Iraq’s Kurdish Problem

Iraq’s Kurdish Problem

Over the space of the next 5-10 years, Iraq's political leaders must grapple with a series of deeply contentious issues that cut to the core of the design of the Iraqi state. Many of these divisive issues -- such as the division of powers between the central government and the regions, control over the oil and gas sector, and the future status of disputed territories in northern Iraq -- are intertwined, and relate in one way or another to the current and future status of the Kurds in Iraq. In the broadest sense, then, the "big picture" question facing Iraq is whether the Kurds can be comfortably accommodated within the new political order and, if so, how. Phrased another way, Can the Kurds' minimum requirements for continued participation in the state be satisfied in a way that is plausibly acceptable to the rest of Iraq?

Stripped down to bare essentials, to remain part of the Iraqi state, the Kurds need guarantees of autonomy and security, and on these two issues, Kurdish leaders cannot be expected to make major concessions. In the abstract, most Iraqi political leaders do not dispute this. The problem is not so much the principles involved, but how they have been translated into constitutional practice. The level of autonomy the Kurds enjoy according to the constitution is extensive. The Kurds can design their own system of government, conduct their own elections, control the management of oil and gas fields in their territory, and control their own internal security.

The Kurdistan Region is, of course, under the sovereignty of the Iraqi state, but the number of areas in which the Baghdad government exercises "exclusive powers" is fairly limited. According to Article 115 of the constitution, those powers not listed as "exclusive powers" of the federal government belong to the regions, while Article 121(2) allows regions to amend federal laws as applied within the region in cases where federal law conflicts with regional law. The management of oil and gas fields is not listed as an exclusive power of the federal government. This allows the Kurds to argue, with justification, that they have the constitutional authority to manage the oil and gas sector in their territory. Finally, the Kurds insisted on the inclusion of a concrete process for resolving the issue of disputed territories in northern Iraq. Article 140 requires the reversal of demographic manipulations perpetrated by the former regime, a census, and then referenda on the final status of all disputed territories. This process was to be completed by Dec. 31, 2007.

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