Iraq’s interim 275-member National Assembly — Parliament — has broken weeks of sectarian deadlock by naming veteran Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani president and two deputies — former President Ghazi Al-Yawar, a Sunni Arab and former Finance Minister Adel Abd Al-Mahdi,
a Shia Arab.
The new leaders face a brutal insurgency, while security apparatus relies heavily on the unpopular presence of American troops.
Choosing a Shiite Islamist, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, as prime minister generates fears of Shiite dominance. Reaching out to the Sunni minority and making them feel part of the new arrangement can allay such fears. This must be a priority; it will help isolate foreign and domestic extremists using Iraq for their jihad against the West.
Despite their majority of seats, Shia put national interests first by giving Sunni Arabs the offices of vice president and speaker of Parliament.
Both Sheikh Al-Yawar and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s submission to democratic rules signals a return of “rotating power”, once known in the region before military coups — in Egypt in 1952 and in Iraq six years later.
The thought of Saddam watching, on a television set brought especially into his cell, the assembly voting Talabani into the office he once occupied must have been both amusing and comforting to the Kurds, who lost some 100,000 lives during his bloody Anfal campaign in the 1980s.
The presidency of Talabani, an anathema to Arab nationalists, is having a paradoxical effect. Iran and Turkey whose Kurdish minorities still fight for recognition are not amused. Embarrassed by a Kurd being a head of state next door, Syria hinted at granting citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurds, stateless since the 1960s.
Mam Jalal (Uncle Jalal), as the Kurds know PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) leader, is a shrewd politician with an amazing ability to switch alliances, and influence friend and foe alike.
During the anti-Saddam uprising of 1991, both Talabani and his long rival but ally since 1998, Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) leader Massoud Barazani, urged Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, to treat Arab prisoners and defectors well, saying their quarrel was with Saddam not with Arabs.
In the darkest days of the Kurds when they had no friends but the mountains as refuge from Saddam’s chemical weapons, they never resorted to hijacking planes, hostage taking or assassinations.
The Kurds did not even explode a single bomb in Baghdad to avenge the gassing of women and children in Halabja. They lost world media attention, but they won a priceless human and moral victory; after the allies established the “no-fly” zone — operation safe haven — at the end of operation “Provide Comfort”, hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians were rescued. They were driven into the mountains by Saddam’s forces.
The high moral ground enabled the Kurds to build a democratic, effective, workable administration in record time, after Baathists predicted that “those mountains savages” would not have the administrative tools to run their own affairs.
The Peshmerga sustained a de facto viable independent entity, where fair and free parliamentary elections where held, and popular government had diplomatic missions abroad, and gave women and non-Kurdish minorities equal rights.
A stable Iraq requires compromise on all sides. The Islamist Shia parliamentary bloc should be ready to moderate their views. Kurds should reconsider their demands for the inclusion of the city of Kirkuk in an autonomous Kurdistan.
Kurds’ experience in building democracy is valuable for the rest of Iraq. It would be extremely foolish to subordinate Kurdistan to a central government in Baghdad. Kurds will not accept any thing less than a federal Iraq as agreed by all opposition parties at Salaheldine in 1992.
Foreign, defence and fiscal policies should remain with the federal government, Kurds say, but policies affecting citizens’ daily life, like education, health, housing and transport should be the business of autonomous elected governments.
The new Parliament could set a precedent in the Middle East by going for federalism.
Federalism has strengthened young nations like Australia, Canada and the United States and old nations like Germany and the United Kingdom.
The UK recently gave more autonomy to Scotland and Wales; both have now their own Parliament.