Qala Cholan, Iraq
Jalal Talabani is a former peshmerga–the name means “those who face death” and refers to the Kurdish guerrillas who spent decades in the mountains of northern Iraq fending off the assembled might of Saddam Hussein’s army. Now 72 years old and a candidate for the Iraqi presidency, Talabani looks out his study window at the snow-covered peaks before choosing his words carefully to answer the question on every Kurd’s lips–for the first time in the country’s history, will Iraq have a Kurdish president?
“Without reaching agreement, there is some kind of understanding, yes. The Shiites are insisting on having the post of prime minister and they are supporting Kurds to have the post of president,” he says, puffing on a large cigar.
Talabani made this statement in an interview earlier this week, as the parties continued negotiations in the wake of the elections. His comments reflect the enormity of what has happened in Iraq in the past two years–the political awakening of the Shiite majority, the rising strength of the Kurds–but it also highlights some looming problems. Can these two communities overcome ideological differences to draft a mutually acceptable constitution, and what role will the Kurdish leaders seek for their independence-minded people?
The most obvious Shiite-Kurd clash could be over the role of Islam in Iraqi society. Some senior figures in the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the winning Shiite bloc that secured nearly 50 percent of the national vote on January 30, have insisted that Islam be inscribed as the only source of legislation in the new Iraqi constitution. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, reclusive Iranian cleric and spiritual leader for Iraq’s Shiites, who has endorsed the UIA, is also reported to favor this demand.
The Shiites need an alliance with the secular Kurdish parties in order to gain control of parliament, hence the possible deal over the country’s top two posts. But having won more than a quarter of the votes, Kurds know they are in a strong bargaining position–and Islamic law is not on their agenda.
“When you say that Islam must be the only source of all laws, that means you’re going to found an Islamic state,” says Talabani, who, like the overwhelming majority of Kurds, is a Sunni Muslim. “The structure of Iraqi society cannot accept such a kind of government.”
Talabani is known for speaking his mind, but the Kurds have every reason to be assertive. Another Shiite bloc, led by incumbent prime minister Iyad Allawi, is courting their affections, and Kurds can pick and choose whom to support in return for pushing through “non-negotiable” demands of their own.
Most important is a continuation of the autonomous status their region has enjoyed since Western powers declared the enclave a “no-fly zone” in 1991, after the first Gulf War. Under a proposed federal system this might be acceptable to Iraq’s Shiite leaders, but a major obstacle is that Kurds want the oil-rich city of Kirkuk included within their borders.
“All areas which are part of Kurdistan historically and geographically and where the majority are Kurds must be united in the regional government of Kurdistan. Kirkuk is one of these cities,” Talabani says.
Saddam Hussein deported thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk in order to consolidate his hold over the lucrative oilfields there, which account for 40 percent of Iraq’s oil wealth. In a policy known as Arabization, the Kurds were replaced with Arabs–mainly Shiites brought from the south. The Kurds want this process reversed.
Unsurprisingly, Iraq’s Shiite majority opposes surrendering control of the oil city, let alone the uprooting of Shiite Arab families who have lived in Kirkuk for decades and now consider the city their home. Talabani’s line is typical of Kurdish leaders and points to difficulties ahead.
“Saddam brought [those Arabs] as part of an ethnic cleansing policy to change the demography of Kirkuk,” he says, adding that Arab families who were brought in after 1968 should leave. “They must go back home, all of them.”
While a Kurdish partnership with the Shiites–who endured similar suffering and injustice at the hands of Saddam Hussein–might not be as rosy as one would think, there are signs that Kurdish unity is also less than solid. Even as the Kurds celebrate their success in becoming powerbrokers of the new Iraqi government, some old tensions are re-emerging.
The Kurdish zone has been divided between rival administrations ever since a bloody fratricidal war during the mid-1990s between the two main factions, Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani. Talabani was originally a member of the KDP, founded by Barzani’s father Mullah Mustafa, but he left to form the PUK splinter group.
The region’s last elections (held in 1992) produced an even PUK/KDP split, sparking a power struggle that led to acrimonious conflict. More than 3,000 were killed in fighting between the factions, and each side accused the other of seeking external support. The PUK turned to Iran (so the charges go) while the KDP was accused of enlisting the help of Turkey, and even of Baghdad.
This time around, Barzani and Talabani have agreed to paper over their differences and present a united front in the interests of the Kurdish people, consolidating their power by running on the same list in national and Kurdish parliamentary elections.
But Kurdish political commentators suspect the political infighting will again obstruct the common Kurdish interest. “These two parties have a long history–forming coalitions, quarreling, civil war. This hasn’t finished because of some statements. Both parties want authority; both are eager to win the exclusive acceptance of the Kurdish people,” said Chiman Salh, political editor of Xabat newspaper, based in Erbil. She added that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the parties eventually ended up supporting different Shiite blocs within the year in order to gain a political advantage over the other.
After the region’s local elections–the only one where the parties ran separately–accusations of vote-rigging are being traded. When the PUK did better than expected, some officials began to question the wisdom of a deal that secured Talabani’s nomination as candidate for the largely ceremonial post of Iraqi president.
“I have no comment on this,” said Talabani, when asked if he had regrets over the arrangement between the two parties, whereby he gets the post in Baghdad and Barzani becomes de facto president of a united Kurdish zone, with Barzani’s nephew, Nechirvan, continuing on as prime minister of the Kurdish regional government. The arrangement “is in the interests of the Kurdish people,” Talabani insists.
The differences between the two men start from their demeanor–during interviews with foreign journalists Barzani wears traditional Kurdish clothes and speaks only in Kurdish; Talabani wears a suit and speaks in English–and extend to their divergence of views on the Kurdish future in Iraq.
While Barzani has responded to the Kurds’ strong showing in the elections with warnings that an independent Kurdistan is inevitable, acknowledging the groundswell of Kurdish popular support for secession, Talabani takes a different line. “I don’t see any possibility for a Kurdish independent state,” he says.
More than 1.9 million Kurds voted to secede from Iraq in an informal poll conducted alongside national elections on January 30, but while Barzani makes threats about withdrawing from the political process if Kurdish rights are not respected, Talabani urges national unity.
“A democratic, federal, united, independent Iraq is the best thing for the Kurds nowadays,” Talabani says, and he does not hesitate before answering a question about where his first loyalties lie: “[with] Iraq, of course–because Iraq includes Kurdish people.”
Despite their differences, the Kurdish leadership knows it must stay united, since division would damage the Kurds’ chances of getting what they want from Iraq. This in turn could threaten the stability of a region that has been a haven of peace in the face of Iraq’s recent chaos.