Global Policy Forum

Kurds Threaten to Walk Away From Iraqi State


By Dexter Filkins

New York Times
June 9, 2004

Letter from Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani to US President George Bush

A crisis for the new Iraqi government loomed Tuesday as Kurdish leaders threatened to withdraw from the Iraqi state unless they received guarantees against Shiite plans to limit Kurdish self-rule. In a letter to President Bush this week, the two main Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, wrote that the Kurds would "refrain from participating in the central government" in Baghdad if any attempt was made by the new government to nullify the interim Iraqi constitution adopted in March.

Shiite leaders have said repeatedly in recent weeks that they intend to remove parts of the interim constitution that essentially grant the Kurds veto power over the permanent constitution, which is scheduled to be drafted and ratified next year. The Shiite leaders consider the provisions undemocratic, while the Kurds contend they are their only guarantee of retaining the rights to self-rule they gained in the past 13 years, protected from Saddam Hussein by United States warplanes.

In their letter, Mr. Talabani and Mr. Barzani wrote that the Kurdish leadership would refuse to take part in national elections, expected to be held in January, and bar representatives from going to "Kurdistan." That would amount to something like secession, which Kurdish officials have been hinting at privately for months but now appear to be actively considering. "The Kurdish people will no longer accept second-class citizenship in Iraq," the letter said. The two leaders also asked President Bush for a commitment to protect "Kurdistan" should an insurgency compel the United States to pull its forces out of the rest of Iraq.

To assure that Kurdish rights are retained, Mr. Talabani and Mr. Barzani, whose parties together deploy about 75,000 fighters, asked President Bush to include the interim Iraqi constitution in the United Nations security resolution that governs the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. But American officials rejected the Kurdish request after appeals from Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's most powerful Shiite, who threatened "serious consequences" if any such move was undertaken. That seemed to set the stage for a showdown between Kurdish and Shiite leaders over the future of the Iraqi state.

A senior American official in Washington cautioned against reading the letter as a firm threat to abandon the central government, saying he expected the Kurds and Shiites to reach an agreement ultimately. But in Baghdad, a rupture seemed quite possible. The Shiite leaders, whose people make up a majority in Iraq but who have been historically shut out of power, say the provisions that would allow the Kurdish minority to nullify the constitution would diminish the Shiites' historic opportunity to claim political power.

Adil Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's finance minister and a leader of one of the country's largest Shiite parties, said Tuesday that the country's Shiite leadership was determined to remove the provisions that could allow the Kurds to veto the permanent constitution, even at the risk of driving them away. "It's not against the Kurds, it's against the procedure," Mr. Mahdi said.

Adam Ereli, deputy State Department spokesman, did not offer details on the American decision to refuse the Kurdish request regarding the United Nations resolution. But he offered general assurances that Kurdish rights would be protected. "We in the international community will work with you to make this democracy a success, to ensure that the rights of all Iraqis are honored and respected," he said.

But a senior United Nations official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said American officials rejected the Kurdish request because of concerns over offending the country's Shiite leaders. In a letter released Tuesday by his office, Ayatollah Sistani warned the Security Council against incorporating the interim constitution into the United Nations resolution. "This law, which was written by a nonelected council under occupation, and under the direct influence of the occupation, would constrain the national assembly," Ayatollah Sistani wrote. "It is rejected by the majority of the Iraqi people."

The signing of the interim constitution, shepherded by American officials here, was regarded as a historic achievement that tried to reassure the country's long-suppressed Shiite majority without alienating the Kurds. The crucial compromise was contained in the provision that the permanent constitution would pass with a majority vote of the Iraqi people unless voters in three of the country's 18 provinces opposed the constitution by a two-thirds vote. Ethnic Kurds, who make up a fifth of the Iraqi population, are a majority in three provinces. Kurdish leaders say they are concerned that the new Iraqi government will not honor the interim constitution unless it is forced to.

Iraqi leaders and United Nations officials say that under generally accepted principles of international law, the new Iraqi government will not be bound by any of the laws passed during the American occupation. A source close to the Kurdish leadership, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Kurdish leaders concluded that the interim constitution needed some sort of reaffirmation to compel the new government to adhere to it. The Kurds say they do not expect the Shiite-dominated interim government to provide such reaffirmation, so they asked the Bush administration to make sure it was included in the United Nations resolution.

Bush administration officials have maintained publicly that the interim constitution, as well as all the laws approved during the occupation, will continue to have legal force in Iraq after June 30. But privately, a senior official acknowledged that the interim constitution would need to be reaffirmed to have legal force. The turning point for the Kurds, the source close to the leadership said, came last month when Robert Blackwill, President Bush's special envoy to Iraq, told the two Kurdish leaders that no ethnic Kurd would be considered for the post of either president or prime minister.

After that, Kurdish leaders began preparing to cut their ties to Baghdad. In an ominous sign, most of the senior leadership of both Mr. Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Mr. Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party had left Baghdad Tuesday and gone to the Kurdish areas.

Steven R. Weisman contributed to this article.

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