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Iraq: Minorities Discuss Representation In Post-Hussein Government

By Sterling Wright

A group of Iraqi activists met in Washington recently to discuss the makeup of a future government in Baghdad. The participants say a viable Iraqi government must allow the participation of all segments of society.

Washington, 2 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of three Iraqi minority groups say the future of the country depends on the establishment of a democratic government that ensures the rights of all.

Participating in a panel discussion at RFE/RL's Washington offices this week, activists for Kurdish, Christian, and Turkoman interests shared their respective goals and visions for a pluralistic Iraqi society.

Mike Amitay, executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, lobbies to raise awareness of Kurdish interests and to provide humanitarian support in Kurdish communities.

Amitay says the former Ba'athist government failed because it was not able to provide for the needs of an ethnically and religiously diverse population.

"It would be very easy to make the case that Iraq is a failed state -- a state that from its outset was more of a social-colonial, sort of a social engineering experiment rather than any functional, national entity," he said.

He says it is essential that a comprehensive human rights framework be established to protect all Iraqi minorities.

Amitay presented the Kurdish issue as a complex one, saying it must be considered within a regional context: "When you look at the Kurdish minority in Iraq, you can't really isolate it from the other pressures that are taking place in the communities surrounding northern Iraq, mainly Turkey, Iran, and Syria."

Kurdish populations extend across the borders of these countries, with the largest concentration of some 4 million living autonomously in northern Iraq, where they have enjoyed de facto autonomy since 1991.

Amitay says the new government in Baghdad will need to recognize that during 12 years of self-rule, the beginning of Kurdish civil society has emerged. He says the Kurds expect continuing self-governance and some control over oil resources in the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

Control and distribution of oil reserves remains a primary point of contention for the Kurds, who claim the oil as part of their land heritage.

"I think their [Kurdish] leadership has outlined this fairly clearly and that is a federal type arrangement, a decentralization of power that will enable them to run their local affairs and, to some extent, control the resources that would be coming to them from a central government," Amitay said.

Amitay warns that continuing tensions between the two Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), might complicate efforts to maintain Kurdish self-rule within a sovereign Iraq.

He concluded by saying, "Iraq remaining within its current borders may not prove to be a viable solution."

Dr. Katrin Michael is an Iraqi Chaldean Christian working with the Iraq Foundation in Washington. Michael Flannigan is a Washington lobbyist representing Iraqi Chaldean and Assyrian Christians. Both insist that the territorial integrity of Iraq be maintained and that the country's resources be fairly distributed to all citizens. But like the Kurds, they also want Christian communities granted localized self-rule.

Lacking representation under Saddam Hussein, Chaldean and Assyrian Christians have now adopted a unified political front -- the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) -- to lobby for representation within the new government. Michaels says a primary goal of the ADM is to establish secular democracy in Iraq: "We should insist that democracy not be made into the means of the majority to rule over the minorities. It means that all ethnicities [ethnic groups] have equal status."

Within a federal system, the Assyrians want decentralized political and administrative control over their community and the freedom to run churches, schools, and media outlets.

Additionally, they want to assure the preservation of their cultural heritage by protecting the archaeological sites of Nineveh and Ur.

Flannigan says people will need to be firm but also will need to allow for compromise in the debate over who owns and controls what land:

"There are areas that have been used, occupied and possessed by the Assyrian/Chaldeans for millennia, literally, and those rights have to be respected and restored."

The policy of Arabization did not count Chaldeans and Assyrians as separate cultural and ethnic groups. Therefore, Flannigan and Michaels say a census is needed to accurately determine Iraq's Christian population.

Flannigan says, "We want the ability to live as ourselves -- to be Assyrians within a pluralistic Iraq."

Orhan Ketene, U.S. coordinator for the Iraqi Turkoman Front, agrees that a fair and accurate census is needed.

Ketene says Turkomans are ethnically linked to Turkey and estimates the population to be 2.5 to 3 million. Other estimates put their number at 300,000. But attempts at Arabization in the northern cities have also obscured their numbers, he says.

Turkoman communities are established in a corridor stretching from Mosul to Kirkuk. Ketene says that following the Ba'ath Party collapse last month at the hands of the Anglo-American coalition, PUK Kurdish forces began pressuring the Turkomans to leave Kirkuk, despite American warnings.

"As Turkmen, we expect democracy to be fully applied. We expect the Kurdish parties to comply with American demands. And we expect a fair census to be done in Iraq."

The group agreed that all Iraqis should have an equal stake in the country's future.