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August 26, 2005

The Kurds: Will they stay or will they go?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Michael Kraig's post here on what the contours of Iraq actually look like, and what a future path toward stability might look like, is one of the best things I have read recently.   But it does forcibly raise a problem that I have been shoving out of the front of my mind all week:  is the die already cast for the Kurds?  What has to be done to maintain the status quo, with Kurdish leaders saying and doing the right things in public?  And, if we cannot keep the violence from getting to a point where the compromise between regional stability and self-determination we have offered becomes too grotesque, what then?

I don't pretend to have any insight into the minds of actual Kurdish leaders in Iraq.  But I do observe the tealeaves around Washington with some acuity, I like to think, and I see signs that the Kurds' friends, supporters and advisers here have decided that the Kurds are going to walk, eventually, or maybe not so eventually.

I'm not happy about making this observation.  I spent more than enough time on the self-determination vs. territorial integrity battleground in Europe in the 1990s.  Both sides have much to be modest about -- and the Balkans had no oil, no suicide bombers, and quaintly few imported extremists.

But since it sure looks as if the effort to keep Iraq a strong centralized state is in shambles, I'd like to see evidence that we've got better legwork behind plan B, a weaker federation/confederation.  And, although I wouldn't want to hear too much about it publically, some smart minds thinking about what to do if that fails too. 


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AN IRAQI CONFEDERATION?....What's the likely end state for Iraq? Heather Hurlburt argues that we're already there for the Kurds: they have no interest in a centrally governed Iraq, and they have both the economy and the militia to make their... [Read More]


I wrote my comment on your post in my blog:
I wonder what you think about it. I hope at least the Kurds in Iraq will get independence

I left a lengthy comment on this topic here at Democracy Arsenal on August 16th. My views haven't changed much since then, although today I would probably express them with a bit more diplomatic subtlety than I managed ten days ago. For one thing, I would avoid the use of the obnoxious term "quarantine".

But the substance of most of the suggestions I made then still seems correct to me. I would re-emphasize one point particularly: Although we can't expect much international assistance with our current, increasingly desperate task of continuing to support the US-established political process, and suppressing the insurgency that opposes it, we might be able to get international and UN participation in overseeing the devolution of the Iraqi state, and in performing some of the jobs related to it. That includes helping to secure the regions that are already on the path to securing themselves, stabilizing the new internal borders, and monitoring and policing various human rights-related activities such as population movements and the distribution of aid.

I would like to add a few amendments to my original comments:

1. The biggest wild card right now is Moqtada al-Sadr and his organization. There has been fighting recently between his supporters and SCIRI's Badr Corp forces. The message having been sent, Sadr called off his forces. But the basic issue is unresolved.

Because Sadr's base is in the Sadr City section of Baghdad, Sadr opposes regional autonomy - or at least any autonomy scheme that would leave Baghdad in a Sunni-controlled central Iraqi region. This puts him at odd's with SCIRI's head Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who favors an autonomous region for Shiites in the south. Perhaps a workable separation plan would have to devise a special open status for Baghdad.

2. Wherever you have a single pipeline running through various regions, you have the basis for some consilience of economic self-interest. Some people benefit from pumping, some from refining, some from transit fees, some from shipping. Right now the Sunnis, or at least their official representatives to the constitutional assembly who represent the old Baathist regime, are opposed to autonomy for various reasons, the most prominent probably being their fear that they will lose control over oil and its various revenues. A separation scheme must include a fair settlement for the Sunnis based on the the security they will provide for the transiting pipelines, the Bayji refinery, etc. Surely pipeline politics will also have to play a role in securing Turkish acquiescence, even if grumbling, in whatever scheme is worked out.

3. One topic about which I haven't heard much discussion lately is the issue of water. Water always seems to be crucial to the politics of the Middle East region, and Iraq of course is the site of two major rivers of ancient significance. The rivers play a role in electricity production, irrigation and transportation - and in at least some places provide drinking water I presume. How does the water issue figure into the ongoing wrangling over the political future?

>And, if we cannot keep the violence from getting to a >point where the compromise between regional stability >and self-determination we have offered becomes too >grotesque, what then?

This is the crux of the whole enterprise in Iraq, isn't it? Isn't the real problem the Sunni insurgency? How can any sort of stable governance be constructed upon a foundation of instability and violence? It seems crystal clear that there can be no political solution that makes Iraq a viable state without a vast reduction in the violence perpetrated by the Sunni insurgents. (Why are US policymakers so fixated on the foreign Jihadis in Iraq, when the vast majority of the violence comes from the far larger Sunni insurgency?)

The effort to draft the constitution was more about negotiating a political compromise between the three sectarian powers in Iraq than laying out a foundation for a future government. The sticking points over the constitution are the very same sticking points driving the rivalry among the factions. It was fairly ludicrous to expect that a constitution could be drafted without firm compromise over these differences.

At the moment, none of the factions feel the need to compromise. The Kurds and Shi'ites have little to gain by remaining in a unified Iraq with a Sunni minority waging guerilla war against them, and the Sunnis are guaranteed to become indigent, second-class citizens in a loose confederation or three-state arrangement. So what, exactly, is the incentive for political compromise?

Given that even the "moderate" Sunnis have threatened to launch an intifada should the current draft of the constitution be rammed through parliament, how can this result in anything less than civil war? It is clear that the Sunni insurgents seek to drive US forces out, destabilize whatever government is left behind, and then attempt to reunify Iraq under Sunni/Ba'ath control. Their capacity for violence will only be enhanced should all of Sunni Iraq fall in with them.

It appears that the Bush administration has privately accepted that it cannot defeat the Sunni insurgency militarily. Now it appears to have blown the last good chance to reach a political compromise among the sectarian factions. All of the bloviating in the left-wing blogosphere about "what to do now" will very likely be mooted by facts on the ground.

The questions now become, which faction or factions will the US back in Iraq Civil War? How many Iraqis will die in the ensuing ethnic cleansing bloodbath? What if the Sunni Ba'athists actually regain power? How will the US prevent the Turks from invading the incipient Kurdish state? How will the US prevent Iran from becoming the dominant power in Shi'ite Iraq? Will the waves of Iraqi refugees destabilize Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia? How will the Sunni Arab world react? How will the blowback affect Jihadi terrorist recruiting and activity?

And we though Saddam's possession of WMDs was a nightmare?


Events do seem to be bearing out your intuition of two weeks ago. I'm not sure it needs amending:

"1. The biggest wild card right now is Moqtada al-Sadr and his organization."

The recent flare-up shows that Sadr is still a threat to Shia unity but his militia can't stand up to the Badr brigade and they did not get a significant share of the January vote. I would argue that the real wild card is Sistani and whether he is willing to let al-Hakim write federalism into the constitution. Are Sistani's views on this known?

"2. Wherever you have a single pipeline running through various regions, you have the basis for some consilience of economic self-interest."

My impression is that oil in the southern Shia areas could all be exported to Asia through the Gulf, and Kurdish oil could go overland to Europe through Turkey. I don't see what the Sunni Arabs have to bargain with if they try to extort concessions in exchange for transit rights. The highway to Jordan isn't as important as it was during sanctions.

"3. One topic about which I haven't heard much discussion lately is the issue of water."

This is a good point. Turkey is the main problem here with their plans to dam the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Arab Iraq depends on the rivers for irrigation. But I don't think the Sunni Arabs of Iraq would divert the upstream water for themselves; there would be instant civil war with the Shias.

On the more general situation in Iraq:

Unless I missed the latest turn of negotiations, I thought the three groups had reached agreement to apportion oil revenues according to population, ie. Sunni Arabs = 20 percent of the people = 20 percent of oil revenues. A unitary state might be a better guarantee of these revenues than three sub-states, but a unitary state could give Shias more direct control over Arab Iraq as a whole. The Sunnis would both gain and lose in a unitary state.

Maybe the Sunni leaders think (and they could be correct) that in a unitary Iraq both Arab groups will have to accommodate each other, and the more extreme elements in each group will be marginalized. But if the real reason the Sunnis want a unitary state is that they think a Sunni restoration over Iraq as a whole is possible, then the constitutional project is doomed.

I wouldn't say that a federal Iraq or a breakup is inevitable until we hear (or don't hear) from Sistani. But even he may not be able to hold Iraq together if the other Shia leaders are determined to secede and the Sunnis can't live with that.

"Unless I missed the latest turn of negotiations, I thought the three groups had reached agreement to apportion oil revenues according to population, ie. Sunni Arabs = 20 percent of the people = 20 percent of oil revenues."

No. The wording was too vague and was simply a collection of platitudes. Much like most of the least objectionable parts of the Iraqi con-jobstitution. Furthermore this only applied to existing wells (as of the last draft I read) with some indistinct wording tacked on about "sharing natural resources".

Angryman - thanks for the clarification.

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