Kurds’ Soft Sell for a Hard-Won Autonomy

Brendan O'Leary is Lauder Professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs its Solomon Asch Center for the study of ethnic conflict. He also will be a constitutional advisor to the parliament and government of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

It is a maxim of politics that territorial autonomy is begrudgingly conceded by central authorities and ungratefully received by those to whom it is granted. That’s one way to understand what is happening in Kurdistan, or what some still call northern Iraq. The Kurds of Kurdistan would like to be independent but will accept autonomy in a binational federation with Arab Iraq. Washington, Arab Iraqis and regional powers begrudgingly concede this emergent reality.

The Kurds are the largest nation without their own state in the Middle East. Greater Kurdistan was partitioned among Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq after World War I, even though it had a better self-determination case than most of the new states created by Woodrow Wilson and his allies. British colonial authorities in Iraq promised local Kurds autonomy in compensation but broke their word to appease Turkey and serve their petroleum interests. In independent Iraq, Kurds experienced coercive assimilation, expulsion and genocide at the hands of successive Sunni Arab-dominated regimes, most recently Saddam Hussein’s. This history explains why they aspire to an independent Kurdistan.

Autonomy is the very least the Kurds will accept, and they have had it since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They have the only functioning government and parliament in Iraq. The Kurds were the sole locally organized group to contribute significantly to the recent U.S. war effort. They joined Arab opponents of Hussein to insist that any new Iraq should be federal, with their entity as one of its regions -- with emphasis on the word “one.”

In accepting last week that Kurdistan must continue to exist, intact, throughout the post-June 30 transitional period, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the Coalition Provisional Authority’s L. Paul Bremer III were recognizing their debt of honor. Yet, they accepted Kurdistan’s reality without warmth or enthusiasm.


Kurds will tell you that one doesn’t hear the Bush administration condemning Israel and Turkey as ethnic states, but the air last week was thick with proclamations that Kurdistan is -- or will be -- such an entity. Kurds observe that U.S. officials in part defend Israel’s right to exist because of genocide against European Jewry, but in the same breath deny the right of Kurdistan to exist because it would reputedly be an ethnic state. That the Kurds of Kurdistan treat their minorities -- Turkmens, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Jews and Christians -- better than the Israelis treat their minorities is ignored. That they proclaim Kurdistan to be for all its citizens, Kurd and non-Kurd, is forgotten.

Kurds also say the same Turkish politicians who condemn Kurdistan as an ethnic entity can be heard insisting -- as vehemently -- that the Turks of Northern Cyprus should have maximum feasible territorial autonomy in a two-unit federation on Cyprus. They are often the same politicians who call for coercive assimilation of minorities into a Turkish ethos and ethnos. That the Kurds of Kurdistan treat their ethnic Turks much better than Turkey treats its Kurds is denied, but it is true.

So, why is Washington’s recognition of Kurdistan begrudging?

Coalition authorities in Baghdad want to placate Arab opinion, both among their collaborators and those who resist the U.S. occupation. Arab liberals promote a federation for Iraq based on Hussein’s 18 “governorates.” It would have the effect of dividing Kurdish-dominated areas among four units. This vision wishfully implies that Kurds would settle for less than what they won by arms from Hussein in the Iraq war. (The regions of Mosul and Kirkuk, historically predominantly Kurdish cities, were mainly liberated by the peshmergas of Kurdistan.)

This vision died last week, and we are watching its funeral. The idea implied that Iraq could become like the United States when it cannot. America was a settler state, which displaced (and expelled) and swamped its minorities, building almost every one of the 50 states of its federation around a white (usually Protestant), English-speaking local majority. America has no historic indigenous people that comprises between one-fifth and one-third of the total federation, with its distinct language and dialects, customs, norms -- and territory.

Arabs and Americans preaching a nonethnic federation to the Kurds of Iraq are whistling in the wind. The Kurds rightly interpret calls for “a nonethnic Iraq” as disguised code for the restoration of an Arab Iraq. They tell the Americans and their prospective Arab negotiating partners to look to Canada, rather than the U.S., for a more appropriate federal vision for Iraq -- a binational federation, a partnership of two peoples, Kurds and Arabs.

The other reason why Washington begrudges Kurdistan’s right to exist is because it doesn’t want to provoke the regional powers, Turkey above all. The U.S. interest in avoiding a war over the breakup of Iraq is clear, but it is not obvious why the Bush administration should oppose Kurdistan’s existence within a federal Iraq, or indeed its expansion to include Kirkuk district and city.

After all, the Kurds’ two major parties are committed to a democratic, binational, multiethnic, and religiously tolerant Iraq. They are both secular. Given that Kurdistan is by far the most stable and best-developed region in Iraq, it should be the building block for those in the U.S. and the United Nations intent on aiding democratic reconstruction. Washington should note that because Saddam Hussein used Palestinians in his repression of Kurds, popular Kurdish sentiment is not sharply anti-Israel in the way that Arab Iraq is. Turkey’s politicians know that a full invasion of Iraq by their army would terminate their prospects of entry into the European Union. That binds their hands.


The Bush administration knows it cannot break up Kurdistan as the Arab liberals want -- and as Turkey, Syria and Iran would prefer. To do so would create chaos. The U.S. is, however, leaving Kirkuk -- and the details of a federation -- to the peoples of Iraq to negotiate -- having abandoned the Pentagon’s preposterous plan for an American to write the constitution of Iraq.

No one knows how the negotiations will play out. With many Arabs preferring an 18-unit Iraq, and with Kurds preferring a two-unit entity, a compromise might be reached somewhere -- say with five regions, Kurdistan as one entity, Baghdad as another, and three other Arab-dominated regions in the northwest and the south. Kirkuk might be a special power-sharing unit within Kurdistan, while Mosul might be a special power-sharing unit within an Arab-dominated region.

Three things are certain. Kurds will remain unified behind the idea of one Kurdistan, with the right to decentralize power within their region if they so wish. Kurdish parties want to include Kirkuk district and city in their region -- to redress, fairly, Hussein’s ethnic cleansing and settler policies -- and to have appropriate power-sharing arrangements with the Turkmen and Arab populations. Finally, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan will negotiate jointly, seeking a binational, democratic, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant federal Iraq, knowing that their own supporters would prefer to have an independent state. Washington, Turkey and the Arab Iraqis should be grateful to have such an accommodating Kurdish leadership, but they won’t be caught saying so.

No one has the power and the will to remove Kurdistan’s hard-won autonomy. Whether begrudging recognition can be succeeded by something more harmonious is not known, but a period of gracious silence from Washington on its constitutional preferences would be prudent.