A Peace of Their Own

Barham Salih is prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which governs the eastern sector of Kurdistan.

No one wants a war in Iraq less than the Iraqi people. But we don't have the luxury of being antiwar. For the last 35 years, the Baathist regime has been waging war against Iraqis. We know that there can be no peace without the military liberation of Iraq. The brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime leaves Iraqis and the civilized world with no other option.

And so, not for the first time, a persecuted people is asking for help in dislodging a dictatorship. But we also ask that the U.S. protect and nurture a postwar Iraqi democracy. The U.S.-led campaign must be about more than simply eliminating weapons of mass destruction and forcing a regime change. Rather, the use of force must yield a clear political gain: the foundation of a democratic state that will be at peace with its own people and with the Middle East.

It is too often forgotten that Iraq is the ultimate failed state, the twisted product of British colonialism. From its beginning, the Iraqi state brutalized its Kurdish minority and excluded the Shiite majority. Although uniquely brutal, the present Baath dictatorship is also a symptom of the closely interwoven political and military structures that evolved from the colonial era. With little base of support, Baghdad regularly used force to impose its will.

The transition from the status quo to a democratic state is a process in which the U.S. and the international community will have to play a pivotal role. The U.S.-led coalition will be instrumental in getting rid of dictatorship. And the U.S. military will undoubtedly be central to stabilizing the security environment and offering the Iraqis the space within which they can develop a democratic system.

But peace in postwar Iraq, much less democracy, cannot be established without the full participation of the nation's secular democratic movements and other indigenous political groups, including religious establishments and even tribes. Iraq has a long history of both political and social opposition to the Baath regime, and the regime's diverse opponents will all want to play a role in shaping a postwar Iraq.

A national transitional authority, drawing from these domestic political movements and aided by the U.S.-led coalition and the United Nations, must be quickly put into place. A delay in handing over power to a national authority will play into the hands of undemocratic anti-Western forces, not only in Iraq, but also in the wider Islamic world.

During the transition period, de-Baathification (like de-Nazification in the period following World War II) will be a vitally important, if complicated, undertaking. As a first step, the regime's much-feared security services must be dismantled. The military must be demobilized to facilitate the purging of Baathists and human rights violators, and then restructured to serve the peace and security of the people. The highly centralized Baath structures control the political, economic and social spheres of Iraq and must be dismantled. New decentralized and accountable institutions with proper checks and balances must be set in place.

De-Baathification also means reforming the economy. State control and centralization foster corruption while millions live in poverty. The oil industry needs to be de-monopolized and its revenues devoted to the well-being of the population and the economic revival of the country.

Within the structures that maintain the Baath dictatorship lies a deeper problem. What Iraqis call a Baath mentality permeates the educational system, warps social services and dominates a greatly weakened civil society. A 35-year process of Baathification has inculcated the norms and values that bolster the dictatorship into every nook and cranny of society. The Baath mentality values obedience over initiative, deference to authority over critical thinking, loyalty over ability and violence over conflict resolution.

This Baath mentality will take a while to eradicate, but the process must begin immediately. This will require reforming the educational systems and establishing methods of identifying and rewarding talent, merit, ability, independent thinking and service to the community in newly constructed institutions.

A vigorous truth and reconciliation process must be instituted to begin to heal the wounds and instill a meaningful sense of justice among the people. The top leadership of the Baath party must be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The 40-year ethnic cleansing campaign that has displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Turkomans and Assyrian Christians from Kirkuk, Khanaqin and Sinjar must be reversed. Successive Iraqi governments have sought to alter the demographic characteristics of these parts of Kurdistan through a violent policy they have called "Arabization." For the new Iraq to be peaceful and stable, it must facilitate returning victims to their homes if they choose and they must be compensated for their loss of businesses, property, jobs, homes and farms.

The transitional authority must organize and hold elections for a constituent assembly, preferably within a year. This is realistic and will give the people of Iraq an important role to play and a personal stake in the success of a new government.

Regional and international powers agree that Iraq cannot be divided and affirm the need to maintain Iraq's territorial integrity. The various religious and ethnic communities will have to live together, and the new Iraqi political system must embrace this diversity. A federal democratic framework, therefore, is the only system that can accommodate these needs.

Recently, the Kurdistan National Assembly, the only elected body in Iraq today, completed a draft constitution for a Kurdistan region within a federal Iraq. This is not dissimilar to the American model of nonethnically based federalism, where states prepared their own constitutions before sending delegates to a constitutional convention to establish a federal government.

Federalism is supported by most, if not all, elements of the Iraqi opposition. It has been endorsed at every opposition congress and was reaffirmed at the meeting in London in December 2002. Each of these Iraqi opposition meetings has taken place with U.S. support and participation. It was most welcome to hear President Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, affirming to delegates at the Iraqi opposition meeting in Salahuddin last week that the U.S. will respect the choice of the Iraqi people for a federal democratic system of government.

This transition process will be greatly complicated if neighboring countries attempt to intervene militarily. The presence of regional troops in Iraq may open a Pandora's box of historical sensitivities that has been contained thus far.

Turkey helped Iraqi Kurdish refugees in 1991, and it has been facilitating the U.S.-British air patrols protecting Iraqi Kurdistan from aggression. Turkish secular democracy offers positive examples that can be invaluable as we contemplate the building of a democratic Iraq. However, recent news of a U.S. deal that would allow Turkish military to be deployed inside northern Iraq is disconcerting. The tactical military imperatives of a northern front must not compromise the stated political mission of the U.S.-led coalition, namely freedom for all Iraqis. In addition, Turkish, or for that matter Iranian, military presence will bring other regional players into the fray and further complicate an already complicated Iraqi situation.

The anticipated difficulties with regime change and peaceful transition would be exacerbated by the involvement of neighboring countries. Iran and Turkey, and for that matter other neighbors, have much to gain from a stable peaceful Iraq. Their military involvement is not needed and would be counterproductive. If the U.S. wants to avoid a quagmire in Iraq, it will keep the focus on Iraq and will keep the neighbors at bay.

Eleven years ago, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan embarked on pioneering experiments in democratic self-government in the heart of the Islamic Middle East. The success of the Kurdistan Regional Government stands to prove that Iraq need not be ruled by tyranny and illustrates that despite all the impediments democracy in Iraq is possible.

With international assistance Iraq can become a country its citizens will want to live in because it will offer individual rights, political freedom and economic opportunity. It can become a country that stands for peace over aggression and terrorism, democracy over dictatorship, secularism over theocracy and economic prosperity.

None of this will be easy, but doing nothing will ultimately prove more costly and more difficult. With the U.S. by our side, Iraq can become peaceful, secular and democratic -- a beacon of hope in the Middle East.

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