Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Kurdish Kingmakers

I just returned from a New America Foundation Forum this morning, where free-lance journalist Nir Rosen and former Washington Post's Baghdad Bureau Chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran discussed the implications of the Iraqi elections. You may have seen Rosen's cover piece on the Kirkuki Kurds in the New York Times Magazine last weekend.

It seems to Rosen that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is inevitable. While in Kirkuk for the elections, he noticed that the Kurds have their own identity completely separate from Iraq. On election day, the Kurds celebrated by waving Kurdish flags and dancing to Kurdish music in an atmosphere Rosen called a mix between the Puerto Rican Day Parade and the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City. Worse, all the talk among the Kurds is how they'll eventually expel the Arabs from Kirkuk and integrate it into Iraqi Kurdistan. (Personally I believe the Kurds deserve their own state and that the only good thing to come out of 1991's Iraq War was Kurdish autonomy throughout northern Iraq due to the no fly zone.)

Nevertheless, for stability's sake, the Kurds should seek an arrangement that allows them to preserve the status quo they've enjoyed for over a decade now until the insurgency is defeated and ethnic tensions ebb. From Chandrasekaran's comments, this seems like a possibility since the Kurdish political leadership isn't talking about secession just yet. Federalism is their buzz word for the moment. The upside to putting Kurdish sovereignty aside at this moment is that the Shiite slate will have to bargain with the Kurds to achieve the two-third majority needed to form a government, which means the constitution should be moderate since the Kurds will never join the Shiites in pushing an Islamist constitution. This should give moderates and secularists some space to maneuver and bolster their ranks.

Also of note, Chandrasekaran argued that Shiite politicians are just that, politicians, and can be expected to pursue compromise regardless of what platform they campaigned underneath. While stability seems tenuous, there's also confidence the Shiites and Kurds are smart enough to compromise, form a government and then extend an olive branch to the moderate Sunni minority.

The Kurds are the kingmakers in Iraq, let us hope they use their power and influence wisely.

-- M. Wood