BAGHDAD (AFP)–Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani’s recent call for self-determination for his people has drawn the ire of the country’s Sunni and Shiite Arab leaders, who say such arguments presage a break-up of Iraq.
“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,” said Alia Nusayaf, a member of parliament aligned with the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc. “It makes me wonder if the Kurds asked for federalism [in Iraq’s constitution] to first form a region and then to separate from Iraq.”
Barzani said Saturday at the opening of a week-long congress of his Kurdistan Democratic Party that self-determination was “a right.” He said it would be presented at the meeting “to be studied and discussed.”
The Iraqi Kurdish leader’s comments mark the first time Barzani has officially presented the issue to the KDP’s congress, with the proposal set to be voted on during the meeting. His comments come at a time when Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki is forming his cabinet. Barzani’s party is expected to be awarded several ministerial posts and Kurdish authorities are mired in a dispute with Baghdad over land and oil.
The six-day congress in Arbil is hosting a number of foreign representatives, including members of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The congress has drawn more than 1,000 delegates who are set to elect 50 new members to the KDP’s top leadership committee. The gathering is the first time the party has come together in 13 years.
Among those at the meeting in the northern Iraqi city were al-Maliki, Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraqiya. “It’s shameful that with all the politicians present, not one of them spoke up [regarding Barzani’s remarks],” Nusayaf said.
There is also consternation among politicians loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose backing for al-Maliki largely ensured the incumbent would remain prime minister. “These declarations [of Barzani’s] are not in the best interests of Iraq, and they only serve to raise tensions,” said Jawad al-Hasnawi, a Sadrist lawmaker.
“I think an Iraq that extends from Zakho to Basra is much better than an Iraq that is divided,” al-Hasnawi added, referring to the country’s northern and southernmost cities.
Al-Hasnawi noted, however, that politicians at the Arbil meeting probably declined to respond to Barzani’s remarks to avoid “inflaming the situation.” Barzani’s KDP is a key member of al-Maliki’s governing coalition, and the Kurdish leader played a major role in bringing Iraq’s divided political factions together to agree to a power-sharing deal.
The party, part of a joint slate with Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, controls a substantial majority of seats in the parliament of the Kurdish regional administration in northern Iraq and in combination with the PUK holds 43 seats in Baghdad’s assembly.
Iraq’s Kurdish north, made up of three provinces, exercises control over all policy-making, except that relevant to national defense and foreign affairs. On Sunday, Kurdish regional Prime Minister Barham Salih, a PUK leader, pressed the issue again. “There is a consensus among Kurds over the fact that it is legal and legitimate to have the right to self-determination,” he told a press conference. “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.”
The northern Iraqi administration won greater freedom after the 1991 Gulf War and its autonomy was enshrined in Iraq’s constitution following the United States-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.
According to Khalid al-Assadi, a member of parliament with Maliki’s State of Law coalition, it is unlikely the Kurds want to go much further. Barzani’s comments were “for domestic consumption,” al-Assadi said. “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.