- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2005

Today the Iraqi people are scheduled to receive a draft constitution to approve or reject by popular referendum. The U.S. government has been preaching for years now that the new Iraq should be one that respects the rights of all citizens, and does not oppress anyone based on ethnicity, religious affiliation or gender. If the final constitution is not significantly adjusted, oppression is not only allowed but is expressly called for.

The Kurds are being asked to pay with their freedom for being our staunchest ally. And the Kurdish women under this new constitution would suffer a second loss of freedom simply because of their gender.

In the first phases of the war, U.S. Special Forces along with the Kurdish fighters began the ground assault to expel the forces of Saddam Hussein and those of Ansar al-Islam, the al Qaeda affiliate group in Iraq. At the time, assurances were given to the Kurds that the pseudo-independent republic they had established over the last 12 years would remain the democratic institution it had become. The Kurds were assured that they would not live under tyranny and that their achievements would not be rolled back. The international community must act to pressure the drafters of the constitution to enshrine the rights of the Kurds, or all of the good work and feelings will be lost.

Since the first troops landed in Iraq, not one U.S. or multinational soldier has died in the region governed by the Kurdish authorities. In Baghdad, simply being associated with the Americans can result in kidnapping, torture and death. In Kurdistan, the American flag is celebrated. Outside of the “Green Zone,” law is often meted out by religious organizations without regard for due process. In Kurdistan, law is handled by the secular government, with established rules for fair trials.

Recent news from Baghdad has presented a constitutional drafting committee that is deeply divided over very serious issues: the role of religion and the government, the rights of women and ethnic minorities, the role of the central government and others. The disagreements that are emerging from the talks are serious and must be addressed, but instead there has been a war of words from the deliberations.

Amazingly, most of the blame for the contentious nature of the talks has fallen on the Kurdish representatives. They are accused of ignoring Islam and even fomenting civil war. Nothing is further from the truth. The Kurds wants to participate in a secular government with respect for the rights of its citizens and religions. What they are being asked to concede to is a theocracy with oppression of women and minorities as pillars of a new government.

The Kurds have also been accused of fomenting rebellion against a new government through their demand for a federalist government, focusing power in the hands of regional elected representatives instead of a centralized power. This concept is not new and should not be a surprise to anyone. From the first meetings of the Iraqi opposition in 1992, federalism was the main tenet of the system of governance for a new Iraq.

Iraqis have a long history of too much power in too few hands. The ethnic and religious bloodshed that resulted from this power has forever scarred the Iraqis, and makes the idea of federalism a good way of building trust and respect among the different peoples. Allowing groups to rule their own on a day-to-day basis but still answer to the authority of the central government of Iraq is a prudent and mature solution to the prospect of ethnic and religious strife.

When President Bush speaks about the beauty of liberty and the basic human desire to be free, the Kurdish people listen with their hearts. They know well the oppression that befalls a minority population that dares to seek out these ideals when faced with tyranny.

During Saddam’s reign, no one suffered worse than the Kurdish people. But even as their women and children were gassed and their men tortured, the Kurds would not give up on their ideals. They share those ideals with the American people, and because they insist on their inclusion in the new Iraqi constitution, they are demonized as a stubborn and unwilling partner in the drafting process. In fact, they are not unwilling, but they are stubborn. Any constitution that marginalizes the Kurdish people and attempts to roll back their hard-won liberties will be strongly rejected.

The Kurds do not demand anything that the citizens of this country do not enjoy daily. The freedoms that are so often taken for granted in the United States — those of expression, religion, assembly and press — must be part of a new Iraq. Without these rights and the freedom they ensure, Iraq may well join its neighbor to the east and become an unpredictable, anti-Western theocracy. That would be bad for the United States geopolitically, but it is unthinkable for the Kurdish people.

Kathryn Cameron Porter is President of the Leadership Council for Human Rights.

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