Thu, Oct 20, 2005 - Page 9 News List

A federation of weakness bodes ill for the region

The introduction of a weak Iraqi federal constitution is likely to unleash an ethnic and sectarian crisis over a wider theater

By David Hirst  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

In the great settlement that followed World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, one of the Middle East's largest ethnic groups, the Kurds, were the main losers.

They had been promised their own state, but thanks to Kemal Ataturk's nationalist rebellion and abandonment of the project by the Western powers, they ended up as repressed minorities in the four countries -- Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria -- among which their vast domains were divided.

The Kurds are set to become the greatest beneficiary of whatever new order emerges from the current Western intervention in the region's affairs. This hasn't reached the scale of the earlier intervention, being mainly confined to Iraq, but, in its expanding -- and unplanned -- ramifications, it could well become comparable to the earlier one.

After all, its chief architects, US President George W. Bush administration's pro-Israeli, neoconservative hawks, with their grandiose ideas of "creative chaos" and "regime change," always saw Iraq as the springboard of an enterprise that had to be regionwide to succeed.

In this respect, if no other, they are in unison with the inhabitants of the Middle East themselves, for whom it is virtually axiomatic that what happens in Iraq profoundly affects everyone else.


At all stages in the Iraqi drama, Arab pundits and politicians have dwelt apprehensively on these wider implications. And they are doing so now with the new Iraqi constitution, which looks like it will be approved after Saturday's referendum. This is the latest and possibly the most fateful stage, enshrining as it does, under the general heading of "federation," a whole new concept of statehood and identity.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, the secret Anglo-French understanding that chiefly shaped the postwar settlement, drew arbitrary, colonial-style frontiers across pre-existing ethnic, sectarian, tribal or commercial links and grossly affronted the emergent, essentially Sunni-dominated pan-Arab nationalism and aspiration to unity that came with liberation from Ottoman rule.

Eighty years on, Iraq now portends yet another layer of divisions that will either supplement existing ones or, some of them being undoubtedly more "natural" than the old ones, erase them altogether.

In this constitution, Iraqi Kurds don't get the state that 98 percent of them want, according to a recent referendum, but they do get gains -- vast legislative powers, control of their own militia and authority over discoveries of oil -- which in effect consecrate the quasi-independence they have enjoyed since Western "humanitarian" intervention on their behalf in the 1991 Gulf war and which Kurds regard as a way station towards the real thing.

The Iraqi republic is to be "independent, sovereign, federal, democratic and parliamentary;" but one thing, explicitly, it is no longer, is "Arab." For that, says its Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, would be to deny the right of Kurdish citizens to look to membership of a greater Kurdish nation, just as its Arab citizens look to the greater Arab one.

Yet more shocking, and potentially rending, to Sunni Arabs everywhere, than this ethnic separatism is the new intra-Arab sectarian one. Not only have the Shiites established political ascendancy in a single Arab country for the first time in centuries but they are doing so -- like the Kurds -- in the context of a constitutionally prescribed autonomy which, if Shiite leaders such as Abdul Aziz Hakim mean what they say, will incorporate central and southern Iraq, more than half the country's population and the bulk of its natural assets.

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