Iraq: Kurds Renew Demands for Self-Determination

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Just as Iraqi politicians seem to have finally put behind them a rather difficult political season, calls by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) for self-determination threaten to throw the political arena into disarray once again. In his opening speech of the 13th conference of the KDP, the president of the Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani declared that the KDP “shall raise the demand of self-determination for the Kurds in the Party’s next conference, as its previous conferences have already raised this call…The Kurdish society is facing a large number of problems nowadays, that can’t be settled unless through the reigning of justice. The law must be independent and just, and must not lean to narrow-party notions.”

In yet another report published by the Turkish daily, Hurriyet Daily News, Kurdish regional Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader, is quoted as saying at a press conference, “There is a consensus among Kurds over the fact that it is legal and legitimate to have the right to self-determination….When we pushed for a federal Iraq we said that it was a form of expression of self-determination, and we have never abandoned this right.”

These developments take place at the same time that, as Aswat Al-Iraq reports, “Arab and Turkmen members in the Iraqi parliament and the Kirkuk Provincial Council on Saturday announced their rejection of a planning ministry directive to form a committee to discuss the issue of census in the province….The conferees announced rejection of a mechanism to form the committee on the grounds that it violated article 23 of law 36/2008. The ministerial order provided that the committee would comprise three members of parliament from the Kurdistan Alliance, two Arabs and one Turkmen, while article 23 stipulated an equal percentage in everything that is related to Kirkuk, including the formation of committees.”

An Al Jazeera article explains that “Iraq’s Kurdish north, made up of three provinces, has its own parliament and exerts control over all areas of policy—except for national defense and foreign affairs. It is currently in dispute with Iraq’s central government in Baghdad over two main issues: a land dispute centered around the ethnically-mixed oil-rich city of Kirkuk and the distribution of revenues from the region’s energy reserves.” The article also makes the point that “Arbil claims Kirkuk and parts of three neighboring provinces, and has attempted signing its own deals with international energy firms without consulting Baghdad, both of which central government authorities contest. On the subject of Kirkuk, Barzani pointedly told the audience that ‘when it returns to the region … we will make Kirkuk an example of coexistence, forgiveness and joint administration, but we cannot bargain on its identity.’”

In fact, the question of Kirkuk continues to be a major point of contention and could be behind this most recent development. In an article published this week in Asharq Al-Awsat, Kurdistan Alliance MP Mahmoud Othman stated, “The National Alliance, which is made up of Ammar al-Hakim’s Iraqi National Alliance and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, has endorsed all of the 19-points put forward by Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani with regard to the formation of Iraq’s next government….However, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc objects to some of the Kurdish demands, particularly the points dealing with Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution and the Peshmerga. Article 140 calls on areas with a large Kurdish population outside of the Kurdistan Region to hold referendums to decide whether they will join the Kurdistan Region.”

The reaction from the media and politicians has varied. Writing for Al Hayat, Elias Harfoush argues that the call issued by Barzani was hardly surprising, given that the early signs of Iraq’s disintegration point to a new phase in its history: “This phase also prompts the Sunnis to seek protection in regions in which they still form a majority, after they were subjected to attempts to exclude them politically. Meanwhile, the governorate of Basra, with a Shiite majority, is getting ready to hold a referendum on instituting a federal region. To all of these items, we can add news agency reports, quoting Kurdish sources, on the Kurds’ move toward organizing a private army of 80,000 fighters, made up of the Pesh Merga and some autonomous security protection forces in areas with Sunni and Shiite majorities, to complete the picture of disintegration that threatens Iraq’s unity.”

Some Iraqi politicians dismissed the move simply as a play to the base on the part of Barzani. Khalid al-Assadi, a member of parliament with Maliki’s State of Law coalition, calmly pushed aside any possibility of a break-up, suggesting that “it is unlikely the Kurds want to go much further,” and that Barzani’s comments were “for domestic consumption. Self-determination is a Kurdish ambition, and they bring it up from time to time, but I think the Kurds are wise enough not to leave Iraq.”

Jawad al-Hasnawi, a Sadrist lawmaker, on the other hand, took exception to Barzani’s claims: “These declarations are not in the best interests of Iraq, and they only serve to raise tensions.” Alia Nusayaf, a member of parliament aligned with the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc went further, saying that “the right of self-determination is something that concerns people living under occupation, but this is not the case for Kurdistan, which has a special status in Iraq. It makes me wonder if the Kurds asked for federalism [in order] to first form a region and then to separate from Iraq.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at





  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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