BAGHDAD: Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani’s recent call for self-determination for his people has drawn the ire of the country’s Sunni and Shia Arab leaders, who argue that it presages a break-up of Iraq.
"The right of self-determination is something that concerns people living under occupation, but this is not the case for Kurdistan, which has a special status in Iraq," said Alia Nusayaf, an MP with the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.
"It makes me wonder if the Kurds asked for federalism (in Iraq’s constitution) to first form a region and then to separate from Iraq."
Barzani said at the opening of a week-long congress of his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) on Saturday that self-determination was "a right."
He said it would be presented at the meeting "to be studied and discussed."
His comments mark the first time Barzani has officially presented the issue to the KDP’s congress, with the proposal set for a vote during the meeting.
His comments come at a time when Iraqi prime minister-designate Nuri Al-Maliki is forming his cabinet. Barzani’s party is expected to get several ministerial posts, and Kurdish authorities are mired in a dispute with Baghdad over land and oil.
Among those at the meeting in the Kurdish capital Arbil were Maliki, parliament speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi and Iyad Allawi, the leader of Iraqiya.
"It’s shameful that with all the politicians present, not one of them spoke up" over Barzani’s remarks, Nusayaf said.
There is also consternation among MPs loyal to radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, whose backing for Maliki largely ensured that the incumbent would stay on as premier.
"These declarations (by Barzani) are not in the best interests of Iraq, and they only serve to raise tensions," said Jawad Al-Hasnawi, a Sadrist lawmaker.
"I think an Iraq that extends from Zakho to Basra is much better than an Iraq that is divided," he added, referring to the country’s northern and southernmost cities.
Hasnawi noted, however, that the politicians at the Arbil meeting probably declined to respond to Barzani’s remarks to avoid "inflaming the situation."
Barzani’s KDP is a key member of Maliki’s governing coalition, and the Kurdish leader played a major role in bringing Iraq’s divided political factions together to agree a power-sharing deal.
The party, part of a joint slate with Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, controls a substantial majority of seats in the Kurdish parliament and jointly holds 43 seats in Baghdad’s assembly with the PUK.
Iraq’s Kurdish north, made up of three provinces, exercises control over all policy making, except in national defence and foreign affairs.
On Sunday, Kurdish regional Prime Minister Barham Salih, a PUK leader, pressed the issue again, telling reporters: "There is a consensus among Kurds over the fact that it is legal and legitimate to have the right to self-determination.
"When we pushed for a federal Iraq, we said that it was a form of expression of self-determination, and we have never abandoned this right."
The 1920 Treaty of Sevres following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire included provisions for land for a separate Kurdish state.
But the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 divided the Middle East into seven countries, none for Kurds. As a result, the world’s estimated 25 million Kurds now live on territory that straddles Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The Kurdistan region first attained a modicum of autonomy in 1974, but Barzani’s father and then-leader of the KDP, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, returned to war with the Baghdad government rather than accept that limited autonomy.
Kurdistan won greater freedom after the 1991 Gulf War, and its autonomy was enshrined in Iraq’s constitution after the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.
According to Khalid Al-Assadi, an MP with Maliki’s State of Law coalition, it is unlikely that the Kurds want to go much further. Barzani’s comments were "for domestic consumption", said Assadi.
"Self-determination is a Kurdish ambition, and they bring it up from time to time, but I think the Kurds are wise enough not to leave Iraq," he said.