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Kurds and finding the way
The people of Turkey are now worried that the outcome of the elections in Iraq could prompt their Iraqi neighbors to redraw their country's map.
The Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, realized rather quickly that his slip of tongue could create a diplomatic incident. "I never threatened that Turkey would intervene in Iraq," he hastened to say. He claimed that his remarks after the elections in Iraq had been taken out of context. "I said that Turkey could not remain indifferent, and that the government of any democratic country must consider the feelings and wishes of its citizens."
The people of Turkey, in whose name Gul spoke, are now worried that the outcome of the elections could prompt their Iraqi neighbors to redraw their country's map. At least that is what the Turkish foreign ministry seems to imply in its statement that "when making this assessment [of the poll results], the implications of the attempts to alter the demographic structure in northern Iraq will also be taken into consideration." Translation: If the Kurds try to establish facts on the ground by annexing the city of Kirkuk, or possibly parts of Mosul, Turkey will be forced to respond. With all Turkey's respect for the democratic process set in motion, the Iraqi elections could be bad news for Turkey.
The final results of the elections will only be known in about a week or 10 days from now, but the Turks, who are familiar with the structure of Iraqi coalitions, know what to fear. A political alliance has been forged between the two major Kurdish factions, Masoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the movement headed by the current prime minister, Ayad Allawi. They have worked out an agreement whereby the Kurds will support Allawi for prime minister, Allawi's party will support Talabani for president, and Barzani will be president of the Kurdish province. The assumption is that the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the population and participated fully in the elections, will win at least 50 seats in the Iraqi parliament, and possibly as many as 70, out of a total of 275. That is a tremendous amount of power. Together with Allawi's party, which is not the country's largest (the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shi'ite factions that enjoys the backing of an important Islamic scholar, Ali al-Sistani, is larger), it will be able to neutralize the United Iraqi Alliance.
The alliance, which understands how much power the Kurds have, will do its best to curry favor with them so that it will be called upon to form the next government. Two key figures in the alliance - Ibrahim al-Jafari (leader of the Al-Dawa movement), No. 2 on the list, and Adel Abd al-Mahdi (the current finance minister, a former Maoist who now enthusiastically supports a free economy) - are serious contenders for prime minister. Both have already taken the necessary steps to avoid a clash with the U.S. administration, declaring that an early pullout of American forces from Iraq could create chaos, and hence no date need be set. Now all they have to do is promise the Kurds something. That "something" is a kind of federal state, which is what the Kurds want, and what Turkey, Iran and Syria are so afraid of.
This political coalition is not the only possible scenario. All the large factions know that they will have to include the Sunnis in some way, although most of them boycotted the elections. This is not just a matter of political philanthropy, but an imperative arising from the temporary constitution, which states that if a two-thirds majority of the electorate in three provinces vetoes the new constitution, it will not be adopted. This fuzzy clause was introduced last year as a gesture to the Kurds, who feared that Iraq would become a country governed by Islamic law or a united Arab republic, while they see themselves as neither Arabs nor supporters of a religious state. To push the temporary constitution through and enable a temporary government to be established, the Kurds were granted the right of veto in advance. But this clause can also be exploited by the Sunnis to keep the permanent constitution from being approved in the national referendum scheduled for October.
The Sunni Arabs have a big problem with the Kurds, mainly having to do with the fact that the latter lay claim to Kirkuk. During the election campaign, for example, Abd al-Rahman al-Obeidi, an Arab Sunni leader, called upon the citizens of Kirkuk to vote for the Turkoman list in order to keep the Kurds from winning by a landslide. Suddenly the Sunnis are realizing that their closest ally is Turkey, which has set itself up as the patron of the Turkomans. Now they see that the Turkomans are the lifesaver that will keep Kirkuk, with its oil resources, from becoming an official Kurdish city.
But the Kurds are not planning to give up Kirkuk after years of being persecuted by Saddam Hussein, and after thousands of Kurdish families were driven out of the city and replaced by Arabs. To give up Kirkuk is too steep a price to pay for the Kurds, who are threatening to cut themselves off entirely from Iraq if need be. At the same time, the Kurds also understand that severing ties with Iraq and declaring independence could set them years back. They will be closed off from all sides, with no exit. Turkey could close its border, and Iran could do the same. The Kurds would indeed be independent, but without any chance for economic survival, not to mention all the economic achievements over the past decade that would go down the drain.
This political conundrum awaiting the winner of the elections joins two chronic problems plaguing Iraq since the war: military and economic development. The U.S. Army is training 150,000 Iraqi soldiers, but very few of them are commando-level fighters. The Iraqi army has no serious intelligence branch capable of dealing with the terrorist cells operating around the country. Neither individual soldiers nor military units are properly equipped. According to Pentagon assessments, it will take at least two years for the army to get on its feet. The development budget for security forces, including military units, a police force and fire-fighting brigades, currently stands at $5 billion, and it appears that obtaining more money will not pose any difficulty.
The problem lies in the pace of training and the fear that the new Iraqi army will splinter into militias loyal to ethnic or tribal leaders, as soon as the U.S. Army decides to withdraw from Iraq. It is hard to assess how loyal an army is to the state and the government when sub-loyalties have not been eliminated and some political leaders - not only among the Kurds - can put together a private militia on the spot.
Without an Iraqi army subordinate to the government, and without a significant drop in terror, the elections in Iraq could turn out to be a fleeting ray of light that ends in a tidal wave of disappointment. Hopes for greater personal safety are intertwined with hopes for a better life. According to Iraqi government data and American reports, the unemployment rate is 28 percent. A more realistic assessment sets the figure closer to 35 percent. Per-capita annual income over the past year was $1,000, compared with $4,000 in 1980, before the Iran-Iraq war - and this at a time when the Iraqi government is the country's major employer and some 110,000 Iraqis are employed by American firms operating in Iraq. The funding of these projects will come out of a budget of $18.4 billion (including the $5 billion for rehabilitating Iraqi security forces) approved by the U.S. Congress, but the money will be doled out carefully - and very slowly.
The reason for this is the U.S. Inspector General's report that the transitional government in Iraq lost track of $9 billion budgeted for civilian projects. Of more than 8,000 Iraqis on the payroll, only 602 of them were formally registered. The Iraqi government's ability to continue employing large numbers of workers and creating new jobs depends on its ability to sustain itself - i.e., its ability to produce and market Iraqi oil. At the moment, Iraq is far from maximizing its potential. It produces only 1.5 million barrels a day - a million barrels less than before the war. According to the estimates, Iraq should be earning $15 billion a year, but so far it is earning only 10 percent of that. Hence Iraq's tremendous dependence on the U.S. administration and foreign investors, which could go on for a long time.
These investors will not set foot in Iraq without security guarantees, especially after 70 foreign contractors have been killed and 230 wounded over the past two years. Without them, the country will find it hard to keep its promises to its citizens, who are liable to discover, like Russia after perestroika, that democracy is an excellent product except for one thing: You can't eat it.