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Debating a National Settlement in Iraq

Writing in Haaretz recently, David Rosenberg recently noted that an independent Kurdistan would resemble Zimbabwe, rather than Dubai-- the central African nation of Rhodesia was ruled by a minority which unilaterally declared independence in 1967, and rapidly plummeted into a downward spiral that continues to this day.

In the past, the possible breakaway of the Iraqi Kurdish region has also been compared to the splitting of Sudan, simply creating more chaos and war over resources, rather than resolving long standing problems. Advocates of an independent Kurdish nation say that, done peacefully, the Kurdish dream can be realised in a way that more resembles the Czech-Slovakia model, a comparison that has not escaped Massoud Barzani. But the Kurdish leader appears divided in how to approach this dream: in September, the Kurdish leader said that his forces might “fight until the last man” for the disputed city of Kirkuk. This is one reason why Western nations look upon the referendum with grave concern, while Iraq’s neighbours have taken a much harder line.

Conflict is not preordained however. The referendum recalls the proposals of the late Abdul Aziz Al-Hakeem when the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq briefly campaigned for the formation of three federal entities in Iraq, Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions. This project was eventually abandoned after fears that it would only encourage unilateral separatism. This fear persists today, recently dividing the Sunni community on the issue of autonomy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. position has been particularly interesting, not so much in its confirmation of the long-standing One Iraq policy, but because the U.S. now appear far more in tune with domestic Iraqi politics than at any time in the past 14 years.

This was in evidence when Iraq’s Holiest authority, the Marjayiah, issued a statement calling for the preservation of Iraqi unity and the peaceful resolution of disputes through the Iraqi Supreme Court, in accordance with the Constitution. On the same day, the 29th September, the State Department issued its firmest statement on the referendum.

Yet some boldly claim we may be witnessing a situation resembling the creation of the state of Israel, as if the subsequent regional (and local) conflicts were only a minor problem to contend with. Some assert that like the Jewish people before the state of Israel, the Kurds are now famously the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. In fact, Tamils number as many as 75 million over two nations, and have their own language and culture.

As is often the case, the reality of what happens next may be somewhere between these extremes, with the KRI neither becoming the next Israel, Zimbabwe or South Sudan. But Rosenberg is correct to point out the harsh realities of the situation now faced by the rulers of the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) while Aaron Lund, Denise Natali, Luay al-Khatteeb, Kirk Sowell and Michael Rubin have all written unflinching analysis of the situation. Meir Masri, writing in Haaretz, has become the latest Israeli observer to suggest the project is ill advised, suggesting that Israel should only support a Kurdish state if the pre-conditions are negotiated with Baghdad.

The realism of these analysts exists in a different universe to wave of romantic op eds we have seen in recent months that seem detached from the complex realities on the ground. Article after article skirts over issues of vital importance, such as the complex patchwork of minorities in “disputed territories” that might be absorbed into a Kurdish entity, denying tens of thousands of people their democratic rights and already leading to unrest.

This is one reason we started this blog, to provide detailed insights into what is actually happening in Iraq, as opposed to opinionated commentary. After all, it was a series of assumptions about Iraq prior to 2003 that resulted in so much suffering, much of which may have been avoidable. Over-simplified analysis of the growing strength of I.S. and the political situation in the post 2011 period also led to a tardy Western response to a genocidal terror group.

However, while we have our own views as editors, we want to understand what we may be missing: is the dream of a Kurdish state really unreasonable? Are (as some Kurds claim) those who oppose a Kurdish state prejudiced against Kurds? Or are they genuinely concerned for the security of the Kurdish people?

Might new arrangements be explored that could increase democracy and political accountability to the benefit of all Iraqis, furthering issue based politics? Sajad Jiyad at the Al Bayan Centre believes so, as does Michael Knights. Is this entire debate an unhelpful distraction from the very serious economic and security issues both the Kurds and Iraqis face?

Some analysts simply warn there are potentially intractable problems that need sustained attention, while not ruling out the possibility of a Kurdish state. These latter analysts include Joost Hiltermann, who has worked on the issue of disputed territories for many years, and Maria Fantappie, who has spent a lot of time in Iraq.

Detailed debate is needed, but policy makers will need a way out of this crisis sooner rather than later. Should a dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil focus on the benefits of greater power-sharing, and if so, does this resolve the issue of the disputed territories? One problem with this Baghdad--Erbil focus is the risk that the demands of other communities in Iraq may become sidelined.

Iraq may be better served by the continuation of a National Dialogue among all of Iraq’s components. Turkmens who have rejected the referendum must also have a say on whether they remain united with Iraq in their homeland, Kirkuk, as well as Yazidis who largely rejected the referendum in addition to other minorities.

The United Nations started working two years ago on a National Settlement Project, and holding many meetings with the National Alliance, the Sunni blocs, the Kurdish parties, Turkmen and other communities. They have submitted their visions for the future of a unified Iraq.

On July 17th, UNAMI said that this process “will be based on a comprehensive mapping and analysis of the different proposals and visions received by the UN, which will be used to identify common ground leading towards a common vision of national settlement and societal reconciliation.”

The effort has seen the involvement of a number of Iraqi independent politicians, as well as the Prime Minister's office and has had the approval of local, regional and international key stakeholders.

The National Settlement Project is important because it can provide a central platform for resolving the issues on the negotiating table, which are centred on power-sharing, land and wealth management and cannot be solved based on two-way negotiations, because the issues cannot be neatly divided on the basis of ethnicity.

A centralised process, led by UNAMI, is vital, because Iraq cannot rely on the U.S. as a “divorce lawyer,” as some have claimed, or any other nation as lead mediator while other nations throw proposals into the mix. We have seen the difficulties in Libya recently where there have been six peace processes on the table, leading to confusion and little progress. Whatever happens now, we wish to enhance the debate, and will be hosting arguments from either side of the divide, on this issue and many others.

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