lessons to be learned from it. The critical role of Turkey and Iran in fueling the intra-Kurdish civil war during the mid-90s should be revisited by American policy-makers and Iraqis alike. Likewise, there are lessons to be drawn from examining how pressure from below — the role of ordinary citizens — influenced the process of negotiation and compromise between the Kurdish leaders that resulted in the power-sharing arrangement that exists in the safe haven today. Given the failure of the United States, Europe and the states in the region to confront the regime’s history of crimes against the Iraqi people, a pluralistic, democratic and federal post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is a clear moral imperative for the United States. Carole A. O’Leary is an adjunct research professor with American University’s School of International Service.

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