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May 11, 2007 | 21:08 GMT

6 mins read

Iraq: A Framework Settlement and Kurdish Concerns

While the Iranians are busy creating the framework for a comprehensive settlement with the United States over Iraq, the Kurds have good reason to be worried.
Following the May 3-5 Sharm el-Sheikh summit in Egypt, the Iranian government has thrown out a number of indicators that it is making serious moves toward reaching a comprehensive resolution with Washington over Iraq. The Iranians presented a detailed paper at the summit outlining Tehran's demands for Iraq, and essentially demonstrated that the appropriate concessions will be made to appease Iraq's Sunni faction as long as the government in Baghdad falls within the Iranian orbit of influence. The United States is most unlikely to be completely on board with all of Iran's demands, and there are still lengthy negotiations to be had. But now that the Iranian proposal has been thrown out into the public view for the Sunni Arabs and Kurds to see what plan the Iranians have cooked up for Iraq, Washington is facing quite the damage-control task to assure these factions that any deal it works out with Iran will not compromise their core interests. The Iranian paper acknowledges that Iraq's Sunni faction would have to be appeased in a number of ways to quell the insurgency and allow the Iraqi government to function. The relevant proposals include making amendments to the constitution to give 40 percent of the seats in Baghdad to the Sunnis; altering the de-Baathification law to allow the rehiring of former Iraqi army personnel; holding fresh parliamentary elections; and reaching an agreement on the "fair" distribution of oil revenues, "especially the regions in the center of Iraq" (a direct reference to the oil-deprived and Sunni-dominated central region of the country). These proposals give Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) much to worry about. Currently, the Iraqi 275-seat parliament is divided to give the Shia about 47 percent of seats, the Sunnis 20 percent and the Kurds 21 percent. Iran's suggested doubling of the percentage of Sunni seats, with the Shia maintaining the overall majority, leaves little room for Kurds in the parliament. The Kurds are not going to be enthusiastic about amending the Iraqi Constitution in any event. When the charter was formulated in late 2005, the Sunnis opted for the insurgency and boycotted the political realm. Without the Sunnis in play, the Kurds took advantage of the situation and helped design a constitution largely favorable to Kurdish interests. This is particularly true of the intentionally ambiguous clauses on oil legislation, which allow the regional governorates considerable authority over decisions related to developing oil fields, exploring new and undeveloped fields, and dividing revenues. The Kurdish faction will hotly contest any attempt to give the Sunnis a larger piece of the oil pie, especially by re-establishing the state-owned Iraq National Oil Co. As Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the KRG representative to the United States, recently threatened, "The oil issue for us is a redline … if a centralized oil regime is imposed on us, we will not participate in the state of Iraq." The Kurds see the recent add-ons to the oil legislation by the Sunni and Shiite factions as an outright attempt to rob the Kurds of their prized oil resources. No major concessions by the Kurds can thus be expected on this subject in the near future, particularly when the Kirkuk issue remains unsettled. The final status of the ancient, multiethnic and oil-rich city of Kirkuk is supposed to be settled in a local referendum by the end of 2007 under the constitution. Turkey, Iran, and Iraq's Sunni and Shiite factions all have a vested interested in making sure Kirkuk's oil wealth does not officially fall under the Kurds' control, and are actively working to settle more Arabs in the city to reverse the demographics back in their favor. Iraqi Kurdish leaders regret not taking Kirkuk at the outset of the Iraq war, and know that the longer the referendum is delayed, their chances of securing Kirkuk will be further diminished. With Turkey making threats across the border and the United States with its hands full in dealing with the Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias farther south, the Kurds are pushing for the referendum to take place before they lose their chance altogether. In essence, Iraqi Kurds are looking at a whole new ball game in post-Hussein Iraq. Iraq's Kurds are experiencing the highest degree of independence in their history. For the first time they have their own political system (in which the two main rival Kurdish parties are united for a change), security forces and a steady source of income, which is why desperately holding on to the region's oil resources has become such a vital issue. Needless to say, the KRG is not willing to easily surrender any of that. And if history serves as a lesson, the Kurds cannot be all that assured that they will not again end up on the losing side. The aftermath of 1991 Gulf War, when the United States essentially reneged on a backdoor deal to support Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in the north and south, leaving both factions to get brutally crushed by Saddam Hussein's forces, is still fresh in the minds of Iraqi Kurds. Knowing full well that the United States is anxious for an exit strategy from Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds are not completely confident that Washington will not overlook Kurdish interests in an effort to reach a final settlement on Iraq. And though Tehran has a long history of working with Iraq's Kurds — particularly the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by KRG President Massoud Barzani — against the Sunni-led regime in Baghdad, with a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, the Iranians and Iraqi Kurds no longer have a common enemy to battle. The Iraqi Kurds already knew the tenuousness of such working relationships given the 1975 Algiers accord between Iran and Iraq, which halted Iranian support for a Kurdish rebellion in Iraq, seriously crippling the movement. In addition, the Iraqi Kurds are fully aware they represent the common adversary to Iraq's Sunni and Shiite factions, and that once the attention shifts from the sectarian violence farther south, they will face familiar moves from Baghdad to suppress Kurdish autonomy. The Iraqi Kurds also enjoy no assurance that the deep historical rifts between Barzani's KDP and President Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan will not end up compromising Kurdish interests in the long run, particularly if Talabani's health begins to fail. Do-or-die time for the Kurds to consolidate their gains has arrived. The KRG can pressure Washington to keep Kurdish interests in mind during these negotiations by issuing veiled threats to withdraw from the central government and halt peshmerga support for U.S. forces, but in the end, a significant compromise of some sort looks inevitable. The adage that history repeats itself holds especially true in geopolitical matters. Unfortunately for the Kurds, their history is all too painful a reminder of what could lie ahead.

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