We are on the Brink of Change: A Kurdish Perspective

(Edited by Nikolas K.

(Edited by Nikolas K. Gvosdev from remarks presented by Dr. Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (Iraqi Kurdistan), at The Nixon Center, March 14, 2003.  Special to In the National Interest.) 

"We are on the brink of change in Iraq.  Everything we have heard from the Bush Administration indicates that this is for real this time.  We stand at a crossroads in history, which hopefully will launch Iraq toward representative democracy after thirty-five years of tyranny that has ruled over our country," Dr. Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, observed. 

Dr. Salih noted that "removing Saddam Hussein will not be that difficult" since according to reports they have received, the Iraqi military "is demoralized and much of the Iraqi military defenses will collapse before long."  He pointed out that none of this precludes Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants from "barricading themselves" or going into hiding, but that the bulk of the country should fall relatively quickly to coalition forces. 

Dr. Salih acknowledged that "the process of transition from a highly centralized dictatorship to a federal democracy" will be difficult, and that there are a number of impediments.  He pointed out, however, that these problems pale in comparison to the present-day sufferings faced by Iraqis.  He described a "sense of anticipation gripping the Iraqi population that their liberation is near," yet noted that there remains a sense of "uncertainty and fear" that the "Iraqi dictator will unleash an armageddon" upon his own people, including the use of VX and anthrax.  "We Iraqis know he has such weapons and that he is capable of using them." 

However, "the overwhelming majority of Iraqis have had enough and want to end this nightmare."  Certainly, there are obvious concerns among the populace about "the day after,"--the provision of public services, whether Iraq's neighbors will intervene, and so on.  Dr. Salih pointed out that "there is a lot of work that has been done, both by the Bush Administration and the Iraqi opposition" to prepare for a post-Saddam Iraq.  An interim national transitional authority is envisioned, to take responsibility for managing the day-to-day affairs of the country in consultation with the United States and the coalition.  "We see the U.S. mission as one of liberating the Iraqi people from this tyranny," Salih said. 

Salih acknowledged that "there will be some effort to derail our venture of building a federal democracy in Iraq," but that the Iraqi people are ready to reform their political system to produce a government "that is at peace with its own people and with its neighbors."  At the recent meeting in Salahaddin, a leadership structure of six people was created.  Salih pointed out that in the future, this structure may be expanded to include an Assyrian and a Turcoman representative and to encompass people from within parts of Iraq currently controlled by Saddam Hussein.  The goal of this transitional administration will be to "prepare for elections to a constituent assembly" to ratify a constitution for a federal democracy in Iraq.  He also pointed out that this leadership council has set up fourteen working committees (including in the areas of finance, outreach, and foreign relations), and said that "we expect these will be integrated into the interim national authority as soon as practically possible."  

"Given the nature of Iraqi geopolitics, given the failed state that is Iraq, I envision a medium term American military presence" to ensure that the Iraqi people have the ability to exercise self-determination, Salih said.  "We will have a power-sharing democracy in Iraq, where Kurdistan will become part of the federal state.  We are part of Iraq.   … The geopolitics of Iraq prevent us from breaking away.  We are going to be Iraqis, so we have the right to be players on the national scene, in Baghdad," Salih concluded. 

"We want a federal Iraq that will guarantee significant self-government, not only to Kurdistan but all regions of Iraq, and will give the right to all peoples--Arabs, Kurds, Turcomans, Assyrians--to participate in national government," Salih said.  However, he stressed that power must be decentralized, otherwise the possibility would remain that another dictator might come to power in Iraq. 

Asked about the situation vis-à-vis Turkey, Salih said, "One of the nightmare scenarios is a war within a war. Nationalist politics is a dangerous dynamic if unleashed."  He pointed out that the Kurdistan Regional Government had developed "good bilateral relations with Turkey.  We have developed collaborative relationships for security, economic matters, even on some political issues."  He noted that Turkey, after all, had facilitated the no-fly zone which protects Iraqi Kurdistan, and said that Turkey's secular democracy was a model that had value for Iraq.  "We say to our Turkish neighbors, you have insisted on Iraqi territorial integrity … we have accepted this reality … it is our sovereign right, therefore, as Iraqis to build a federal state."  Salih pointed out the inconsistency of a policy that insists that Iraqi Kurds be part of an Iraqi state yet then refuses to see them as anything other than Kurds.  "We have settled for a federal democracy where we can express our identity as Kurds but function as Iraqis," he concluded. 

Certainly, "the United States is not going to be there [in Iraq] forever. We have to visualize a future within the context of the region."  Yet, he countered, "peace and stability cannot be maintained in the region with the subjugation of the Kurdish people," with Kurds subject to being gassed and suffering genocide.