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 Spectre of Iraqi Federalism frightens pro-Federal Kurdistan

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Spectre of Iraqi Federalism frightens pro-Federal Kurdistan  13.1.2012 
By Bahadin Yousef, Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan

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January 13, 2012

SULAIMANIYAH, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Federalism could be one way of solving Iraq’s current political impasse. But forming semi-independent states could also lead to more conflict and violence. And those in Iraq’s only current federal region, Iraqi Kurdistan, are concerned.

Currently the spectre of increased federalism in Iraq is haunting the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan – and that is despite the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan is itself a mostly independent state with its own military, government and laws. By rights, Iraqi Kurdistan should support federalism. Instead though politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan are anxiously awaiting the results of moves made by the provinces of Salahaddin, Ninawa and Diyala toward more independence.

The Kurdish have long supported the establishment of a federal system in Iraq. But this is not enough to ease their minds about what is happening in Salahaddin, Ninawa and Diyala.

All three of these provinces share borders with Iraqi Kurdistan and also contain disputed territory: That is, there is land there that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to Iraqi Kurdistan but which Baghdad says belongs to Iraq. And fears are rising that if these regions do achieve some level of independence they may be reluctant to negotiate with Iraqi Kurdistan over the disputed territory.

Salahaddin, Diyala and Ninawa are home to a broad mixture of religious sects and ethnicities, including Kurds, but the majority of their populations are Sunni Muslim Arabs.

The first calls for more regional independence came in the latter months of 2011 when Salahaddin authorities said they would establish an independent region. The bid for independence – which is supported by the Iraqi constitution if one third of local government members make the request for a referendum – was also supported by Iraq’s parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi.

He said the bids for independence were the result of the fact that Sunni Muslims had started to feel marginalized in Iraq; Iraq’s coalition government is led by a Shiite Muslim dominated political alliance.

The Salahaddin council itself noted that “marginalization and negligence practiced by the central government in Baghdad against these provinces has caused suffering and made people demand more independence”.

In mid-December members of Diyala’s council also voted to take similar measures and it is expected that Ninawa will eventually come to do the same.

As a result the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan find themselves in a difficult situation. They support the requests for regional independence as constitutional and legitimate – as they must. They themselves are one. And the more independent regions there are, the more justified their own existence. But they also fear that independence could further complicate an already complicated situation when it comes to disputed areas.

This is why Kurdish politicians have been qualified in their support for independent regions and federalism.

When he received a delegation from Salahaddin in November last year, Iraqi Kurdistan’s president Jalal Talabani said that he broadly supported the region’s claim to independence but that this could not include any disputed territories.

Leading Kurdish politician and deputy speaker in the Iraqi Parliament, Arif Tayfur, has also said he supports Salahaddin’s bid for independence. “Iraq is a civilized country and provinces have the right to form regions,” Tayfur said at a meeting with Talabani and the delegation from Salahaddin. “It is a legitimate right guaranteed by the Constitution."

Another Kurdish politician Latif Mustafa, who holds a doctorate in constitutional law, has described the bids for independence as a “positive step”. But he also expressed concern about what would happen to the disputed territories.

"If the people of these provinces decide to form an independent region, then territories in those regions cannot be annexed to Iraqi Kurdistan,” Mustafa explained. “Especially if the referendum leads to a regional right to self determination.”

Those Kurdish lawmakers who are concerned about independent regions have suggested that Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution be applied before any independence is granted.

Originally formulated in 2003 and then later revised, Article 140 addresses the expulsions, ethnic cleansing and Arabisation carried out under Saddam Hussein’s regime and sets out to remedy them. It “mandates a process of normalization and referendum for disputed territories” using three steps. These are, firstly, normalization - a return of Kurds and other residents displaced by Arabisation – followed by a census taken to determine the demographic makeup of the province's population and then finally, a referendum to determine the status of disputed territories.

For example, if there are more Kurds in one of the disputed territories, then the area may well become part of Iraqi Kurdistan. If there were more Arabs, it would remain part of Ninawa.

A Kurdish member of Salahaddin’s council Rasheed Khurshid told Niqash that, in a case like that of the disputed town of Tuz Khormato in the Salahaddin region, “the town should be annexed before the formation of the Salahaddin region because it would be difficult to annex it afterwards.”

As Latif concluded: “the current situation in Iraq – with a central government and the one Kurdish region - is not that different from government during the Saddam Hussein's regime. Whereas the principle of federalism, from a legal point of view, requires the presence of a central government and several local governments. The centre should then act as the umbrella.”

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