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To find a path to democracy in Iraq, look at the Kurds in the north

By Shlomo Avineri - posted Friday, 21 May 2004

The assassination of the president of Iraq's Governing Council makes it crystal clear the US is failing to create the minimal law and order needed for any sort of orderly transfer of power to take place by June 30.

Barely two months ago, the signing of a constitutional document by a US-appointed group of unelected Iraqi officials was heralded as if it were the re-enactment of America's constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

But by now it is clear this is a worthless piece of paper. No imposed constitution, however elegant it may be, will be helpful to coalition forces when confronted with the type of mayhem seen in Iraqi towns such as Fallujah and Najaf.


In the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, however, the situation is completely different. In the past 10 years, under the protection of the allies' no-fly zone, and even more so since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish regional government has been able to establish and sustain a relatively orderly administration. It has overcome tribal and party differences and created a de facto functioning government, with an impressive record on development issues such as education, irrigation, and construction – and, above all, with no violence.

Confronted with the debacle in the rest of (Arab) Iraq, the question has to be asked why the US-led coalition should not hold a referendum in the Kurdish region, asking the population how they would like to be ruled. After all, the Kurds have, by any internationally accepted standards, a right to self-determination.

Historically, the Kurds – who are distinct in language, culture and historical consciousness from Arabs – never had their day in court. After World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Allies promised them a state of their own – a promise that was cynically betrayed when British and French imperial interests took precedence. Since then, the Kurds have suffered under the despotic rule of rival ethnic groups.

There are obvious obstacles to holding such a referendum, primarily because the US does not have a mandate to dispose of Iraq as it pleases. But the same goes for the rest of Iraq: the US is now lamely asking for a UN resolution mandating a transfer of power to a legitimate Iraqi government – but such an authorisation is highly unlikely, nor is there anyone in Iraq to whom authority can conceivably be transferred.

Why should the one region – and people – who run an orderly government, are not involved in murder, attacks on mosques and suicide bombing of schoolchildren, be penalised?

Another objection is the opposition of Turkey – and, to a lesser degree, Iran and Syria – to granting the Iraqi Kurds self-determination. But if one thinks in terms of universal norms of human rights, what right has Turkey to dictate internal development in another country? After all, nobody accepts Israel's claim to oppose as a matter of principle the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.


The same should apply to Turkey. If Turkey grants its own Kurdish minority more cultural and language rights and allows legitimate Kurdish political representation in the Turkish parliament, the willingness of Turkish Kurds to oppose Ankara will be diminished. In the 19th century, the joint interests of the authoritarian Russian, German and Austrian empires prevented the establishment of a free Poland; such unholy alliances have no place in the 21st century.

Recently, under the aegis of the United Nations, a referendum on the future of Cyprus was held within the island's Greek and Turkish communities. The outcome was paradoxical, and not to the liking of those who initiated it, but the right of the communities to determine their future was accepted. Why not in Iraqi Kurdistan?

Perhaps to assuage political fears – and considerations of international law – any plebiscite in the Kurdish region should, initially, have only a consultative status. But it will give legitimate expression to the will of a people long oppressed and entitled to their place in the sun.

Such a referendum may also concentrate minds among the Arab Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq, when they come to realise it is their violence that is dismantling Iraq. Perhaps they may decide violence is counter-productive and carries its own penalties, and may then follow the Kurdish example of curbing violence, which would help put Iraq together again without recourse to permanent repression.

If not, at the very least, the injustice suffered by the Kurdish people for generations would, at long last, be rectified.

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This article was first published in The Australian on May 18, 2004.

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About the Author

Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author, among other works, of The Social and Political Though of Karl Marx, The Making of Modern Zionism and Moses Hess: Prophet of Communism and Zionism. He is the recipient of the Israel Prize, the country's highest civilian decoration.

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