Prague, 25 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Kurds are feeling their strength after gaining the second largest bloc of seats in the new National Assembly.
The Kurds' 75 seats make them the party to court for the two men vying to be Iraq's next prime minister. Those men are Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, a Shi'a Islamist, and his rival, Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'a who currently holds the post.
The Kurds are demanding that one of their own leaders get the influential, if largely ceremonial role of president in the new Iraqi government.
"It is the right of the Kurdish people to demand that the region of Kurdistan, as it is known in terms of geography and history, become the region over which the Kurdish people would exert their federal rule. We believe that existing problems can also be solved by consensus and dialogue in a brotherly, political way. There is no problem in Iraq that would be insolvable, in our opinion."
The Kurdish candidate is Jalal Talabani, head of one of the two most important Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. They have made it clear over the past days that they not only want Talabani to be head of state as their price for supporting either of the rival candidates for prime minister, but they also will insist on a federal Iraq.
Speaking with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 24 February, Talabani said: "It is the right of the Kurdish people to demand that the region of Kurdistan, as it is known in terms of geography and history, become the region over which the Kurdish people would exert their federal rule. We believe that existing problems can also be solved by consensus and dialogue in a brotherly, political way. There is no problem in Iraq that would be insolvable, in our opinion."
Both the rival candidates to be head of government are negotiating for Kurdish support because neither has the two-thirds majority that is effectively needed in the 275-seat assembly to get the position.
Al-Ja’fari is closest to the mark because he is the candidate of the United Iraqi Alliance, a largely Shi'a coalition endorsed by preeminent cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Alliance has 140 seats. Those seats plus the Kurds' 75 seats would give it the support of 215 delegates, well over the two-thirds majority, which is 184 seats.
Allawi is starting with just the 40 seats he won in the elections. Still, if he could add the Kurds' 75 seats he would get a big boost and he still could pick up other votes from smaller parties in the assembly.
Allawi might also hope to lure away some of the members of al-Ja’fari's own loose coalition, which includes secular and Islamist groups. In an opening shot this week, Allawi called al-Ja’fari "an honorable man" but said Iraq should be liberal and not "governed by political Islamists."
So far, the Kurds have given no clear sign of who they will ultimately favor.
Abdul Jalil Faily, the head of the Baghdad bureau of the other largest Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), explained the unified Kurdish position in an interview with Radio Free Iraq on 23 February. "When it comes to the nomination of [Ibrahim] al-Ja’fari for the post of prime minister we have, in fact, no negative points to mention," Faily said. "But our support or nonsupport for him depends on the extent of the support of the mentioned person to our cause, as a Kurdish cause."
The Kurds want to keep the substantial autonomy they currently enjoy in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq and institutionalize those powers through a constitution that establishes Iraq as a federation.
If al-Ja’fari were to become prime minister he would have to decide how strong he wants the Baghdad government to be and whether to resist or encourage the decentralization of powers that the Kurds want. Those include the powers now exercised by the Kurdish leadership, which collects taxes in its region and maintains its own security forces.
Much of Kurdish-populated northern Iraq fell out of Baghdad's control under Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. However, Kurdish officials say they respect Iraq's territorial integrity and want the Kurdish region to remain in Iraq within a federal system.
Allawi has already publicly endorsed the Kurds' demands for a federal system, explaining his position after a meeting on 10 February 10 with KDP head Mas’ud Barzani: "There were talks about the necessity of political consensus between different Iraqi [political] forces to cement the civilizing and positive basis for a unified, democratic, federal future of Iraq, which includes all different segments of Iraqi society."
The Kurdish leadership, which is secular, could feel ideologically closer to Allawi and his appeals for a "liberal" Iraq than to the Shi'a religious parties that make up al-Ja’fari's strongest base of support.
Al-Ja’fari has indicated he might push for a "more Islamist" Iraq by recently restating that the religious parties want Islamic law, or Shari’a, to be a source, among others, for Iraq's legal code. He added that "we will not have any laws that oppose Islam" -- that is, contradict its values.
But with the Kurds holding meetings with both rival prime minister candidates' camps, it is too early to predict how the negotiations will end or what compromises might be reached.
One particularly thorny issue for all sides is the widespread Kurdish desire to bring the oil-rich region of Kirkuk into the Kurdish-administered area. The city is populated by Kurds, who favor the move, but also Turkomans and Arabs who do not.
Any inclusion of Kirkuk into the Kurdish-administered region would be opposed by Turkey. Ankara says it fears for the rights of the Turkomans, who are linguistically and culturally related to the Turks, under a Kurdish administration. Turkey also claims that any further strengthening of the Kurdish autonomous area could lead to Iraq's Kurds declaring independence -- something Ankara says might encourage its own restive Kurdish minority to try the same.
With no end to Iraq's political jockeying yet in sight, the best description of talks this week may belong to Kurdish politician Barham Salih.
Salih, deputy prime minister in the current Iraqi interim government, told “The Washington Post” ahead of Kurdish talks with al-Ja’fari's camp that "I can imagine they will be exhaustive, and exhausting, negotiations."
He added: "We will be drinking gallons of tea in smoke-filled rooms."