Through the cracks

The big idea Michael Wahid Hanna watches as Arabs and Kurds crowd out Iraq's minorities.

An elderly Kurdish man gets help while casting his vote in Iraq's referendum on the new constitution in Kirkuk, Iraq, Saturday Oct. 15 2005.Iraqis vote Saturday to give a "yes" or "no" to a constitution that would define democracy in Iraq, a country once ruled by Saddam Hussein and now sharply divided among its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.(AP Photo/Yahya Ahmed)
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Michael Wahid Hanna watches as Arabs and Kurds crowd out Iraq's minorities.

The contentious political manoeuvring over the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk reached a flashpoint this summer when a coalition of Arab legislators rammed through, via secret ballot, a provincial elections law that included a fixed power-sharing formula for the province. While the law was later vetoed by the presidency council led by President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, and replaced by a compromise that temporarily delayed elections in Kirkuk, the lingering conflicts over the upcoming provincial elections and the larger battle over disputed territories continue. In fact, these tensions have been further exacerbated by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's efforts to portray himself as an Iraqi nationalist, often using opposition to Kurdish aspirations as a wedge issue to increase his political support ahead of the upcoming January provincial elections. The growing Arab-Kurdish divide is increasingly becoming an organising principle of Iraqi politics.

US and Iraqi observers hailed the passage of the provincial elections law in late September as a major step forward, but Iraq's beleaguered minority communities - groups that fall outside the main Arab and Kurdish blocs - were stunned by the late-hour deletion of provisions guaranteeing minority representation. Previous drafts of the law included an article that reserved 13 provincial council seats for Christians and two seats for Yazidis and Shabaks in the six provinces where their population is concentrated. The parliament, following an international outcry, later approved supplementary legislation that included a diluted version of the original provisions: inclusion of Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and Sabean-Mandeans, with one reserved provincial council seat in Nineveh, Baghdad and Basra for Christians and one seat for other groups in those provinces where such minorities are represented in significant numbers.

The situation of Iraq's minorities is a small but indicative component of a larger political battle now being waged over the shape of the Iraqi state. It also lays bare many of the defects of the Iraqi political order and the zero-sum mentality that has driven the country's politics. The controversy over minority representation offers important clues to the ongoing struggles among Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups over disputed territories in the country's north, with all signs pointing to the intense political jockeying for control over Nineveh province, an ethnically mixed region with significant minority populations, which includes areas that the Kurdistan Regional Government believes should be incorporated into Kurdistan.

The end goals of Kurds and Arabs are diametrically opposed, and both factions viewed the minority representation issue through the prism of their own political and territorial agendas. Kurds objected to the guarantees largely out of concern that, if groups they considered ethnic Kurds became classified as minorities, it would weaken Kurdish claims upon those territories. Meanwhile, many Arab parliamentarians were concerned that setting aside seats for minorities would enhance Kurdish power, since they expect that these groups are more likely to vote with the Kurds.

Parliamentary leaders cited a lack of accurate census data to justify the unexpected reversal, but the suspicions of the minority communities focused quickly on the motivations of the major political parties. This legislative reversal coincided with rising violence directed at Christians in the northern city of Mosul, highlighting the vulnerability of such groups and raising further suspicions that the two events were not unconnected.

None of the major political parties was willing to shoulder responsibility for the removal of the minority quota. Indeed, following the vote, there was near-universal public solidarity with the minority communities. Maliki said that "we are committed to guarantee a fair representation of all Iraqi components and defend their rights." Talabani and representatives from the major Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political parties also expressed their support for accommodating the concerns of minorities and crafting a legal mechanism to insure minority representation.

Some observers close to the negotiations have noted that hard-line religious leaders within the major Shiite and Sunni political parties resisted granting legal protections for minority rights and hence supported the removal of these provisions. But while this was surely a contributing factor, the reversal was driven mainly by political calculations by the major political parties to assert strength in disputed territories.

These include portions of the provinces of Nineveh, Salah al Din, Diyala and Waset, along with the entire province of Kirkuk. These areas suffered under Saddam Hussein's "Arabisation" campaigns, during which substantial numbers of Kurds and other non-Arab groups were systematically harassed or expelled. There is a multiplicity of views among the Shabak and Yazidi communities as to their ethnicity, and a significant number of Yazidis do consider themselves to be ethnic Kurds. But the pressure placed on all Yazidis and Shabak to identify themselves as Kurds has uncomfortable echoes of the Baathist "nationality correction" policies that formed a core of the "Arabisation" campaigns.

For the Kurds, who consider areas with majority Kurdish populations to be Kurdish land, the designation of Yazidis and Shabak as "Yazidi Kurds" and "Shabak Kurds" brings a large swath of disputed territory closer to being incorporated into the boundaries of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The elimination of reserved minority council seats could also lead to the increased dependence of these communities on Kurdish patronage.

The Kurds have denied any involvement in orchestrating the removal of the quota provision. Qubad Talabani, the US Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, emphasised the public Kurdish support for a legislative resolution to the current impasse as evidence of their favourable approach to minority issues. But numerous officials with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq said that their efforts to reinstate some form of guaranteed minority representation hinged on the classification of the Shabak and the total number of reserved minority seats on the Nineveh provincial council. Hashim al Ta'ie, a Sunni Arab politician who heads the Iraqi parliament's provinces and regions committee, also said the supplementary legislation was held up in parliament at the last juncture as a result of disputes over the classification of Shabak, clearly indicating Kurdish reservations.

The Arab bloc, meanwhile, was concerned with dilution of their own electoral weight, worrying in particular that guaranteed minority positions could tilt the balance of the Nineveh provincial council in favour of the Kurds. The dispute has increased anxiety among Iraq's minorities, who have faced targeted violence by religious and political extremists and have been especially vulnerable to attack because they have not, until recently, organised sectarian militias to protect their neighbourhoods and villages. The minority communities represent a disproportionate share of the country's refugees, accounting for approximately 20 to 30 per cent of those Iraqis who have fled the country since March 2003.

In the future, these communities will be at a severe electoral disadvantage. The current electoral system clearly favours the large political parties, and the success of minority candidates and parties at the provincial level will still rest upon their ability to form broad political alliances or to join existing political lists. While this sort of political dealing should be encouraged, minority communities will increasingly find themselves caught between Arabs and Kurds.

Successful provincial elections would represent an important corrective to the flawed vote in 2005, which locked into place an unrepresentative political order as a result of the Sunni Arab electoral boycott. However, as the Byzantine machinations involving minority representation indicate, the upcoming provincial elections will likely sharpen conflicts and generate destabilising pressures. Matters are further complicated by Maliki's increased assertiveness in challenging his Kurdish coalition partners and the ever-present threat of a legislative veto wielded by the individual members of the presidency council, endowing the Kurds with temporary powers to formally block any and all legislative progress. For now there is no resolution in sight for the disputed territories, while Arab-Kurdish conflicts persist over federal hydrocarbons legislation, the extent of federalism and the powers of the central government.

The controversy also points to the broader struggle to construct an inclusive Iraqi identity from the wreckage of Baathist Iraq and the sectarian bloodletting of recent years. While Iraqi nationalist sentiment has begun to push cross-sectarian politics, the nature of these tactical alliances among Arab political parties has often relied almost exclusively on anti-Kurdish rhetoric and has yet to coalesce into sustainable political groupings that reach beyond this negative construction. At the same time, Arab opposition and hostility to Kurdish goals could further inflame separatist sentiment among the already alienated Kurdish public, limiting the possibility of peaceful compromise. With these essential questions of identity still unresolved, it is difficult to argue with the logic for guaranteed minority representation. But the very need for such guarantees is indicative of the fragility of the current political order and its inability to accommodate unhindered political participation absent the protection and support of organised armed forces and militias.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a programme officer at The Century Foundation.