As anti-American attacks escalate elsewhere in Iraq, the Kurdistan region remains steadfast in its support of the United States, if not all of the policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). This does not, however, translate into unconditional support for Bush administration's political objectives in Iraq, which may become painfully obvious when Iraqis finally sit down to write a constitution.
Iraqi Kurdistan is possibly the most pro-American place in the world today. Iraqi Kurds describe the last twelve years as Kurdistan's "golden era" — a time when the Kurds governed themselves in a pluralistic, if not fully democratic, society, when much of the physical destruction wrought by Saddam's rule was repaired, and when Kurds enjoyed increasing prosperity, especially after the creation of the oil-for-food program in 1996. None of this would have been possible without U.S. military protection, and the Kurds know it. Unlike the Shiites, they long ago forgave the United States its earlier support of the Saddam Hussein regime and its betrayal of their 1991 uprising.
The Kurdish leaders value their role as America's main ally within Iraq. They note that the Kurdish peshmerga created the northern front for Operation Iraqi Freedom, and suffered more combat casualties than America's British allies. The U.S. military has reciprocated by exempting the peshmerga from its April general order to dissolve militias, by allowing the Kurdistan Regional Governments to continue to function, and by allowing the Kurds to keep the significant quantities of Iraqi heavy weapons they captured at the end of the war. Not that the US had any real choice: it would have been politically impossible to disarm forcibly its main ally and, with chaos prevailing elsewhere in Iraq, highly undesirable to dissolve Iraq's one functioning government.
So far, the Kurdistan leaders have skillfully played the part of loyal ally, accommodating the Americans on all non-vital issues. But where the Kurds have seen a vital interes — in keeping Turkish troops out of Iraq — they have been adamant and effective in their opposition. Faced with a choice between disrespecting the expressed wishes of the Kurdish-influenced Iraqi Governing Council and not having the Turkish troops, CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer III wavered, and then decided not to push the troop deployment.
No issue is more vital to the Kurds than incorporating their version of federalism into Iraq's new constitution, and they are mobilizing all their new power to this end. The two main Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have demonstrated an unprecedented degree of cooperation in the last year, and are presenting a united front in constitutional negotiations. Thus, for the first time in their history, the Kurds are entering intra-Iraq negotiations with the upper hand.
The Kurdistan negotiators will insist on keeping a single Kurdistan with an elected parliament and president, and with its own judiciary. They will insist that the Kurdistan province have extensive powers including the powers to tax, to spend, and to exercise exclusive control over the police, education, religion, environment, and the local economy. The Kurds want to convert the peshmerga into a Kurdistan self defense force reporting to the Kurdistan President, an understandable position considering the only army to attack the Kurds in the last eighty years was the Iraqi army. Equally controversial, the Kurds want their province to own the subsoil minerals (including oil) and water. In making these demands, the Kurds will cite the example of other federal democracies, such as Canada (where the provinces own the natural resources) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (where the constitution based on the American-brokered Dayton Accords allows each federal unit its own military).
The Kurds also want full equality in the central government. Again borrowing from Canada, they will insist on the equality of the Arabic and Kurdish languages in all national institutions including the parliament, the diplomatic service, and the senior bureaucracy. It has not escaped their notice that bilingualism in Canada gives the twenty percent French speaking population disproportionate power at the federal level.
These demands will bring the Kurdistan leaders into conflict not only with old-style Arab leaders who continue to believe in a highly centralized government run from Baghdad, but also potentially with Shiite clerics seeking to impose Islamic rule on the whole country. It may also lead to conflict with the CPA, which fears that too much federalism may undermine President Bush's commitment to preserve the unity of Iraq.
Given a genuinely free choice, few of Iraq's Kurds would choose to remain part of Iraq. After twelve years of separation, the rest of Iraq is a foreign land to a younger generation brought up in the relative freedom and isolation of the Kurdish speaking north. For the older generation, Iraq is mostly associated with repression and genocide. The Kurdish leaders understand that independence is not a practical option today, but they face a public that is increasingly assertive on the matter. For instance, Kurdish non-governmental organizations have launched a petition drive for a vote on Kurdistan's status.
Over the long term, it is almost impossible to have a country that is both unified and democratic when the people of a geographically defined region almost unanimously do not want to be part of that country. By meeting many Kurdish aspirations, a loose federation may be the best hope to hold Iraq together. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the CPA, preoccupied as it is with the deteriorating security environment and with constitutional timetables and modalities, sees any of this.
Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, is senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation. He is an expert on Iraqi Kurdistan, and has visited the region many times over the last twenty years.