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Iraq: Opposition Groups Want A Federal State But Have Yet To Agree On Form

  • Charles Recknagel

The Iraqi Kurd parliament this month is discussing drafts for a new constitution that reportedly claims the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as the Kurds' capital in any future Iraqi federation. The proposal could complicate efforts by Iraqi opposition groups and U.S. officials to find a formula for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq that would be acceptable to all of Iraq's groups and to its powerful neighbors.

Prague, 5 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. officials continue to discuss regime change for Iraq, there is much talk about turning the country into a federation to protect it against the rise of another dictator like Saddam Hussein.

But so far, the talk has produced little agreement among either Iraqi-exile opposition groups or in Washington over what form such a federation would take. The reason is that some groups in Iraq have historically preferred a powerful central government while others have wanted as much autonomy as possible.

This month, the prospects for finding a workable formula for a federal Iraq are likely to be complicated further. The Iraqi Kurd parliament is debating two drafts for a proposed new constitution that reportedly claims the oil-rich city of Kirkuk for the Kurds' capital in any post-Hussein federation.

The debate comes as the Iraqi-Kurd parliament reconvened early last month for the first time since 1996, when it stopped functioning after fighting broke out between the two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq due to power and revenue-sharing disputes.

Analysts say that if the parliament approves a constitution claiming Kirkuk as the Kurds' capital, the move could hamper current U.S. efforts to foster unity among Iraqi-exile opposition groups.

Ellen Laipson, a U.S. foreign-policy expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, called the debate over Kirkuk a "disturbing element" because it is likely to be seen by other Iraqi groups, and U.S. officials, as an attempt to preempt a general debate over federation among all the Iraqi parties. "To try to predetermine this before there is some political process in all of Iraqi territory will be seen as a disturbing element...If [the Kurds] would raise issues like Kirkuk once they have the authority and power to discuss new political arrangements in Iraq, it would be one thing [acceptable]. But for one of the constituent groups to declare unilaterally its position I think is seen [by Washington] as not the right way," Laipson said.

Kirkuk is a sensitive issue within Iraq because the city traditionally has been predominantly Kurdish with substantial Turkoman, Arab, and other minorities. But because Kirkuk is in one of Iraq's major oil areas, the Sunni-Arab based central government has long sought to make it an Arab city instead.

In recent decades, Baghdad has forced Kurds and other minority groups out of Kirkuk and other areas of northern Iraq and replaced them with settlers from Iraq's Arab majority in an effort to secure the oil fields from the Kurds and from neighboring states. The U.S. Committee for Refugees, a human rights group in Washington, says some 100,000 people have been forced out of predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Iraq in the past 10 years alone.

At the same time, Kirkuk is sensitive for Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly said that it will not tolerate anything that looks like a Kurdish ministate in Iraq with control over key oil resources that would make it economically self-sustaining. Turkey fears this may also incite its own restive Kurdish minority to seek autonomy.

Ankara has warned it could intervene militarily to keep Kirkuk from becoming a Kurdish-controlled city. It has cited as justification what it calls the need to protect the Turkoman minority, which shares linguistic links with Turkey, from Kurdish domination.

Iran has also expressed alarm over the Kurds' efforts to obtain wide autonomy under a federal system. Tehran this week turned down a request by Iranian Kurd legislators to attend the sessions of the Iraqi Kurd parliament, saying that would lend credibility to a process that "contravenes our national interest." Iran equally has a Kurdish minority that it fears may be encouraged to seek autonomy.

The Iraqi Kurd Constitution is reported also to call for the Kurdish region to have its own flag -- to be flown alongside the Iraqi flag -- and defense units drawn from the present forces of the two main Iraqi Kurd factions. It would require that Baghdad provide the region with part of Iraq's oil revenues commensurate with its proportion of the population and guarantee the rights of other ethnic groups in the area, including the Turkomans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Armenians, and Arabs.

But the constitution also leaves key powers in Baghdad's hands, including foreign and defense policy and investment in the oil sector.

As a statement of what the Kurds want from a federal Iraq, the proposed constitution is the most detailed document yet in the debate over what form a post-Hussein Iraq should take. But it is far from the only proposal vying for the attention of the Iraqi-exile opposition groups or U.S. officials.

Laipson said that, in Washington alone, there are dozens of working groups trying to find a formula for a federal Iraq. She said that so far no single plan has emerged, largely because Iraqi opposition groups themselves have yet to reach any unanimity in their own preferences. "There are working groups and there are advocates all around Washington talking about different ways to get to federalism, but I don't believe that there is any one scenario that the U.S. government is going to endorse separate from some expression by Iraqis themselves," Laipson said.

Among various plans circulating in Washington is a proposed federation that devolves power to each of Iraq's 18 provinces, with a weak central government retaining power over defense and foreign policy. The author of the plan, Michael Rubin, formerly a policy analyst at the National Enterprise Institute in Washington and now at the Pentagon, said this would keep the power of Iraq's three main groups, the Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiias, and Kurds, in balance, "preventing the dominance of any minority on a national level."

Iraqi opposition members say that when exile groups meet to discuss the future shape of Iraq, they steer clear of debating issues like Kirkuk in order to emphasize issues they can agree upon instead. U.S. officials have encouraged that approach in hopes of building cooperation among the exile opposition groups, which have a history of rivalries.

Mowaffak Al Rubaie, an independent opposition activist, told our correspondent from London that the exile groups agree that Iraq should have a federal system in the future. But they are postponing discussing the details for later. "When we meet as the Iraqi opposition groups and leaders, we discuss the federal system of Iraq. The Shiia are all of them with the federal system. Kurds are with the federal system. Some of the Arab Sunnis are with the federal system. But when it comes to Kirkuk as a city, everybody states their position toward Kirkuk, and we tend to sort of leave the meeting not agreeing on the future of the city," Al Rubaie said.

Al Rubaie, who is an Arab Shiite, is the coordinator of a recently issued "Declaration of the Shiia," which seeks to express that population's vision for a post-Hussein Iraq. The declaration -- a petition that has been signed by some 300 prominent Iraqi Shiia to date -- calls for replacing dictatorship with democracy, adopting a federal structure, and ending the Sunni-based central government's past discrimination against Shiia.

Among the demands of the Shiia, the largest group in Iraq, are the right to administer their own religious shrines autonomously, freedom to teach in their religious universities, freedom to publish Shiia religious tracts, and official recognition by the state of key dates of the Shiia religious calendar.

All these rights have been severely curtailed by Saddam Hussein's regime, which regards the Shiia clergy as a potential threat to its centralized rule and has excluded Shiia, in general, from positions of power.

Al Rubaie said that the Shiia support the Kurds' demands for wide autonomy because many Shiia feel they could gain from a similar arrangement. He said he favors a federal Iraq divided into five administrative areas, two of which would be in the south and mostly Shiia-populated. "The Shiia of Iraq support the federal system and a very decentralized government in Baghdad because they have suffered a lot over the years since the formation of Iraq in 1921. They have been persecuted and discriminated against. In their region in the south, although it is rich in oil, they have been deprived of any development and they have been deprived of any political role in the country," Al Rubaie said.

As Iraq's various exile opposition groups chart out their demands for a federal Iraq, it remains unclear when they will begin the tough process of working out the details of a unified position.

The exile opposition is due to meet in Brussels on 15-22 November. Iraqi Kurd representatives have said they plan to present their constitution at the meeting. Other Iraqi opposition figures have said the meeting could discuss election of a government in exile that would be available to replace Saddam Hussein should his regime be overthrown in a U.S.-led military campaign.