Kurds feel overlooked as Arab Iraqi leaders take charge

Friday, July 23, 2004

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq -- The decision to hand the top jobs of president and prime minister to Iraqi Arabs has alarmed the country's Kurdish minority, reviving old suspicions across ethnic lines and setting the stage for a divisive political battle over a new constitution.

Kurdish fears over their place in the new Iraq had already been heightened when the United Nations refused to endorse an interim Iraqi constitution that guarantees their rights in this mostly Arab nation.

Both slights are perceived by Kurds as part of a long series of double-crosses suffered at the hands of Iraqi Arabs and foreign powers since creation of the modern Iraqi state by colonial Britain after World War I.

They have dampened Kurdish enthusiasm about the future of this country following the downfall of Saddam Hussein, their tormentor and executioner for 23 years.

"I am disappointed, but we must overcome this crisis and work harder for what we want," said bookstore owner Omar abdul-Rahman Raheem, 61, of the exclusion of Kurds from the two top jobs.

Demanding moreSpeaking over a cacophony of honking cars and street hawkers outside his store in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, Raheem portrayed a minority whose joy at Saddam's ouster 15 months ago has quickly given way to disappointment, even anger.

"We need now to be even more ambitious and demand more than just self-rule," he said.

Like the Sunni Arabs, Kurds are believed to comprise 15-20 percent of Iraq's 25 million people. They were given five Cabinet posts when the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a Shiite Arab, took office June 28. These include the deputy prime minister and the key foreign ministry. Sunni Arabs got five Cabinet posts, a minister of state portfolio and the largely ceremonial job of president. There are two vice presidents -- one Kurd and one Shiite.

"Is it forbidden for a Kurd to be prime minister or president?" asked Sardar Mohammed, political editor of Hawlati, or Citizen, the best-selling weekly newspaper in Iraq's Kurdish areas. "Sharing positions of power is the least we expect."

How the Kurds fare in today's Iraq is the real test of the nation's commitment to the human rights and democratic values it has embraced since Saddam's fall. It also is a reflection on the nation-building effort being made to reconstruct Iraq's rich mosaic of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in a way that ensures justice for all groups.

Great stridesSo far, the Kurds' march to equal rights has been a mix of great strides and significant setbacks. Their journey is likely to have a significant impact on neighbors Turkey, Iran and Syria, whose governments have at one time or another resorted to violence to deal with restive Kurdish communities pressing for self-rule or protesting discrimination.

Some Kurds anticipate a fierce political battle over their rights and worry Iraq may lack the political maturity to create a pluralistic society.

One of these skeptics is Kurdish political analyst Rebin Hardy, who warns that civil war or the emergence of a new dictatorship in Iraq should not be ruled out as the Kurds press for their rights in the new constitution to be drafted next year.

"The culture of dictatorship remains in Iraq and the strongest groups in the country are ethnic and religious parties that are not prepared to accept change or democracy," he said.

The Kurds have for years been Washington's most reliable allies in Iraq. U.S. protection allowed them to enjoy autonomous rule in their northern region since 1991. These ties have fed anti-Kurdish sentiments among other Iraqis, many of whom are deeply suspicious of the United States.

Some Kurds, however, suspect U.S. and British support for their cause has diminished, arguing that this may have been behind their failure to land a top job in Allawi's government or win endorsement of the interim constitution adopted in March by Iraq's Governing Council.

They also detect weakness in their support for the Kurds over the thorny issue of Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city claimed by the Kurds. The city's vast oil wealth has prompted Saddam to expel tens of thousands of Kirkuk's Kurdish residents, sending Arab Iraqis to take their place.

"We are really worried. We thought things will be much better than this," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician and former member of the disbanded Governing Council. "We feel that support from the Americans and the British is receding and that's causing a great deal of disappointment."

Iraq's Kurds and Shiites had been singled out for the most brutal oppression during Saddam's rule, with tens of thousands from both communities imprisoned, executed and tortured. Saddam's removal from power has earned them instant empowerment. But, while the Shiites' rise to political domination was expected since they are a majority, the Kurds' place is much less certain.

Still, the Kurds have made gains, some of which have allowed them to shield their areas from the intense and sustained violence that has wracked the rest of Iraq for more than a year.

The interim constitution added Kurdish as an official language beside Arabic and gave Iraq's three Kurdish provinces the right to reject a draft of the permanent constitution when it's put to a referendum next year.

"If the next constitution does not include our rights, we will not get them in the future," warned Nawshirwan Mustafa, deputy general-secretary of the Sulaimaniyah-headquartered Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two political parties that rule Iraq's Kurdish region. "It's the Kurds' biggest battle," he said.

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