U.S. to let Kurds keep autonomy in north

Posted in Iraq | 05-Jan-04 | Author: Steven Weisman| Source: The New York Times

Self-rule timetable cited for decision; federal state at stake

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has decided to let the semiautonomous Kurdish government remain as part of a newly sovereign Iraq despite warnings from Iraq's neighbors and many Iraqis not to divide the country into ethnic states, American and Iraqi officials said.

The officials said that their new position on the Kurdish state was effectively dictated by the Nov. 15 accord with Iraqi leaders that established June 30 as the target date for Iraqi self-rule. Such a rapid timetable, they said, has left no time to change the identity of the Kurdish stronghold in the north, as many had originally wanted.

"Once we struck the Nov. 15 agreement, there was a realization that it was best not to touch too heavily on the status quo," an administration official said. "The big issue of federalism in the Kurdish context will have to wait for the Iraqis to resolve. For us to try to resolve it in a month or two is simply too much to attempt."

The issue of whether Iraq is to be divided into ethnic states in a federation-style government is of great significance within the country and throughout the Middle East, where fears are widespread that dividing Iraq along ethnic or sectarian lines could eventually break the country up and spread turmoil in the region.

Administration and Iraqi officials insist that leaving the Kurdish autonomous region intact does not preclude Iraq's consolidating itself without ethnic states in the future when Iraq writes its constitution. Indeed, the Bush administration plans to continue to press Iraq not to divide itself permanently along ethnic lines, officials say.

But after June 30, if all goes according to plan, the United States will have to wield such pressure from its status as a friendly outside power that happens to have 100,000 troops on the ground and not as an occupier. Many experts fear that once a Kurdish government is installed, even temporarily, it will be hard to dislodge.

American officials say that delaying the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq until later in 2004 or the following year - after a constitution was written under American guidance - would have made it more possible to influence a future government's makeup, not just on its federal structure but also on such matters as the role of Islamic law.

The earlier deadline, designed to ease Iraqi hostility to the occupation and to undermine support for the continuing attacks on American troops, has forced the United States to scrap many of its other earlier plans for Iraq's future.

Originally, for example, the United States had hoped to proceed with the privatization of state-owned businesses established by Saddam Hussein. That hope is gone, American officials concede, in part because of security dangers and possible future legal challenges to any sale carried out by an occupying power.

Last summer, L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, said at an economic forum in Jordan that Iraq would soon start privatizing more than 40 government-owned companies. "Everybody knows we cannot wait until there is an elected government here to start economic reform," he said.

Now Bremer says repeatedly that such decisions must await Iraqi self-rule.

The precise terms of the future status of the Kurdish region in the transitional government, which is expected to last until the end of 2005, remain a matter of sharp dispute among members of the Iraqi Governing Council, the group handpicked by the American-led occupation that helps guide Iraq's future.

The Kurdish members of the council are pressing a draft temporary constitution - known as the "transitional law" - that would give the Kurdish area great authority over security, taxing power and especially revenues from its own oil fields, according to Iraqi and American officials.

The Kurdish region has enjoyed basic autonomy since 1991, when the United States followed the first Gulf war by establishing a no-flight zone there to prevent Saddam's military from attacking.

"The status quo, with substantial Kurdish autonomy, will to a certain degree remain in place in the transitional period," an administration official said. "That is the view across the board of the Iraqi Governing Council. But clearly the Kurds are trying to get more than that. They feel they've got a pretty strong hand and are trying to play it."

The Bush administration has many times stated its opposition to a permanent arrangement of ethnic states in Iraq, fearing it might eventually become another Lebanon.

During a visit to the Kurdish region in September, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that while he sympathized with such aspirations and understood that Kurdish leaders did not want to break away from Iraq, he opposed a separate Kurdish state as such.

"We would not wish to see a political system that is organized on ethnic lines," Powell said. "There are other ways to do it that would not essentially bring into the future the ethnic problems that have been there all along. They understand that, and we'll have different models to show them."

In Baghdad, a 10-member subcommittee of the Iraqi Governing Council is wrestling with its own models of how to define the Kurdish area's powers. The committee is trying to meld its own draft with one put forward by the Kurds, officials said. The subcommittee chairman is Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister.

Feisal Istrabadi, a senior legal adviser to Pachachi, said, "There is a substantial agreement that the status quo in the Kurdish region would be maintained during the transitional period, with an important caveat. No one is conceding any ethnic or confessional grounds as the basis for any future federal state."

Istrabadi, who is in Baghdad helping Pachachi's committee draft the "transitional law" to take effect after June 30, said that most Iraqis would oppose the establishment of ethnic states. He said such an arrangement would be inappropriate given that Iraq did not have a history of ethnic or sectarian strife that had led to the partition of states in other parts of the world.

Some academic experts have suggested that Iraq should be divided into a Kurdish enclave in the north, a Sunni one in the center and a Shiite one in the south.

But this idea has little support with the Iraqi Governing Council and none with the United States.

"You know what the largest Kurdish city in Iraq is?" Istrabadi asked. "It's Baghdad. It isn't like you could draw a line in Iraq and say the Kurds live here or the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, or the Turkmans or the Shiites or the Sunnis live there. In the supposedly Shiite south, there are a million Sunnis in Basra."

The Kurdish region is dominated by two feuding political parties that have been struggling to form a unified government in order to strengthen their hand in pushing for a federalist system that would give them broad autonomy into the future.

At present, Iraq is divided into 18 states, known as governorates, of which three are Kurdish in the mountainous north. A permanently unified Kurdish state stirs worries, especially in Turkey and Iran, where there are large and restive Kurdish minorities.