A Nation Within a Nation Takes Shape

ARBIL – Two years and three elections after the fall of the Saddam regime, Kurdistan is taking shape as a nation within a nation.

Kurds voted Jan. 30 for the Iraqi National Assembly, for a Kurdish parliament, and for local government through the governorate councils. That does not all add up to independence, but it does amount to an independence-like autonomy.

The two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), won 75 seats through a common slate in the 275-member Iraqi National Assembly. The Kurdish parties could be a part of a new Iraqi government but will have an influential voice within it in any case.

Kurds also elected a Kurdish parliament, which has been given authority by the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) to rule on the internal affairs of Kurdistan. The Kurdish parliament will rule on all matters except foreign policy and diplomatic representation, security and defense, and fiscal matters including currency.

The governorate councils elected through the third simultaneous election will handle all local matters.

The three taken together give Kurds jurisdiction on all domestic matters, and a strong say in defense and in foreign policy and financial matters.

The KDP and the PUK will have decisive say within the Kurdish parliament given their overwhelming majority, even though both have said they will rule by the “consensus principle” rather than through majority decisions.

The Kurdish parliament will have the power to resist any domestic policies coming from Baghdad. Central government decisions will apply to Kurdistan only if they are ratified by the Kurdistan parliament. The TAL that was passed by the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council sought to remove Kurd fears of an Arab dominated government in Baghdad.

Many Kurds see this as the beginning of their golden age.

“We have suffered a lot, let’s hope everything will get better,” said Nariman Assad, 41, a businessman from Sulaimaniya. “This time we have risen to get what we deserve.”

Kurds have enjoyed effective autonomy since the first Gulf War in 1991. But that was after they paid a heavy price for rising against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The United Nations Security Council passed resolution 688 in 1991 to establish a safe haven for Kurds under international protection. Kurds strongly supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq two years back.

The elections now have formalized their freedom, and new democratic rights are in the air. “Voting is a right because it has to do with the future of every single individual and your country,” says university student Mahdi Hassan, 22.

Kurds had voted in May 1992 for a Kurdish parliament. That election brought the two main Kurdish parties to the fore. The new parliament is now legitimized from Baghdad, apart from giving Kurds voice within Baghdad itself.

The dominance of the Kurdish parliament by the two parties has led to some criticism that this would lead to a democratic setup without significant opposition. But supporters of the unified list say the move will help Kurds, given the instability in Iraq. It will also give Kurds more strength to face future developments, they say.

“The formation of the unified list is a positive move forward and a pragmatic preference for security over chaotic democracy,” a commentator wrote in a local newspaper.

The two parties themselves have called their coming-together a historic step. “We must put the strategic interests of Kurdistan people above all party interests,” KDP leader Massoud Barzani had said earlier, after a meeting with PUK leader Jalal Talabani. “When it comes to decisive issues and moments, we will put aside all our differences and work as one team.”

Population figures are disputed, but by several estimates, Kurds number about 3.5 million in an Iraqi population of 26 million. No one can now think of Iraq without thinking also of a Kurdistan within it – and in many ways separate from it.