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Kurdish referendum — what ‘Mullah Mustafa’ might have done

What would a list of the problems that need urgent attention in Iraq today look like?

No matter how you look at it, the campaign to liberate Mosul and wipe out Daesh, which is regarded by many as an enemy of humanity, would top the list. Next to it might be the formation of a new national government cutting across sectarian barriers and offering Iraqis a hope for the future. The list could also include the need to stop corruption from developing into a way of life rather than an affliction in certain segments of the government.

Equally important is to achieve national consensus to gradually rid the country of nefarious foreign intervention.

Against such a background the decision by the Kurdish leadership in the autonomous region to hold an “independence referendum,” scheduled for Sept. 25, might sound out of place.

One could ask which of the urgent problems such an exercise might address, let alone solve. Isn’t the proposed referendum a solution to a non-existent problem or, worse still, a ploy to create a new problem?

For at least 100 years, the idea of an independent state has been key to the aspirations of Kurdish elites not only in Iraq but also in Turkey, Syria and Iran, which are also home to substantial Kurdish communities.

The Kurds have as much right to self-determination as any other segment of humanity. However, the question of timing, or if you like sequencing, cannot be ignored.

The concept of sequencing was an important element in the thinking of some of the most important recent Kurdish leaders.

For Qazi Muhammad, who set up the short-lived Mahabad republic in Iranian Kurdistan in 1946, the sequence went this way: First there was autonomy for the Iranian Kurds within the Iranian state; then came the use of Kurdish as the medium of education and administration; and third came the election of a provincial council to supervise state and social matters.

The late Mustafa Barzani, known as “Mullah Mustafa,” who was arguably the most significant Kurdish political leader of the last 100 years, had his own sequencing.

In conversations in the 1970s, when he was fighting against Ba’athist repression, he dwelt on his triple principle of justice, freedom and independence.

His first priority was justice for Iraqi Kurds who, though accounting for 20 percent of the population, did not have a commensurate share in the government or enjoyment of Iraq’s wealth. His hope was that justice would be followed by freedom for the whole of Iraq and that, in turn, would set the stage for Kurdish independence.

The late Mustafa Barzani, arguably the most significant Kurdish political leader of the last 100 years, had an approach based on the principles of justice, freedom and independence.

Amir Taheri

Propaganda of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tried to portray Barzani as a secessionist backed by Iraq’s foreign enemies, including Iran.

However, Barzani’s sequencing convinced other Iraqi opposition groups that the Kurdish leader was sincerely committed to justice and freedom for all Iraqis, Arab or Kurd, before the issue of independence could be raised in the context of a political system based on the rule of law.

Barzani’s strategy was a source of inspiration for some other Kurdish leaders, among them Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, who brought the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran out of decades of death-like torpor and turned it into a major player in post-revolution politics, albeit briefly.

In several conversations, Ghassemlou, who was subsequently assassinated in Vienna by Iranian agents, put “democracy for Iran” as the first objective in his version of sequencing.

That would be followed by “autonomy for Kurdistan” and, because Ghassemlou was a Social Democrat, ultimately, a “progressive” system of government.

Qazi Muhammad, Barzani and Ghassemlou did not fall into the populist trap because they were genuine products of a Kurdish culture in which courage and prudence went hand-in-hand. They steered clear of cheap slogans of the kind that became fashionable among some other Kurdish leaders who turned independence, a great ideal, into a petty partisan power ploy.

In a different way, even Abdullah Ocalan, the “father” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), had his own version of sequencing in which the overthrow of the “Turkish capitalist state” was ahead of Kurdish independence in a list of objectives.

Exercising the right of self-determination is different from pursuing a secessionist strategy.

There is not a single example of secessionism having led to successful independence for any ethnic group. This was tried in many parts of Africa — most notably in Katanga, Kivu and Biafra, not to mention the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by the white minority leaders in Rhodesia — but failed. Elsewhere, for example in South Sudan, it triggered decades of war and ultimately gave birth to a failed state drowned in blood.

Divorce is always difficult and painful, even at the level of ordinary couples, let alone nations. This is why it has to be handled with extra care and, as far as possible, in a calm atmosphere and a spirit of benevolence.

We have only two examples of relatively amicable divorce at the level of nations.

The first was the splitting of Czechoslovakia into two states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It worked without violence because it followed the sequencing as imagined by Mullah Mustafa: first came justice, then freedom and ultimately independence. The second example is East Timor which won independence, after suffering genocide, when Indonesia, which had annexed it, liberated itself from the Suharto dictatorship. Freedom for Indonesia preceded independence for East Timor.

Independence is too important an issue to be decided with a yes-or-no referendum. Those who “win it” face questions regarding the voter turnout and the margin of majority. If you win with the 99.99 percent margin current in the “Third World” few people will take the results seriously. If you win with a West European style 51-49 percent, you have merely divided your people.

Independence for Iraqi Kurdistan involves many complex issues. There are more Kurds in Iraq outside the autonomous region than inside it. What will be their status? How will Iraq’s national debt and assets be divided? What might be the attitude of neighbors toward the emergence of an independent landlocked mini-state? 

The decision has been taken and canceling the referendum now would mean loss of face by Kurdish leaders. But it is still possible to walk the cat back at least half the way. Let’s imagine what Mullah Mustafa might have done in such a situation.

I can imagine him wearing his fatherly smile while carving a pipe out of a piece of wood (he was an artist with his hands) and pondering the question. I think he would have advised greater attention to the question in the referendum.

For example, the question could be: Will you authorize the autonomous government to open talks with the Iraqi government about independence?

If the answer is yes, independence for Kurds will become an all-Iraqi project that could unite Iraqis in building a new future even as two separate states. But am I dreaming too much?

• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications and published 11 books.

— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.