CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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KURDISTAN IRAQ : KDP and PUK have reached an agreement which would assure them prominence in any new federal Iraq.

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At the beginning of September (2002), few would have predicted that a comprehensive agreement would be reached at Sari Rash, near Salahadin, just days later , by Jelal Talabani’s PUK and Massoud Barzani’s KDP. When they met, the two Kurdish leaders were still separated by a gulf of distrust. The PUK blamed the KDP for snatching concession upon concession without giving anything in return. Meanwhile, the KDP accused the PUK of trying to gain time by eploying delaying tactics. But it all belongs to the past now, following a two day meeting, on September 8-9, when the two Kurdish leaders agreed to normalise the relations between their two parties and to convene the Kurdish parliament in Erbil on 4 October.

A strong signal

"The meeting of the Kurdish parliament in Erbil sends a strong signal to the central government in Bagdad and to the different countries in the region", one of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) said. "The two parties, KDP and PUK, have set their problems aside to look at the challenges ahead".

But until the last moment, in spite of the importance of these "challenges" -- not least, the threat of an American military operation against Saddam Hussain and a change of regime in Bagdad -- many feared the two main Kurdish parties would not be able to overcome their differences and would postpone the full meeting of the parliament in Erbil, convened with such fanfare.

Of the four committees set up by Massoud Barzani and Jelal Talabani, following the agreement of Sari Rash, it is the "committee on the normalisation of the relations between the two parties", which faced the most difficult problems. "Normalisation will be easy as long as there is no question of mixing our "peshmergas" (Kurdish freedom fighters) and our security services", Roj Shawess, speaker of the parliament in Erbil and member of the KDP political bureau, stated, "but mixing armed peoples from both sides could destroy everything".

Aware that they would discredit themselves in the eyes of their American "partners" and the foreign guests invited for the ceremony if they were to postpone or cancel the meeting, Massoud Barzani and Jelal Talabani intervened with their respective delegations, forcing agreement on the agenda of this historical session, largely by postponing discussion of the most delicate problems.

The Washington agreement

The formal session in Erbil, under KDP chairmanship of Roj Shawess, included speeches by Massoud Barzani, Jelal Talabani, and by Mrs Mitterrand, the visiting wife of the former French President. The parliament then ratified the Washington agreement -- the deal concluded in 1998 under American sponsorhip, which is the basis of all present efforts towards reconciliation between the KDP and the PUK. Later, at a parliamentary meeting at Suleimania’s Palace Hotel, the speaker was Kemal Fouad, a member of the PUK’s political bureau, and again both Jelal Talabani and Massoud Barzani took the floor. While the two leaders were conciliatory in their speeches, the general atmosphere was cold. Most of the MPs had not met for eight years, and it was clear distrust was running high. The parliament was supposed to take up the issue of drafting a federal constitution, prepared by KDP experts and modified by a joint KDP-PUK committee, but this was shelved for a separate meeting, apparently a move designed to avoid provoking the ire of Turkey.

After these largely ceremonial meetings, the Kurdish parliament is supposed to resume working, meeting alternatively in Erbil (for a period of three months) and in Suleimania (for two months). The MPs have a busy agenda: the normalisation, a new electoral law, the new constitution, and the organisation of elections (theoretically within nine months).

A Federal Constitution

The most important issue demanding the attention of the MPs is clearly the drafting of a federal constitution. For once all Kurdish parties agree on the main issue -- federalism: "We are now independent, but we are asking for reunification", says Berham Saleh, Prime Minister of the PUK government in Suleimania; "If Iraq is to be united, federalism is the only solution". These ideas are shared by the KDP’s Roj Shawess, who also lays down some conditions: "We cannot give up what we have -- near independence -- without guarantees... We are a "region" but we are ready to join together again on certain conditions. However the Kurdish people are not ready to accept being ruled as we were ruled before. We will ask for a federal system with international guarantees".

Anxious "not to leave things for after "the change" (of regime in Bagdad), because then the train might leave us behind", Massoud Barzani was keen to discuss "what kind of Iraq we foresee in the future, and what, he felt, the Kurds should have". The result is a document of 15 pages which describes precisely how relations between the Kurdish region and the central government should be.

The first item of the "General principles of Federalism for Iraq" states that

- Iraq is a federal state with a republican, democratic, parliamentarian and multi-party system called the Federal Republic of Iraq. It consists of two regions:

1 The Arab region, which includes the middle ans southern parts of Iraq along with province of Mosul, Nineveh, in the north, excluding some of its districts as mentioned in item 2.

2 The Iraqi Kurdistan region, that includes the provinces of Kirkuk, Suleimania, and Erbil within the administrative boundaries in place prior to 1968 and the province of Dohok and the districts of Akkra, Sinjar and Sheikhan and the sub-district of Zimar in the province of Nineveh, the districts of Khanakin and Mandili in the province of Diyala, and the district of Badra in the province of Al-Wasit.

The geographical boundaries of the region shall be delineated in the Federal Constitution.

The draft of constitution also states that the Federal Republic should have a president; a council of ministers, with a prime minister; a judicial authority; and a legislative authority made up of two chambers, a national federal assembly, elected on proportional representation of the population in each of the regions, and an assembly of the regions, made up in equal numbers of members from the two regional assemblies.

Each region of the Federal Republic will have its regional president, its regional council of ministers and regional prime minister, its legislative authority and its regional judiciary.

Without going into the specific details of a very technical text, there are four fairly "explosive" items included in this draft:

Article 14 states that "On the occasion of the election of the president of the Federal Republic of Iraq from one of the regions, then the prime minister of the Federal Republic of Iraq shall be from the other region". In other words, if the president of the Federal Republic is an Arab, the prime minister will automatically be a Kurd.

Article 7 of this draft also says that the "number of ministers shall represent the two regions based on a proportional representation of the population of each region in proportion to the total population of the Federal Republic of Iraq, which means that the Kurds will make 25 per cent of the government -- "in other words, comments a KDP leader, it means that we the Kurds will get one of the three "big ministries", defence, interior or finances.

Article 5 of the project of constitution of the region states that "The city of Kirkuk shall be the capital of the Kurdistan region". This article provoked a violent reaction in Turkey, which refuses to let the Kurds control the region’s oil resources.

Meanwhile article 75 declares that "the structure of the entity and the political system of the Federal Republic of Iraq cannot be changed without the consent of the Kurdistan Regional Assembly. Action contrary to this shall afford the people of the Kurdistan Region the right of self-determination". In other words, if there is a conflict between the region and the central government, the Kurds will proclaim their independence.

While both parties agree on the main points of this draft, PUK leaders expressed concern with Nour Shirwan, member of the PUK political bureau, that "it gives too much power to the president of the region, and could lead to the creation of a small dictatorship". Apparently, the KDP has already agreed to amendments, which would give more power to a regional parliament.

The two parties must also coordinate their policies on "security issues" -- chiefly, what to do with PKK and the Islamists -- and "international relations" , in particular relations with neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Iran. These are sensitive issues, especially those concerning Turkey, with which Jelal Talabani enjoys warm relations, while Massoud Barzani admits to "tensions... for a couple of years",adding: "Turkey’s interferences in the internal affairs of the region cannot be accepted".

Jelal Talabani said that his meetings with his former adversary, Massoud Barzani helped "disperse many clouds" and, he noted, the two parties have been "convinced, under popular pressure and international pressure, that they need each other". But nothing guarantees that even armed with this knowledge, they will be able to fill the abyss of distrust that separates them.

"For the time being, the two regions will keep their separate governments (at Erbil and Souleimania). We need to work together for a longer period, inside the parliament and with the Opposition, to set up a transition government and to prepare for elections", theoretically within nine months, concludes Roj Shawess, KDP speaker of the parliament. But speaking anonymously, one of Massoud Barzani’s advisers is more direct: "Definitely, there will be no elections in the region until something has been done about the situation in Iraq".

 (The Middle East magazine, December 2002)

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