Searching for solutions

By Charles McDermid

Kurdish analysts and scholars who know Joost Hiltermann of the Washington-based International Crisis Group describe him as a quiet gentleman who can apply pragmatism to sometimes volatile Kurdish affairs.

Hiltermann started his career in the Middle East in 1985, as a political analyst for the Palestinian rights organization al-Haq in the West Bank. He moved to Iraq in 1992 and served as executive director of Human Right Watch’s arms division from 1994 to 2002. Hiltermann has been a frequent contributor on Iraqi and Kurdish issues to Foreign Policy and Le Monde Diplomatique and is the author of two books, including A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge, 2007).

In a report last month, Hiltermann described the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as “caught in a transformation from guerrilla fighters to administrators”. He spoke to Asia Times Online on February 14.
Charles McDermid: In Kirkuk, Goran is running on a populist platform of improved services, anti-corruption and ethnic reconciliation. Will this be enough to outweigh other issues – such as the potential share of petrodollars and the possible incorporation into Kurdistan – to the city’s ethnically and religiously diverse voters?

Joost Hiltermann: In the past, the KRG promised these things too, and maybe the Goran faction was in the vanguard of this. But their [the PUK and KDP, known collectively as the Kurdistani Alliance] approach was wrong. If you try to force control and incorporation on the Arabs and Turkmen, you set yourself up for civil war. You have to gain their trust. Not only have the two parties done the opposite, but they’ve made it almost impossible to convince the Arabs and Turkmen of the Kurds’ good intentions. You mean well now, and you want to play nice to them, but they remember how you have treated them from 2003 until today – this will not convince them. They think they have already seen the true face of the Kurds.

CM: You have written that founder Nowshirwan Mustafa has “begun to turn Goran from a protest movement into a political machine”. How has he done so, and what results do you foresee?
JH: Goran has always had the clear intent to create a political machine. They want to be in Baghdad; they want to be a national party. Now all the Kurdish parties are region-based parties with national impact. But they don’t get votes from non-Kurds. Still, they want to play a role in Baghdad, and just as importantly, they want to enter local government in Kurdistan. The big question is whether the KRG will organize provincial elections [it has already been more than a year that the rest of Iraq has had these, minus Kirkuk] and then district and sub-district elections as well. Goran wants to build from the ground up, capitalizing on deep popular unhappiness with the ruling parties.

CM: Do you agree that politics in Iraq – such as we see now in the south of Iraq with the anti-Ba’athist ban – is still about identity rather than issues?

JH: At the national level, totally. The political elite in this country are so vested in identity politics they’ll never be able to divest themselves. I doubt it can change. A new generation will have to do that, though perhaps there will be movement in that direction through the open list system, which could bring fresh faces into the federal parliament untainted by polarized exile politics and post-2003 sectarian government.

CM: Why is Kirkuk such an emotive issue in Kurdistan? I’ve heard it compared many times by Kurds to their “Jerusalem”.

JH: I always discourage my Kurdish friends from making the Jerusalem comparison because it equates oil with God. Still, for Kurds, Kirkuk has two meanings – the first is oil, although they play that down. The other reason is that they believe it is historically an integral part of Kurdistan. But because there are no defined boundaries for such a place, this is impossible to argue, although they do so with passion and some sincerity. The fact is that Kirkuk has a super giant oil field that will provide immense riches for two decades, possibly more. If the Kurds could control it, it would give them much more leverage for an independent Kurdistan.

CM: Do you believe the Kurds will eventually be able to incorporate Kirkuk into Kurdistan, and how will that attempt be seen in the region?

JH: All the powers of the region are involved in Kirkuk but not militarily; they don’t need to be. The way things are going, the Kurds aren’t going to get the city and governorate as part of Kurdistan. They may be in de facto control, but 80% of Iraq – the whole Arab population – is against it, all the regional states are against it and the United States is against it. How can the Kurds get it? The only way is a big, regional war that changes all the national boundaries – like the end of the Ottoman Empire.

CM: Which solution do you recommend for the dispute over Kirkuk?

JH: What we have been arguing for several years, and what the US is now saying it supports, is a negotiated compromise: for all sides to come down from their maximum demands and accept some kind of special status for Kirkuk outside the Kurdistan region with, at least on a temporary basis, a power-sharing arrangement. The Kurds say “OK” to this as long as it is inside Kurdistan, but I don’t think that’s viable. I don’t think the Arab side would ever agree to that.

Whatever the outcome, what is more important is how it is reached. The UN report makes it very clear, and the US makes it very clear, that there has to be a negotiated solution that is also consistent with the constitution … Everybody is talking about Article 140 of the constitution, but there is no agreement on how Article 140 should be interpreted.

The issue is that Article 140 talks about a referendum but not what kind of referendum, or how it should be organized. The Kurds, who drafted Article 140, have been interpreting it as a referendum based on an open vote in which people are asked, “Do you want to join Kurdistan? Yes or no?” They intend to have a Kurdish majority in Kirkuk before a referendum, so that’s why they favor this interpretation.

The UN says “no”, that won’t work. They don’t want what they call a “hostile” referendum, which has been shown in other cases around the world to be a recipe for conflict, but a “confirmatory” referendum. In this case there are negotiations leading to a compromise accord, which is then submitted to the population in a referendum, who should vote yes or not to accept or reject it. This removes the demographic factor, and renders irrelevant all accusations of demographic manipulation – by all sides. This is a wonderful solution that makes a lot of sense, but it will take serious negotiation, and serious mediation led by the UN and supported by the US.

Charles McDermid is an editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Iraq.

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