Prague, 10 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Kurds are hanging all of their hopes for autonomy on the country's interim constitution, the so-called Transitional Administrative Law.
That document, while not mentioning Kurds specifically, ensures their political importance by stating that a two-thirds dissent in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces will be enough to vote down a permanent constitution.
Three Iraqi provinces have Kurdish majorities -- meaning any constitution not guaranteeing Kurdish autonomy is not likely to be passed.
Kurdish anger is raising concern not only in Baghdad but in the United States, which has been a strong ally of the Iraqi Kurds.
So the decision by the UN Security Council not to include the interim constitution in its latest Iraq resolution was seen by many Kurds as a setback. Some Kurdish officials have threatened to withdraw from the current interim government or organize a referendum on the future status of the Kurdish provinces.
Mahmud Uthman, a Kurd and a former member of the Governing Council, says Iraqi Kurds are worried they will lose their hard-earned status.
"There's a lot of worry and fear among the Kurds now, [that] this law -- as long as it is not mentioned [in the UN resolution] -- it will not be implemented, and when it's not implemented, than we'll have to start again from zero and try to make other sort of laws. So, people are worried about that."
Kurds comprise some 15 percent of Iraq's 25 million people. Their opponents in the debate over the constitutional-voting law are the majority Shi'a, who make up more than 60 percent of the population but were denied political power under Saddam Hussein.
Uthman says Kurds are also disappointed with the formation of the country's interim government. Although some interim officials -- including the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari -- are Kurds, Othman says the new government does not fairly represent the Iraqi population.
"Every Kurd is disappointed, really," he said. "Because [Kurds] were not given one of the two main leading or key posts -- you know, prime minister or president. We think Iraq is composed of two main nationalities, Arabs and Kurds. And as long as an Arab takes one post, a Kurd should have taken the other."
The Kurdish anger is raising concern not only in Baghdad but in the United States, which has been a strong ally of the Iraqi Kurds.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday attempted to address Kurdish concerns: "We work very closely with the Kurdish population. The Kurds have been great friends of the United States. As we all know they were strong opponents of Saddam Hussein, they fought against him and they liberated Iraq from Saddam's tyranny. They obviously have a role, a very important role, to play in a strong, united and democratic Iraq."
Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi also tried to defuse the tensions and announced his government would respect the interim constitution until next year's elections.
But the Kurdish leadership is taking no chances. Kurdish officials this week wrote a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush saying that if the Iraqi government does not adhere to the interim constitution, the Kurds would "have no choice but to refrain from participating in the central government." They threatened to boycott national elections in January and to "bar representatives of the central government from Kurdistan."
The Kurds may even take it a step further, holding a referendum on the status of the Kurdish provinces. Uthman says the Kurds have collected almost two million signatures in support of such a referendum.
"They have already collected 1,700,000 signatures and they brought them over to the [Iraqi] Governing Council, to the United Nations, to the coalition [authorities]," he said. "They ask for a referendum and at that time when [the Transitional Administrative Law, TAL] was issued, well, it was a sort of an appeasement, so they didn't insist on [the referendum]. But now, when TAL is not there, then they may again talk about it and try to reactivate [the process] and ask for a referendum. That's a possibility."
Mustafa Alani, a regional expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says a referendum is not the best way to decide the future of Kurdish regions because any move towards autonomy will affect the integrity of the whole country: "The referendum here on the future of Kurdish areas must be a referendum for all Iraq, not only for the Kurdish region. Every Iraqi citizen must have the right to say what he thinks is right. So, if we are talking about a referendum, the referendum must include every Iraqi citizen -- not only on the regional level. Or you have to elect basically a legitimate democratic government which has the power of the people, and this [Iraqi] government without a referendum can decide the future of the issue."
Alani also says the Kurds should not pin all their hopes on the interim constitution, because any document adopted under military occupation should not be considered the ideal legal basis for restructuring the state: "The basic principle here is that such a major shift in the nature of the state needs to be supported by a legitimate government and be part of constitution, and the constitution basically must be [adopted through] a referendum. "
Alani says it is not only Iraqi Shi'a and Sunni Arabs who are opposed to Kurdish autonomy goals. Neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria are against the move as well.
Alani says the broad autonomy the Kurds currently enjoy was introduced solely to protect them against the Hussein regime. Now, with Hussein gone, Alani argues there is no longer anything the Kurds need to be protected from -- and no need to maintain a 75,000-strong militia as well.