Iraq's elections conceal a divorce

The Daily Star
16 December 2005
Middle East | Ali Ezzatyar


The elections in Iraq, which took place yesterday, are for better or worse going to preserve the current status quo. The results are not out yet, but the likelihood is that they will show that Iraqis continued to vote along sectarian lines, with no real vision toward a united country. They will also temporarily draw attention away from the monumental, irreconcilable rift that has developed between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds. Kurds are taking steps to consolidate their future independence; how Iraqi Arabs react once the United States stops providing them with security remains to be seen. 

Control over Kurdistan's natural resources has been a demand of the Kurds since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Perhaps naturally, Iraq's Arab majority has reacted unenthusiastically. During the writing of the Constitution, Sunni Arabs argued vigorously that the country's resources should be shared by all Iraqis, claiming that ethnic control over resources would lead to an unraveling of the country. This was a particularly convenient argument considering the lack of natural resources in Sunni areas, and Kurdish voracity in regaining control of Kirkuk shortly after Baghdad's fall. The exact power structure for resource control remains undecided, particularly with respect to newly discovered resources.

This ambiguity has not prevented the Kurds from being bold with respect to their own territory. In an unprecedented move, the Kurdistan Regional Government recently approved an oil exploration deal near the northern city of Zakho. While bombs were going off in Baghdad last week, in the north ribbons were being cut, inaugurating drilling operations. This was a stark reminder of how wide the gap is between the two parts of Iraq. The ceremony came with a message from the northern region's prime minister: The central government would not get a piece of the pie.

Politicians in Baghdad did not know how to react to the development. Largely due to the surreptitious nature of the deal, there was no prior official discussion of its merits. Given the vagaries of the Constitution on issues such as this, there was no sure way of telling whether the deal was even legal. The drafters of the Constitution intentionally avoided

defining a clear policy on exploration and other similar endeavors. However, this matter cannot be ignored forever.

A recent statement by the president of northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, announcing that Kirkuk would be fully under Kurdish control by 2007, has added to the concerns of Iraq's Arab majority, which is keen to maintain control of resources within the country's borders. A quote from a leading Arab politician in Baghdad is telling: "Kurdistan is running away from Iraq. What is the difference between them and an independent country now?" The difference may, at this stage, indeed be theoretical.

Iraq's Kurds are concentrating on things other than establishing security and stability in their region, making them markedly different from other Iraqis for the moment. It is no accident that the preponderance of new hospitals, schools and government buildings being opened are being given traditional Kurdish names. Iraq's Kurds are consciously setting themselves apart from their Arab compatriots. To that end, there is no support in the north for any non-Kurdish parties.

Instead, once the election results are out, Kurds will most probably have put the same politicians in power who have long used fear of Arab domination to convince their constituencies to tolerate them. The two leading Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party, are seen by most Kurds as corrupt, as well as responsible for much of the disunity plaguing inter-Kurdish relations during the 1990s. However, backing a new leadership is universally regarded today as unrealistic and untimely. This is due to a combination of Kurdish success in drafting the Constitution, but also fear of the spread of instability to the north that would be fanned by the party leaders themselves.

No doubt, Iraqi Arabs, and Turkey for that matter, today have their hands tied by the U.S. with what they can do about the Kurds. But what happens when the Americans leave? Reports that the already emboldened Kurdish Peshmerga forces are being trained by Israelis is not likely to ease their worries. Some have predicted that the liberalism of the new Constitution on federal rights is likely to reduce tensions and prevent violence. This analysis is overly optimistic. The Sunnis' sense of injustice when it comes to the new power balance in Iraq will not be remedied by federalism.

Perhaps only when Iraqis learn to go their separate ways, will there be cause for optimism. Federalism surely does not offer this necessary separation. The sad reality is that while the American public and military are impatient for U.S. forces to withdraw, American policy blunders make it all the more necessary for them to stay. Perhaps, then, what we should be hoping for these days is a Christmas miracle in Iraq, with yesterday's elections bringing Iraqis a step closer to the edge of the cliff rather than affirming their country as a democratic mainstay.

Ali Ezzatyar is a freelance consultant and doctoral candidate in law at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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