Analysis: Iraq’s Shiite-Kurd differences

United Press International
March 12, 2004 Friday 15:06 PM Eastern Time

Analysis: Iraq’s Shiite-Kurd differences


LONDON, March 12 (UPI)

Although Iraq’s interim constitution was endorsed unanimously by the
country’s Governing Council, which represents all sectarian and
ethnic factions, deep divisions are simmering between the Shiite
majority community and the Kurds.

The signing of the document was delayed for three days till this past
Monday due to Shiite objections about the prerogatives and powers
granted to the Kurds, who constitute 20 percent of Iraq’s population
of 25 million.

The Shiite are believed to make up 60 percent of Iraqis.

A source close to the U.S.-sponsored Iraq Governing Council projected
more complications ahead.

“It will be very difficult to achieve consensus between the two sides
over the formation of the future transitional government and the
names of candidates who will enter the enlarged Governing Council
expected to be declared before the official transfer of powers from
the Coalition Authority to Iraqis on July 1st,” the source told
United Press International on condition of anonymity.

The interim constitution will govern Iraq for a transitional phase
until elections are held for a legislative council, which will be
entrusted with drafting the country’s permanent constitution.

The deep differences pitting Shiites against Kurds surfaced on the
eve of the signing of the interim constitution, when five Shiite
council members rejected a clause that fostered Kurdish powers.

“Shiite suspicion about the Kurds’ separatist intentions was the real
and main reason behind their objection,” the source said.

A clause in the interim constitution granted power to two-thirds of
the inhabitants of three Iraqi provinces, referring to Iraq’s
Kurdistan, to veto the country’s future permanent constitution.

The five Shiite council members whose objections delayed the
ratification of the document agreed to sign after consultations with
the leading Shiite religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who
expressed reservations after the endorsement.

The source said the Shiites and Kurds also disagree over several
other issues, including the naming of new Iraqi ambassadors abroad.
This was the cause of a heated debate this week between Foreign
Minister Hoshiar Zibari, a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, or
KDP, and Shiite council members.

Senior Shiite cleric Ayatollah Taki al-Mudarissi said in recent press
comments that the clause that refers to the federation in the interim
constitution is tantamount to a “time bomb” that could cause civil
strife in Iraq.

The clause grants the minority Kurdish community the right to reject
the decisions of the majority Arab population, and consequently the
power to influence Iraq’s future status if they opt for secession.

But Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan, or PUK, and member of the Governing Council, played down
Shiite fears in a recent press declaration.

“It is in the interest of Iraq’s Kurds to choose voluntary union with
the Arab population of Iraq within the framework of national unity
based on democracy, federation and human rights,” Talabani said.

But Kurdish expert and Paris University professor Halkut Hakim
described the powers granted to the Kurds as unprecedented, “whose
dimensions are difficult to predict in a country like Iraq and in the

Evaluating the significance of the event for the Kurds on a historic,
political and moral scale, Hakim said: “It is the third time in
history that the Kurds’ cause and mere existence is placed within a
legal framework — if we exclude the 1920 Sevres treaty, which was
stillborn for both the Kurds and Armenians.”

“The first time was in 1958, when the Iraqi constitution recognized
the existence of the Kurdish people as a separate ethnicity and
community in the country. … The second time was in 1970, under the
self-rule law that recognized officially certain rights for the
Kurds. But the law was annulled four years later,” Hakim said.

At present, Hakim said, “The Kurdish cause was incorporated inside
the official legislation and placed in the preamble of the interim
constitution, which Kurdish representatives helped draft making sure
Kurdish rights are guaranteed.”

He said the document constituted a framework for regularizing future
relations between the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq and the
central authorities “and at the same time protected the institutions
that Kurds have built since 1991.”

Control of the Kurdish north has been shared between the Talabani’s
PUK and the KDP led by Massoud Barzani after breaking out of
Baghdad’s control in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.

Hakim noted that recognizing the Kurdish language as Iraq’s second
official language after Arabic is of major legal importance for the
Kurds since they got their self-controlled enclave in 1991.

On the political level, the interim constitution rallied all Kurdish
factions around it, especially because it was the fruit of efforts by
both leading Kurdish parties, the PUK and KDP.

On a morale level, Hakim said, “one can sense the widespread
jubilation and rejoicing among Kurds inside and outside Iraq over the
consecration of the entity they have created in northern Iraq without
official international or regional recognition.”

“There is no doubt that the new constitution consecrated the status
quo in Iraq’s Kurdistan and added momentum to Kurdish hopes and
aspirations in having their own entity,” he added.

In the meantime, trouble is looming over the controversial clause
that gives fewer than 1 million Kurds in a country of 25 million the
power to veto Iraq’s future permanent constitution.