Constructing Kurdistan: Why shouldn’t Iraq become a bi-national fed?

Constructing Kurdistan
Why shouldn’t Iraq become a bi-national federation?

Dr. Brendan O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science and
director of Penn’s Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical
Conflict, is working until the summer as a constitutional advisor to
the Kurdistan Regional Government. His office is in the Kurdistan
National Assembly at Hewlr, as it is known in Kurdish, or Erbil, as it
is called by Arabs and Turks. Together with Khaled Salih and John
McGarry he is editing The Future of Kurdistan for the University of
Pennsylvania Press.

In the first of three letters, O’Leary describes his impressions ofthe
Coalition Provisional Authority’s conduct. His next letter will focus
on Kirkuk; the last will focus on the nature of Kurdistan.

By Brendan O’Leary

One of the purposes of Penn’s Solomon Asch Center is to assist in the
reduction of national and ethnic conflict, which is why I accepted the
invitation to act as a constitutional advisor to the Kurdistan
Regional Government and the Kurdistan National Assembly. My brief is
to advise on federation, power-sharing, electoral systems, the
protection of minorities,and the planned transitional law.

The Kurdistan entity currently comprises four million people, mostly
Kurds, but also small numbers of Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and
Arabs. It was established in strange circumstances after the 1991 Gulf
War. The United States and the United Kingdom had just failed to
support the Kurds’ uprising against Saddam Hussein-though they had
encouraged it. Saddam’s bloody revenge prompted a mass Kurdish exodus
from Iraq that was only halted when international public opinion
forced the U.S. and the U.K. to create a `safe haven’ and a `no fly
zone’ in what was misleadingly called `northern Iraq.=80=9D The safe
haven eventually led to an autonomous Kurdish government, shielded
from Saddam, but without formal international recognition.

The territory of Kurdistan in Iraq is less than the full region where
Kurds are-or have been-demographically dominant, and less than the
unit that Saddam Hussein was willing to concede during autonomy
negotiations with Kurdish leaders between 1970 and 1974.

`Actually existing Kurdistan’ is also much smaller than =80=9CGreater
Kurdistan.’ The latter is the dream of the wider Kurdish nation. It
describes the entirety of `the land of the Kurds’ under the Ottoman
Empire that was partitioned after World War I. It was entirely
digested by four consumers: Turkey, Iran, and the new inventions of
Syria and Iraq (then respectively under the control of the French and
British empires). European decolonization of the Middle East after
World War II left the Kurds as the largest nation in the Middle East
without a state of their own. Since then Kurds have been subjected to
coercive assimilation and expulsion by the four governments that have
attempted to digest them, and to genocidal assaults by both Turkish
and Iraqi governments; and both British and American governments have
betrayed commitments they gave to successive Kurdish parties,
especially the Kurds of Iraq.

Erbil, the place from which I write, was a sea of tranquility by
comparison with the rest of the former Iraq-until February 1 of this
year, when the headquarters of the two main parties, the Kurdistan
Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, were destroyed
by suicide bombers, leaving over 100 people dead. Among those killed
was Sami Abudulrahman, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Regional
Government and the Secretary of the KDP, a man with whom I worked, and
whom I deeply admired. The impact of these bombings on the local
population has been similar to the impact of September 11 in the
U.S. Our negotiating team is still recuperating from our deep losses.

`Well sir, I wouldn’t start from here,’ is the response attributed to
the proverbial Irishman interrogated on the right road to take. True
to my national origins, that’s the first advice I would give American
and British officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of
Iraq, and their overseers in Washington and London.

The CPA is bunkered inside Saddam’s major palace, more insulated from
the surrounding societies than the ousted dictator was. It rapidly
dissipated the goodwill the Coalition enjoyed in liberating Iraq’s
Arabs, Kurds, Chaldo-Assyrians, Turkomen, Muslims, Christians,
Yazidis, and Jews from Saddam and his party, the Ba’athists.

The CPA’s officials mostly can’t speak Arabic, but their decrees are
translated into Arabic. They do not even attempt to have their
regulations translated into Kurdish, though it is the mother-tongue of
between a fifth and a third of the former Iraq’s population. Soldiers,
KRG officials, and NGO personnel tell me that the CPA’s officials
spend more time signing and being lobbied for contracts than in
evaluating their merits. The American Army has a counter-insurgency
program in Arab regions, especially Sunni Arab dominatedregions; the
best that can be said of it is that it is producing more results than
the search for weapons of mass destruction. Judging by their published
or leaked outputs, the CPA has spent little time seriously reflecting
on constitutional reconstruction or design.

British officials of the CPA play to their national stereotypes:
scoffing at Americans’ alleged naÃ’veté behind their backs,
but otherwise displaying full deference towards the world’s
hegemon. They think they have superior wisdom; it’ s true that they
are more accustomed to govern other peoples. The other members of the
`coalition of the willing’ play symbolic rather than substantive
roles: Denmark, for example, has 200 troops in Iraq, rehabilitating
buildings in Basra. The `coalition’ moniker adds a veneer of
internationality to what is in fact government by `the special
relationship’ that the British always want, to the mild embarrassment
of the Americans. Yet there is nothing special about the caliber of
their joint governance. The British are usually a week behind their
American colleagues, holding loyal to a policy line that has often
just been re-appraised, unknown to them, in Washington.

The CPA is mocked even by its own officials as Can’t Provide
Anything. It veers between the options preferred by different factions
in the Republican administration in Washington: those who want a
sustainable democratic and liberal reconstruction of the former Iraq,
and diverse others, mainly in the State department and the CIA, who
are bent on no more than achieving presentable` stability,’ securing
America’s perceived material interests, placating Turkey, a quick
exit, and handing any outstanding embarrassments to that convenient
scapegoat known as the United Nations.

The one achievement of American crisis management that is apparent to
me is that American TV and Web-pages regularly count only the daily
American military war dead-and not the daily toll of local civilians
killed by all agents to the conflict.

The CPA has created a Governing Council which does not govern, and
does not act as a council. Its business is conducted in Arabic. Its
internal procedures are chaotic and opaque, and its resolutions are
frequently vetoed by =80=9CThe Administrator,’ as L. Paul Bremer III
is officially styled. He is said often to remind the Council before it
begins `deliberations,’ through a translator, that he has this veto
power. He is said to be tough, but insensitive. Visiting Kurdistan, he
asked, `Who is that?’ on seeing the ubiquitous portrait of Mustafa
Barzani. This would be analogous to a foreign diplomat visiting
America and asking `Who is that?’ on seeing a portrait of George
Washington. As I write, he has not yet vetoed an outrageous resolution
(passed at the end of December in the absence of representatives from
Kurdistan) repealing secular marital laws that benefit women in favor
of chauvinist propositions from the Shari’a, presumably because he
does not want to hand an issue to Islamists.

There are two merits to the Governing Council. One is that it contains
the embryo of an authentic collective presidency, an institutional
arrangement that might serve a future federation quite well. But given
its overly large composition (25 members plus 25 substitutes), and its
poorly defined relationships to the CPA and 25 `ministries’ in
Baghdad, it does not resemble a functioning executive. The second
merit is the attempt to make it representative=80’in the absence of
the possibility of well-administered elections-of the peoples of the
former Iraq. Shi’a Arabs (13 councilors) and Sunni Arabs (five)
andKurds (five) are on the council in rough approximations to their
estimated demographic shares, and smaller minorities (two) are also
present. But only three womenwere appointed by The Administrator, and
one of them has been assassinated=80’and not replaced.

There was little evidence that the Shi’a or Sunni councilors were
politically representative when they were appointed, though the
perceived power of some them has since grown. The most powerful Shi’a,
Iranian-born Ayatollah Sistani, sits at home issuing fatwas-to which
Governing Council members and Americans feel obliged to respond. The
leaders of the two largest Kurdish parties, Massoud Barzani and Jallal
Tallabani, by contrast, represent organizations that have won the
lion’s share of past votes in Kurdistan. The exiled politicians, Arab
refugees from Saddam’s rule, initially brought in to guide the CPA are
seen, however unfairly, as collaborators.

The CPA’s staff, in the absence of any deep knowledge of the societies
they are charged to govern, and lacking any well-grounded advice from
representative politicians among the Arabs, operate as if they are in
America-on the presumption that a future Iraq should want to be like
the America they think they know. They say that `All should be
Iraqis,’ just as =80=9CWe are all Americans.’ They insist that Iraq
is, or at least should be, a nation, when it is just the remnants of a
state. They make the standard error of students starting Political
Science 001, confusing state and nation (a state is a sovereign
independent territory; a nation is a community with a shared political
identity). Iraq has never been a nation. The Ba’athist regime tried to
make Iraq one nation, an Arab nation. Arabization included expelling
Kurds from Kirkuk, moving Arab settlers from the south to the north,
and genocidal poison gassing. Kurds, a different nation by history,
language and dialects, customs and mores, resisted. Iraq is mainly
bi-national, and no future constitution that fails to respect this
reality will be feasible.

CPA officials think that Iraq should have a federation like
America=80=99s, ` non-ethnic’ and symmetrical-that is with each region
being identical in powers. They forget that in the development of
America’s so-called non-ethnic federation, political care was taken to
ensure that each new state had a white, English-speaking
majority. Trying an analogous model in the former Iraq is a recipe for
armed conflict with Kurdistan. Nevertheless, Mr. Bremer proposed a
model of an 18 `governorate’ federation, based on the provinces of
Saddam Hussein, which would effectively have abolished Kurdistan’s
integrity. In return, he received `a flea in his ear,’ as we Irish put
it, from the Kurd leaders.

The largest rump of the former Iraq, demographically and
territorially, was Arab Iraq. It was the site from which the worst
organized racial and religious bigotry, and grossest abuse of human
rights, were organized by the Ba=80=99athists. By contrast,
Kurdistan, a smaller location, was the site of the most promising
experiments in democratic governance and decent treatment of ethnic,
religious, and linguistic minorities in the 1990s, though it was not
without its own internal conflicts.

Given these realities, and the fact that Kurdistan’s soldiers fought
alongside the Coalition’s forces, one would think that a top priority
of CPA officials would be to protect a better-run region from an
overly strong central government. But not so far. The Administrator,
judging by his November-January proposals, thinks that Iraq’s
federation should be even more centralized than America ‘s. Of course,
his and the CPA’s centralist dispositions donot just flow from
misapplication of lessons from American history. Three other
imperatives matter.

One stems from the management of the black gold: oil. Despite the
well-validated criticism of centralized rentier-oil regimes as recipes
for despotism, corruption, or both, the CPA believes that a
well-managed federal government with monopoly jurisdiction over oil
production and its revenues is the best administrative model
available. A conservative economist willing to confirmthe validity of
this belief should be genetically engineered.

The ugly truth is that the attempted promotion of a centralized
`federation,’ including the centralized control of oil and natural
resources, is motivated by a second imperative: an ill-considered
effort to appease both indigenous Arab Iraqi and wider Arab public
opinion. That policy, so the thinking goes, will coerce Kurdistan’s
re-integration into Iraq-instead ofletting it extend its jurisdiction,
and therefore its tax-base, to Kirkuk (on which more in my next

This appeasement policy creates tension within Washington. Those who
want the full-scale reconstruction of Iraq as a liberal democracy know
that building on Kurdistan as it is, or as it might fairly be
expanded, makes the most sense; whereas those who prioritize breaking
the Ba’athist resistance and the Al-Qaeda-related pan-Arab networks,
or who are anxious for a quick exit, want to minimize the difficulties
with Arab public opinion. Their focus is often on America’s electoral

Kurdish analysts of contradictions note that America does not in
general appease Arab opinion in and over Palestine, but rather sides
with Israel, an ethnic and religiously defined state, as its
democratic ally. Yet, as the occupying power in Iraq, they think
America is inclined to sell-out its democratic allies in
Kurdistan. And they find it remarkable that America accuses them of
trying to create an ethnic entity and seeks to calm those inclined to
support Ba’ athists, Shi’a fundamentalists, and the terrorists who
organized September 11.

The last imperative that inclines the CPA towards re-centralizing Iraq
is its officials’ deference towards Turkey, the neighboring state that
still practices coercive assimilation, and still criminalizes requests
for education in Kurdish. Turkey has acknowledged neither the
historical genocide of the Armenians, nor its own genocidal actions
against `its’ Kurds-until recently officially known as `mountain
Turks.’ Turkey is attempting to build a homogenized nation-state
around a Turkish ethos and ethnos. Its officials tell you that
terrorism by the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party of Turkey) is `the
real problem,’ and that a federal Iraq will expand the ambition and
range of Kurdish terrorists. The PKK is indeed a problem, though its
existence and conduct are a predictable reaction to the state it has
raged against. But the PKK is not in any manner supported by the
Kurdistan Regional Government, nor by the two major parties in what
Turkey calls `northern Iraq’-what we here call Kurdistan.

Turkey’s external relations with its neighbors on ethnic matters are
perhaps the exemplary case of national egoism in our world. Its
politicians vary between demanding the recognition of its puppet
protectorate, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or insisting
that any unified Cypriot federation protects its co-ethnics in their
unit, with their own clear majority. But this ethnic stance on Cyprus
does not stop Turkey from having the gall to protest against Kurds in
the former Iraq allegedly constructing an `ethnic unit=80=9D in a
future federation. The CPA defers to Turkish rhetoric, saying, in
English or through Arabic translators, that it does not want an ethnic
federation. Kurds replyby saying that they do not want an ethnic
federation but one that recognizes nationality.

It is disappointing that the culturally blinkered predispositions of
the CPA are reinforced by recent erroneous `wisdom’ in American
political science, one that counsels against `ethnic federations’
(which is how some denigrate Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, and
India). It does not follow, of course, that because some bi- or
multi-national federations have failed that all must doso- just as
mono-national federations like that of the U.S.A. are not guaranteed
export successes (see, for example, the history of much of Latin

Successful multi-national or bi-national federations are the products
of voluntary pacts, created by negotiation, and combine both effective
self-government for nations in their territories and power-sharing for
all within the federal government. What is there to be afraid of in
such a vision?

At Penn I tease students by confronting them with the suggestion that
the state they know least about is Canada, and by claiming that if the
political-science wisdom now prevalent in America was right, then
Canada should not exist. As my friend Professor John McGarry of the
Queens University Ontario observes, the Canadian federation is a
bi-national and bi-lingual federation; it has a distinctive society in
Quebec, both in its legal system and in its ethos, but it divides up
English Canada symmetrically; it permits asymmetry in the powers and
policy decisions of its provinces; it leaves the provinces in charge
of natural resources but has formulae for revenue-sharing; since its
foundation it has had no civil war; it has survived as long as the
U.S.A. has survived since its civil war.

In short, the CPA’s Americans shouldn’t start from an American
template, and its British officials, heirs to the inventors of Iraq,
would benefit from humility. They might reflect more vigorously on
democracies that are not part of the coalition-for example, Belgium,
Switzerland, and Canada. India too, from which the British once sought
to govern Iraq, might inform intelligent thinking on the management of
a postcolonial multi-ethnic state. The Administrator has sought to
preclude such discussion of alternative models of federation before
the creation of a transitional law-though he acknowledges that sucha
law will bias the eventual institutional outcomes.

By the time I write my next letter I hope he and his team will have
stopped trying to tell others where to go. It is they who are here on
sufferance, alienating their friends and encouraging their
enemies. They say they want to go, and to return sovereignty to
`Iraqis’ by the summer. The hotel near where I am writing is the
`northern’ post of the CPA. It is completelybooked by its staff for
the next three years. Was that an error in the contract?

Look for Brendan O’Leary’s future letters from Iraq in the`Gazetteer’
section in May/June and July/August.

© 2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 02/27/04