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U.S.: Plan For Postwar Iraq Sparks Debate -- And Kurdish Fears

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has been under pressure to lay out its vision for a postwar Iraq. On 21 February, "The Washington Post" published details of what U.S. officials call a final blueprint for Iraq's future, should Washington embark on an offensive against Baghdad. As RFE/RL reports, the plan is already sparking heated debate.

Washington, 24 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush says he wants to bring democracy to Iraq by toppling its authoritarian president Saddam Hussein. But some fear Bush's war plans could spoil the most successful democratic experiment in the Middle East.

Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq has thrived as a largely democratic, independent territory outside of Hussein's control since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Protected by U.S. and British jets patrolling the northern no-fly zone, and aided by the United Nations oil-for-food program, the 4 million Kurds in Iraq's self-governing areas have achieved a level of democracy and free-market prosperity that is rare in a Middle East dominated by autocrats and economic stagnation.

Numbering more than 30 million people across four countries, the Kurds are the world's largest stateless people. Yet their 12-year experience with independence in northern Iraq has proved to be an astonishing success, says Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador and one of Washington's top experts on the Kurds. "Kurds constantly say in the north: 'This is a Golden Age. This is the best we've ever had it.' They're governing themselves, and they have a government that's focused on the interests of the people. And I think it's very understandable that they want to retain that," Galbraith said.

But a U.S. plan for postwar Iraq is putting the Kurdish experiment at risk, says Galbraith, who in the 1980s helped to uncover and document Iraqi military atrocities against Kurds, including the 1988 massacre at Halabja, in which 5,000 to 7,000 Kurds were killed in a chemical-weapons attack. "The president of the United States had talked about a democratic Iraq, and now the administration is talking about 'representative' government and not wishing to create democracy. It seems to me that that's a betrayal of what the United States stands for. It's a betrayal of what the Iraqi people are entitled to."

The thrust of the U.S. plan, as published in "The Washington Post" on 21 February, would appear to contrast sharply with many of the key reasons that have been given by U.S. President George W. Bush for toppling Hussein, namely, to bring democracy to Baghdad and spur similar reform in neighboring countries.

Indeed, the new plan specifically avoids calling for what had long been considered the postwar Iraqi ideal: a democratic, federal state that would give broad powers to the country's ethnically distinct regions: northern Kurds, southern Shi'ites, and Sunnis in central Iraq.

Instead, the plan calls for a U.S. military occupation that could last years and would eventually lead Iraq toward a "representative" government that would leave intact much of the existing bureaucracy after having purged it of its worst elements in a process of "de-Ba'athification," similar to the denazification of postwar Germany.

Reasons for avoiding a democratic federation, the article says, center on the desire to avoid the pitfalls of postwar Afghanistan, which include a weak central government, regions under the control of warlords influenced by neighboring states, and no widespread U.S. military presence to enforce a new political order.

In Iraq's case, the plan says, Washington wants a strong central authority that could avoid undue interference from regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, which could influence the Sunni majority that now runs the country; Iran, which could hold significant sway over Iraq's Shi'ite majority; and Turkey, which worries that a loose, democratic Iraqi federation could lead to an eventual Kurdish state capable of destabilizing Ankara's sizable Kurdish minority.

Raymond Tanter, a member of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, said the new U.S. plan is likely more flexible than Galbraith makes it out to be. Author of a book called "Rogue Regimes," Tanter said the plan is meant to help Washington in three areas during the transition toward an Iraqi democracy: "First, military victory; second, stabilize the political gains, so you don't lose the military victory; and third, strike a bargain among the different ethnic and regional groups. I think the incentive for that bargain will be revenue from oil sales. I think the groups will likely be more inclined to strike a bargain among themselves if they are promised a share of the revenue on some kind of a federal basis."

Tanter also said the plan, reports of which were attributed to unidentified administration sources, may also have been floated as a way to persuade a reluctant Turkey to climb on board U.S. plans for Iraq.

Turkey, which hopes to avoid war, has demanded that the United States allow it to move troops into northern Iraq should hostilities break out. Ostensibly, Ankara says its troops would serve a humanitarian purpose: to safeguard against refugees flowing into southern Turkey, which sheltered thousands of refugees during the first Gulf War.

But Turkey has also been concerned that Kurds not seize the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and has said it will move in to protect its ethnic brethren in the city, the Turkoman minority, if the Kurds attempt to take it.

Ankara and Washington have been locked in tough negotiations over the use of Turkish soil by U.S. troops to stage an attack on Baghdad through northern Iraq. On 21 February, Turkey signaled that it may be willing to accept an aid package worth some $30 billion and allow the United States to move in some 40,000 troops.

The talks have also had political and military components. Presumably, Turkey will be allowed to have a military presence in northern Iraq, though the terms remain unclear. Ankara has sought command autonomy for its troops, while the United States has insisted on retaining command to avoid confusion.

Mike Amitay is with the Washington Kurdish Institute, an advocacy group for Kurdish rights. Amitay said he's comfortable with the U.S. plan and believes it boils down to a U.S. decision not to recognize any Iraqi provisional government set up by expatriate Iraqi groups and a determination to maintain order in the postwar period.

But Amitay said he sees a threat in Turkey, whose troops could possibly clash with Kurdish militias, which number more than 100,000. "No one really knows what is going to happen on the ground once the regime starts falling. There are certainly many armed elements that perhaps are not loyal to any of the existing forces who could really complicate things. And obviously there's an opportunity for agents provocateurs sponsored by Baghdad or even some of the other neighboring countries to cause violent incidents which could really lead to spiraling confrontations. So there really is quite a danger if Turkey moves unilaterally into the region and the U.S. isn't in a position to block that," Amitay said.

Galbraith, who was first U.S. ambassador to Croatia and now teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, said U.S. military needs in Turkey are clear. But he said the Bush administration has conceded too much to Ankara.

For example, Galbraith said that Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, told Iraqi Kurdish leaders this month that they must give up their plans for self-government in a loose federation, accept a Turkish occupation after the war, and expect that hundreds of thousands of Kurds driven from their homes by Hussein will not be able to return to them. "Simply siding with Turkey in a move that is transparently aimed at crushing the Kurdish democracy, I think that's a big mistake. It sets a terrible precedent for the country as a whole, and it makes the U.S. look hypocritical in terms of what its aims are," Galbraith said.

Galbraith adds that Washington has basically told the Kurds that any move toward federalism -- a system that would allow them to retain much of the autonomy they enjoy today -- would have to wait for deliberation by a postwar elected Iraqi parliament, in which they would be a minority.

But Tanter said an Iraq without Hussein will still be better for Kurds than what they have today: a precarious, unofficial state that wouldn't exist without daily protection from U.S. and British jet patrols. And he added: "I think the Kurds are going to be much better off because they will have something to say about Kirkuk oil fields. And they don't have anything to say about it now."

Among other things, the U.S. plan, as published in "The Washington Post," also calls for the appointment of a nonmilitary civilian administrator. That official would be a person of "stature," such as a former U.S. state governor or ambassador, who would take advice from 20 or 25 Iraqis making up a "consultative commission" that otherwise would have no governing authority. Another commission would write a constitution.

But U.S. officials, who have been under pressure to lay out a vision for postwar Iraq, stressed in "The Washington Post" that developments on the ground could lead them to revise the plan as they go.

The White House is expected to brief Congress and reporters with more details of the plan this week.

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