- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

Iraq’s Kurds are deeply unsettled about their future following the failure of a U.N. resolution to endorse a preliminary constitution ensuring their rights, according to a leading Iraqi Kurdish politician.

Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurd who served on the recently-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council, said in an interview Friday that Kurdish leaders had pressed U.S. officials for months to have the U.N. resolution explicitly refer to the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), an interim constitution that gave the minority Kurds a strong measure of self-government in the north, the right to maintain a separate army, and an effective veto over the terms of a final constitution.

“It was a big mistake and a big disappointment for us,” said Mr. Othman, who was interviewed while attending a daylong conference at American University on the problems facing Iraq when the U.S.-led occupation of the country gives way to an interim Iraqi government July 1.

“The U.S., which we see as our friend, has just gone from mistake to mistake on Iraq in the past few months,” he said.

U.S. and British diplomats, who agreed to several changes in the effort to win unanimous U.N. approval of the resolution last week, said the resolution endorses a federal, democratic Iraq that Kurds say they want, even without explicit mention of the TAL.

But they acknowledge that Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who has emerged as the most influential voice among Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population, had demanded that the TAL be dropped from the resolution. Many Shi’ites believe the transitional constitution cedes too much power to the Kurds, who make up less than a fourth of Iraq’s population.

Prominent Iraqi Kurdish leaders said last week they will boycott the interim government taking power in July, and to show their displeasure they refuse to cooperate with Baghdad.

Nesreen Mustafa Sideek Barwari, a Kurd who serves as minister of municipalities and public works in the Iraqi government, said leading Kurdish politicians have actually understated the distrust and unhappiness of ordinary Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdish minority, strongly pro-United States even under Saddam Hussein, has long been persecuted by the central authorities in Baghdad and by other powers in the region worried about their own restive Kurdish minorities.

“In the rest of Iraq, the TAL is seen as very favorable to the Kurds, I know,” Mrs. Barwari told the AU conference. “But when I go back home, I have a hard time defending even the TAL because people don’t think it will be enough to protect them.”

Peter Galbraith, senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, said the failure of the U.N. resolution to mention the TAL would have major consequences. The work of the outgoing U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority under international law loses all effect with the passage of the U.N. mandate, he said.

“We could have gotten the TAL mentioned explicitly in the new resolution if we had wanted,” he said. “The work of the last two weeks has just brought us closer to the breakup of Iraq. The United States had a choice and we chose Ayatollah al-Sistani.”

But Noah Feldman, the New York University scholar who was the chief U.S. adviser on the drafting of the TAL, said Kurdish fears that the new constitution would ignore their concerns were overblown.

Mr. Feldman said the maneuvering over the text of the U.N. resolution was “troubling,” but added: “In the end, nobody is going to be able to impose on Kurdistan a constitution it doesn’t want. There are a lot of intelligent people among both the Arabs and the Kurds, and everybody understands that.”

But the conference demonstrated again and again that the country’s Kurds feel deeply uneasy about their place in Iraq’s future.

“The Kurds are very much concerned that they are going to be used as pawns in the interests of the superpowers once again,” said Edmund Ghareeb, a Kurdish scholar at the American University Center for Global Peace.

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