Par Fuad HUSSEIN (*)
The topic of the conference has been put to us in the form of a question: What Future for the Kurds in Iraq?’ and contains three interrelated terms. Future, Kurds and Iraq. It is obvious that in dealing with these concepts, we are moving into the field of speculations or the presentation of scenarios about a partially calculated but mostly invisible future of a people and a state.
When talking about the status quo, a description of this status is needed first. It can be seen as follows: Iraq is under a kind of mandate system of the international community. Geographically and politically speaking, it is divided into two parts. One part of the country is under the control of the Kurds and the other is ruled by the regime in Baghdad. The main financial traffic with the outside world is related to the so-called oil-for-food program and has been under observation of international organizations for the last years. The country is open to the international weapons inspection team. The regime in Baghdad is confronted with the threat of war.
In short, Iraq as a country is in a very bad shape. However, one must admit that Iraq, since its foundation as a state, has been in a kind of continuous crisis by searching for an identity and struggling with itself. And during the last three decades it has been at war with its own people, its neighbors and even with the international community.
The seeds of the unmanageability of the state of Iraq lie partially in the past and partially in the present. Iraq was founded with the idea of a nation-state structure. The state was there, but the building of a nation lagged behind, because it was based on an unrealistic concept of Arab nationalism. A state was born in 1920-1921 with a clear contradiction: a state that from the beginning was opposed to the majority of its people and therefore there was no harmony. A specific Iraqi national identity did not emerge from the concept of Arab nationalism for many reasons. Some were related to Iraqi society and others were not applicable in real life. In short, Iraq instead of functioning as a state that protects its own people became a threat to their life and their existence.
This introduction is needed to explain the audience why Iraq has ‘produced’ one of the largest outputs of refugees and immigrants in recent years. Social scientists, involved in writing and researching about Diaspora, refugees and immigration problems, usually analyze the causes according to the so-called Push and Pull factors.
In other words, they try to find out what pushes individuals and groups to leave their country and why certain countries attract these people more than other countries.
In dealing with push factors, one can conclude that nonfunctioning states, such as Somalia, Afghanistan (before the change) and Iraq, are at the top of the list of countries that produce refugees. Usually, these states are involved in civil and external wars. Wars have been seen as one of the main reasons that push people across the border. Political repression and lack of freedom are other important reasons. It is well known that wars and political repression usually lead to corruption of the system and poverty. The desire to try and build a better life is part of human nature, and many people see no other solution than to run away from poverty and settle down in another country. All these reasons and many others are features of Iraq and the Iraqi political system. As a result about three to four million Iraqis have fled the country and are spread all over the world. Over half a million people are displaced inside the country.
Perhaps some people will say that this phenomenon is merely the product of this particular regime and that the Iraqis were happy with their government in the past. They argue that it is only during this Ba’th regime that people have fled the country. This argument is correct if we only take into consideration the flight of people on a large scale, trying to reach the Western countries. The Iraqis did not flee the country on such a large scale during the monarchy, because in the beginning the system was weak and not very well centralized. Many traditional powers, such as tribes and religious centers, were able to keep their autonomy outside the reach of the center of power. When people were obliged to flee they chose a place inside the country. They were displaced people, but because of the existence of various centers of power, it was possible for them to find shelter and security inside the country. Otherwise the neighboring countries were most easily reached. Iraqi individuals in Diaspora (read Europe) were either students sent by the government or children of rich families. It must be said, however, that the oppression during Saddam Hussein’s regime cannot be compared to that of any previous government in Iraq.
The refugee problem captured the attention of the world for the first time when almost half a million Iraqi Kurds fled to Iran after the collapse of the Kurdish military resistance in March 1975. A group of them reached Europe. At that time, there was rather a large Iraqi community in London. Apart from the Kurdish refugees, it consisted of some Iraqi (Arab, Kurdish and other) political dissidents, a large Iraqi student community, a group of rich Iraqis who fled with their capital to the West and children of rich people who had come to study and stayed on in Britain. It is understandable that Great Britain was one of the Pull countries for the Iraqis, because of its historical relationship with Iraq. Perhaps that is why one of the largest Iraqi communities in the West is in Britain and why the opposition groups either are based in London or have their main representatives there. But at the same time it gives us also a picture about the Iraqi society in Diaspora.
Iraqi refugees in the neighboring countries still form the majority of the Iraqis living abroad. It has been estimated that about 200,000 to 250,000 Iraqis live in Iran and about 100,000 to 150,000 in Jordan. Perhaps about 50,000 of them are in Syria and the number of Iraqis in Turkey is not known, but some sources estimate the number at 100,000. In the Saudi refugee camp al-Rafeha there are some 5,000 Iraqis. It is a fact that the Iraqi refugees in the neighboring countries are facing tremendous problems. These problems differ from one country to another, but in general the presence of these refugees is considered illegal because of the lack of proper documents and they often are unemployed. Their economic and social life is very gloomy. Many of them hope to reach one of the European countries some day. The Iraqi refugees also known as the boat refugees have occupied the minds of many politicians and policy makers in this field in Europe. The refugees who arrived at the coasts of various European countries usually came from the neighboring countries mentioned above. The question is whether this phenomenon will ever stop. In the near future I do not think it will. If a war starts against the Iraqi regime, then these refugees find themselves in a new situation. If the war is short, the regime changes and a relatively stable government is founded, then the majority of the refugees in the neighboring countries will return to Iraq. If the war will take a longer period of time, then those groups will stay where they are and those who can leave will do anything to reach one of the coasts or airports of Europe. On the other hand if the status quo continues in the next years, one may expect these numbers to increase and more groups will arrive at the European coasts.
Refugees who are settled in Europe have become the main financial supporters of their families in Iraq. However, at the same time this has led to a brain drain in Iraq, more specifically in Iraqi Kurdistan. Because the majority of the refugees both in the neighboring countries and in the West are very much occupied by their social, psychological and cultural problems, they are only passively involved in politics. A minority of them is actively engaged in politics related to Iraq. The most important reason for this lack of engagement is that there was no hope of any change in Iraq in the foreseeable future.
The Diaspora groups that are organized are divided in groups of every political color imaginable. They have different ideologies and strategies. The interactions between these groups and the Western political way of life induced some of these groups to look differently at their own political background. The experience of the last decade has led some of the ex-ideologists to shift towards Iraqization, if I may use this term, of their ideologies and strategies. The liberal groups, which have become stronger among the Iraqis abroad during the last years, have been influenced by the concept of the state of citizen and think that a democratic Iraq will give the same rights and duties to every citizen.
As far as the Kurdish Diaspora is concerned, the Kurds find themselves in a different position, as part of Iraqi Kurdistan has been liberated from the regime of Saddam Hussein since 1991. With ups and downs the Kurdish authorities have given shape to a unique experience, which is gradually improving. Many Iraqis hope that the situation in Kurdistan will reach a level that can serve as a model for the future of Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds in Diaspora take pride in the fact that the situation is improving and that peaceful relations dominate the region. However, thousands of young Kurds have left their homeland to go to Europe. The unstable political situation, the uncertain future of Iraq and the latent threat of the Iraqi regime were some of the reasons that pushed the Kurds across the border.
The Kurdish political parties have always linked their demands for autonomy and eventually federation to a democratic system in Iraq. The Kurds were in fact lobbying for the concept of living apart together. In other words, they wanted to keep their separate identity and their separate national rights within a democratic Iraq. Some new liberals, based in the West, consider this strategy contrary to being all-Iraqi. They think that a democratic system will solve all national questions, but in my opinion this idea is a recipe for more problems in the future. Democracy in Iraq still has to be born and then it takes a long time to grow up. It cannot be a successful concept if it does not emphasize the freedom of choice. Iraqi society is a pluralistic one and each part of it has a very strong link with and loyalty towards its own identity. Therefore, the future political system is expected to reflect this pluralistic social structure. Taking this into consideration, it would be vague and unrealistic to treat the Iraqis as if they are all of the same color. They have a colorful identity and that must be shown; otherwise many will be excluded once again and that cannot be healthy for the development of democracy. After all, Iraq began with a ‘democratic’ government in the twenties of the previous century and ended up with the exclusion of the two largest populations in the south and the north. All this resulted in the birth of one of the bloodiest regimes in the area. Without recognition of the rights of the Kurds and the other national minorities, such as the Turkmen and Assyrians, the policy of marginalization will be implemented and the power will not be shared.
The concept of a state of citizen is noble, but it can perhaps only be realized in the long run and on the basis of positive interactions between all national, social and political powers in Iraq within a democratic atmosphere.
It will be a challenge to the future government of Iraq to give the country a new shape and identity. Marginalization of the Iraqi people in general, and the Kurds in particular, in the future will lead Iraq to the same catastrophe as is taking place at present. The history of the country has shown that when trying to marginalize the Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians, militarization of society and centralization of the government will be seen as the next necessary steps and both aspects are antagonistic to democracy. Federalization of the Iraqi political structure is the way to democratization of the society.
If a democratic process in Iraq starts after the change of regime in Baghdad, there will be a huge task for intellectuals of the Diaspora to participate next to people inside the country who believe in the same principle but have never had the chance to practice it. As democracy begins to develop, their role will increase. It will be impossible to start democracy without democrats.
I think it is correct to emphasize that the duty of those who call themselves democrats and have lived abroad for a long time is more of an advisory nature, perhaps as think-tank groups. If they are planning to present themselves as the leaders of the Iraqi people after the change, then they will have a long way to go. The experience of the past, when the state of Iraq was founded, must not be repeated. Almost the entire Iraqi leadership consisted of outsiders who became rulers of the country. That experiment failed and will fail again this time. In this respect, as in many others, Iraq cannot be compared to Afghanistan. Having said that, I think Iraq desperately needs change, just as Afghanistan needed it, and it needs a democratic change. However, the change in Iraq will be a joint venture between insiders and outsiders. The Europeans have an important task in helping the people of Iraq to change the status quo to a stable and better political system. Only then miserable Iraqis will no longer overflow the coasts of Europe
* Fuad Hussein is vice-president of the Kurdish Institute of Paris and director of Middle East Bureau in Amsterdam. This paper was presented at the International Conference on the Future of the Iraqi Kurds, held in Paris on 29th of November 2002.