Iraqi Kurds Speak Out Against Separatism

September 30, 2008

Manifestations of nationalist separatist sentiment have grown increasingly prevalent among Iraqi Kurds, who, since the first Gulf War, have enjoyed autonomy in the governorates of Sulaymaniyah, Irbil, and Dahuk in northern Iraq. Many regard this as reflecting a Kurdish aspiration to establish an independent state, first in Iraqi Kurdistan, and later in Greater Kurdistan, encompassing additional Kurdish-populated regions in Turkey and Iran. Separatist tendencies among Kurds therefore arouse considerable apprehension among Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, in both Iraq and neighboring countries.

Several Kurdish writers have warned of the dangers of unilaterally declaring an independent Kurdish state in Iraq. Prominent among them is Kurdish liberal Dr. Hussein Sinjari, president of the NGO Tolerancy International. Sinjari is also a former minister in the regional government of Kurdistan and owner of the liberal Baghdadi Arabic-language daily Al-Ahali.

On August 13, 2008, Dr. Sinjari published an article dealing with the various aspects and repercussions of Kurdish nationalism, and with the corruption in the Kurdish leadership. The article – which sparked a lively debate in Kurdistan – appeared on his recently established website ( and on several other Kurdish sites.

Articles about corruption in the Kurdish leadership were also penned by two other prominent Kurdish writers: Mahmoud 'Othman, an independent Iraqi MP, and Nusherwan Mustafa, who until a year ago was the No. 2 man in the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Following are excerpts from the three articles.

Separatism – A Destructive Policy

Dr. Sinjari argued that the nationalism of the Kurdish leadership, and its implicit threats to secede from Iraq, were provocative and arrogant and could lead to disaster. He wrote:

"[At demonstrations organized by the two Kurdish parties, people waved] hundreds of Kurdish flags and signs exhorting Baghdad to recognize Kurdish rights. The question is why the organizers did not arrange for a few Iraqi flags to be flown as well. You demand that Baghdad [recognize] your rights, but at the same time you provoke Baghdad and others. [I say,] enough with this arrogance. True, we have legitimate rights, but [how do you expect to achieve them] when we behave inappropriately?

"These implied threats to secede or to [declare] independence are destructive. Instead, we should first of all incorporate into the political reform of the [Kurdish] region an educational program [inculcating a sense of] Iraqi nationality and faith in the Iraqi homeland based on equality, recognition of rights and duties... tolerance towards all [ethnic] identities, and the restoration of patriotic Iraqi sentiment among the Iraqi Kurds..."

Reliance on Foreign Forces – A Grave Mistake
Sinjari went on to warn the Kurdish leaders against relying on foreign forces to help them attain their national aspirations, arguing that the best course of action for any leadership was to ensure the satisfaction and gain the support of its own people:

"...The [Kurdish] leaders rely too heavily on their American and British allies, and that is another great mistake. The best guarantee [for a secure existence] is the people's satisfaction with their leadership... [Moreover,] it is Baghdad, not Washington or London, that will determine the status of the [Kurdish] region, which is part of Iraq. The Kurds are suffering from the arrogance and boastfulness of their leaders..."

Nationalist Discourse Is Deceptive and Harmful

Sinjari also discussed the priorities set by the Kurdish leadership, warning against prioritizing the nationalist agenda over social and administrative issues. He argued that the focus on nationalist aspirations had made the Kurds indefinitely postpone developing their region, and urged them to learn from the bitter experience of the Arab countries, who had made the same mistake:

"The Kurdish argument that we still face national challenges pertaining to our very existence, and that reform should therefore be postponed until the 'main struggle' is won, is flawed. The pan-Arab movements demonstrate the deceptive and hypocritical [nature] of this [sort of] nationalist discourse.

"The Arab leaders have oppressed, and are still oppressing, their people under the pretext that [precedence must always be given to] Palestine and to the struggle against Zionism, colonialism, and imperialism, and that 'no voice should rise above the voice of battle.' In the name of this hypocritical [cause,] labeled 'national security' or 'supreme national interest,' rights have been usurped, while [issues of] democracy, development, and rule of law have been deferred indefinitely.

"Why do we wish to repeat this wretched experience? Why do we want the situation in our country to resemble that of the Eastern European societies in the past? Why have we allowed ourselves to become so immersed in our own lies that we have begun to believe them, and our whole society is living a lie? We call for nationalism, but do the opposite; we call for responsibility, but our real [concern] is for our pockets and our privileges."

Kurdish Writers: Our Leadership Is Corrupt
Kurdish writer Mahmoud 'Othman likewise criticized the corruption in the Kurdish leadership. In a September 23, 2008 interview for the independent Kurdish paper Hawlati, he predicted that "many Kurds will refrain from voting [in the upcoming elections for the parliament] because they think it is useless. People would have preferred a parliament with an opposition to a parliament that is [jointly] controlled by [the two Kurdish parties, namely] the Kurdistan Democratic Party [headed by Mas'oud Barzani] and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani]... There are more freedoms in Baghdad than in the Kurdish region, and much greater freedom of the press..."(1)

Nusherwan Mustafa wrote in a similar vein in the Kurdish paper Roznama: "[The two Kurdish parties] are striving for greater and greater control over all aspects of government and [all aspects of] the people's daily lives... We want justice and [a fair] distribution of the national wealth... [while] they want to use this wealth, and [to exploit] their positions, in order to promote their private affairs and control people... We want transparency and openness in the financial, economic, business and political spheres... while they want to handle everything in [complete] darkness..."(2)

Sinjari too devoted a large portion of his article to this topic, saying: "[Our leaders] claim that they are sacrificing themselves and giving their very lives for the people – yet [in actuality] they are deceiving the people, usurping their rights, and [violating] their honor.

"They talk of law, of economic growth, of developing agriculture, of building schools and universities, of [encouraging] civil organizations, of nurturing democracy, and of long-term strategic [planning for the benefit of] the nation. How deceptive are these words and phrases! But they cannot hide and distort the facts... There is no rule of law [in our region], but only personal connections, bribery, and favoritism...

"The [leadership's] greatest crime is not the destruction of the government institutions – i.e., the ministries and the public facilities – or [even] the bankruptcy of the government and the economy. [The greatest crime is] the moral deterioration... The inculcation of religious and national values has deteriorated [to such an extent that people] have no scruples about stealing public funds, no sense of responsibility, and no work ethic. [They have] no commitment to the development of their homeland, to the progress of its people, or to the spreading of noble values [such as] serving mankind.

"This moral deterioration means lying to the [Iraqi] leadership in order to win privileges; in other words, [people] steal public funds, fail to work faithfully, lie and distort facts, and lack any national, human or religious responsibility...

"There are no regional or international conspiracies against us. The [only] conspiracy – which is as clear as day – is the one we are plotting against ourselves [with such poor] management of our human and material resources. It is not the institutions that manage them – for these are non-existent – but villains whose only interest is in accumulating illegal wealth..."

The Order of the Day – Reform in the Kurdish Region

Alongside his criticism of the Kurdish leadership, Sinjari also made suggestions for internal political reform and democratization:

"First, the leaderships of the two [Kurdish] parties must rethink their strategic agreement, which is to run in the next elections as a single bloc. In other words, instead of competing and allowing for peaceful government turnover in accordance with the results of the elections, they have decided to perpetuate the existing situation for at least another 15 years. This is a serious strategic flaw in [our] democracy...

"As the first step in political reform, the parties must announce that they both agree to compete [in democratic elections], to accept the election results, to facilitate the work of the international observers by holding free and fair elections, and to allow for a peaceful change of government. Politics, like the economy, is corrupted by monopolies and thrives with free and fair competition.

"Democracy will thrive in the [Kurdish] region only when the majority rules and the minority is [represented by] a parliamentary opposition that will supervise and monitor [the government] and prepare for the next elections..."

The Nationalist Discourse Will Destroy Our Region, Just as the Pan-Arabist Discourse Brought Ruin to the Arab Armies and Peoples

"The only guarantee for national security is democracy and more democracy – not the stale discourse about threats [hanging over] our region... When we educate ourselves to believe that our region is part of Iraq, and act and plan [accordingly], nobody will dare to threaten our security, and vice versa.

"The nationalist discourse will destroy our region, just as the pan-Arabist discourse brought ruin to the Arab armies and peoples and to the Arab revival. The leadership must know that it will never produce victory as long as it is detached from the people, for eventually it will be left alone to face its unknown fate by itself...

"Reforming the [Kurdish] region's administration is a crucial need, [a matter] of life and death... Lack of reform will lead to four disasters... of which every contemporary politician must beware: a) internal crisis in the region, [with] acts of violence and disruption of public order; b) internal Iraqi crisis instigated by this violence; c) regional crisis caused by the unrest [in Iraq]...; [and] d) international crisis caused by the previous three... especially since Iraq is occupied by foreign forces and [therefore] subject to international laws, resolutions and commitments."(3)

(1) Hawlati (Kurdistan), September 23, 2008.
(2) Roznama (Kurdistan), September 20, 2008.
(3), August 13, 2008.

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