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News ::
Why no kurdistan? (english)
09 Jun 2003
With a coherent Kurdish region in the north and a majority Shi'ite population in the south, the Sunni elites of central Iraq found themselves thrown into an almost impossible task of ruling two large minorities reluctant to be ruled by a third one.

The current difficulties faced by the United States and the United Kingdom in building representative structures in Iraq are obvious and could have been foreseen: Democracy cannot be easily exported, and the uneven success of democratization in post-Soviet Eastern Europe suggests that one has to take history and political tradition into account as the main ingredients of transition to democracy.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are success stories and Russia is a problematic case precisely because their histories and political cultures are so different.

The general lack of democratic and liberal traditions in the Arab world makes the hopes for an easy transition to democracy in Iraq even dimmer.

Where are the legitimate role models in Arab political culture past and present on which liberal democracy can be built in Iraq? Certainly not in a repressive fundamentalist Saudi Arabia or a semi-authoritarian Egypt (let alone Syria or Libya).

Yet Iraq may be an especially difficult case, given te
its own history and ethnic and religious composition.
Perhaps the best way to restructure Iraq as a reasonably non-repressive society is to admit that the stitching together in the 1920s by the British of three erstwhile Ottoman provinces (Mosul, Baghdad and Basra) into one body politic was bound to lead to it becoming even before Saddam the most repressive regime in the Arab region.

With a coherent Kurdish region in the north and a majority Shi'ite population in the south, the Sunni elites of central Iraq found themselves thrown into an almost impossible task of ruling two large minorities reluctant to be ruled by a third one.

The history of Iraq in the 20th century has been one of constant repression and massacres of its Kurdish and Shi'ite minorities as well as of Christian Assyrians and Turcomans by the Sunni-ruled Baghdad central government.

Saddam's use of poison gas against his own Kurdish citizens in Halabja was only the latest of a long list of atrocities perpetrated by Sunni-dominated Iraqi regimes against the other ethnic and religious groups.

THE MOST obvious route toward a less repressive political culture in Iraq would be to accept the right of the Kurds in the north to self-determination. Just as the Palestinians have a right not to live under Israeli rule, so the Kurds in northern Iraq have a right not to live under Arab rule if they so wish.

There is nothing holy in the commitment to "preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq." Preserving the territorial integrity of a country makes sense only so long as the country itself remains a coherent entity. When this is no longer the case as turned out in the last decades with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia legitimacy disappears and other alternatives have to be sought.

The only thing that stands in the way of Kurdish self determination is realpolitik: Turkey, with its repressive policies toward its own Kurdish minority, would not tolerate a Kurdish state carved out of northern Iraq.

But just as Israeli claims cannot trump Palestinian rights to self-determination, so Turkish claims should not allowed to trump the rights of the Kurds of Northern Iraq to a polity of their own.

And after its ambivalent role in the Iraq war, Turkey carries much less weight with the US than before.

The Kurds are obviously a nation though, like many emergent nations, still in a process of national formation. The experience of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia even of Czechoslovakia has shown that where deep national rifts exist the attempt to force different nationalities into a procrustean bed causes friction, outbursts of violence and certainly is a hindrance toward democratic development.

While the atrocities of the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia are a terrible blot on European history, there is no doubt today that Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia have a better chance of democratic development as independent states than if formulas were still being attempted to work out the kind of ethnic internal "balance" that led to the emergence of such autocratic nationalists as Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman.

And the future of democratic development in Kosovo depends ultimately on the province not being part of a Serbia in which Albanians would be a minority feared by the majority Serbs and themselves wishing to cut loose from the Serbian yoke.

This is not a universal formula for ethnic states. But in areas of violent ethnic clashes minorities have a right to create their own sovereign communities; and what is almost universally considered to be the right to the Palestinians should apply also to the Kurds in Iraq.

Arab public opinion, which has been universally supportive and rightly so of the Palestinian right of self-determination, will obviously see another American, if not outright Zionist, plot in any attempt to create a Kurdish state.

It may be difficult to exorcise such Arab demons, yet universal values demand granting the Kurds a place in the sun. Paradoxically, the rest of Arab Iraq may then also have a better chance for a non-repressive future.

The author is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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