Hadi Mizban/Associated Press: Members of the Kurdish parliament read a draft of the proposed new constitution, which claims disputed natural resources, in Erbil on June 24.
By SAM DAGHER, Published: July 9, 2009
BAGHDAD — With little notice and almost no public debate, Iraq’s Kurdish leaders are pushing ahead with a new constitution for their semiautonomous region, a step that has alarmed Iraqi and American officials who fear that the move poses a new threat to the country’s unity.
The new constitution, approved by Kurdistan’s parliament two weeks ago and scheduled for a referendum this year, underscores the level of mistrust and bad faith between the region and the central government in Baghdad. And it raises the question of whether a peaceful resolution of disputes between the two is possible, despite intensive cajoling by the United States.
The proposed constitution enshrines Kurdish claims to territories and the oil and gas beneath them. But these claims are disputed by both the federal government in Baghdad and ethnic groups on the ground, and were supposed to be resolved in talks begun quietly last month between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, sponsored by the United Nations and backed by the United States. Instead, the Kurdish parliament pushed ahead and passed the constitution, partly as a message that it would resist pressure from the American and Iraqi governments to make concessions.
The disputed areas, in northern Iraq, are already volatile: There have been several tense confrontations between Kurdish and federal security forces, as well as frequent attacks aimed at inflaming sectarian and ethnic passions there.
The Obama administration, which is gradually withdrawing American troops from Iraq, was surprised and troubled by the Kurdish move. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., sent to Iraq on July 2 for three days, criticized it in diplomatic and indirect, though unmistakably strong, language as “not helpful” to the administration’s goal of reconciling Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds, in an interview with ABC News.
Mr. Biden said he wanted to discuss the proposed constitution with the Kurdish leadership in person but could not fly to Kurdistan because of sandstorms. Instead he spoke to Kurdish leaders by telephone on Tuesday, and Christopher R. Hill, the new ambassador in Baghdad, met with them in Kurdistan on Wednesday.
American diplomatic and military officials have said the potential for a confrontation with the Kurds has emerged as a threat as worrisome to Iraq’s fate as the remnants of the insurgency.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is already not on speaking terms with the Kurdish region’s president, Massoud Barzani. Iraqi political leaders have vociferously denounced the constitution as a step toward splintering Iraq.
“This lays the foundation for a separate state — it is not a constitution for a region,” said Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab member of the national Parliament. “It is a declaration of hostile intent and confrontation. Of course it will lead to escalation.”
Kurdish officials defended their efforts to adopt a new constitution that defines the Kurdistan region as comprising their three provinces and also tries to add all of hotly contested and oil-rich Kirkuk Province, as well as other disputed areas in Nineveh and Diyala Provinces. Iraq’s federal Constitution allows the Kurds the right to their own constitution, referring any conflicts to Iraq’s highest court.
Susan Shihab, a member of Kurdistan’s parliament, said she no longer had faith that the rights of Kurds under the federal constitution from 2005 would be respected.
“What is missing the most in the new Iraq is confidence,” she said.
At the same time, though, some Kurds acknowledge that they have grown frustrated with the halting talks to resolve territorial disputes and other issues involving Kurds’ political power in Iraq.
“This is a punch in the face. We are fed up with them,” said a senior Kurdish official, referring to the government in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his role in the United Nations negotiations.
The dispute started when the term of Kurdistan’s parliament ended June 4, before local presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for July 25. But the parliament, which is firmly in the grips of the two parties that have ruled the region for nearly 20 years, approved an extension and overwhelmingly passed a new draft of the constitution on June 24.
The Kurdish government announced that it wanted the document put to a referendum during the July elections, a vastly accelerated timetable given that most people in Kurdistan say they have not even heard of the constitution.
Iraq’s electoral commission, which oversees elections nationwide, said Monday that the earliest it could hold the referendum was Aug. 11.
The regional parliament said Thursday that it did not oppose a postponement but that it stood by the constitution and was “determined to hold a referendum” by September, according to its spokesman, Tariq Jawhar.
Most expect that the new constitution will be approved. The Kurdish ruling parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — control all levers of power in the area and maintain legions of loyal followers through jobs and patronage.
But many people in Kurdistan are deeply troubled by how the constitution was hastily passed and the extraordinary powers it gives the president, without meaningful checks and balances.
A group of civil society organizations in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya began a campaign last month opposing the constitution. Namo Sharif, an activist involved in the effort, said a Kurdish government official called him a “traitor.”
Kwestan Mohammed, a member of the regional parliament who joined a new coalition running against the two ruling parties in the July elections, said that Kurdistan needed its own constitution but that the document in its current form planted the seeds of endless conflict with the central government and made the region’s president an “absolute” ruler.
“It turns all the other powers, including parliament, into cardboard figures,” Ms. Mohammed said.
Gareth Stansfield, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, a nonprofit organization that focuses on international issues, who is an expert on Kurdish politics, said the Kurds’ insistence on a separate constitution was an unequivocal message to the central government that they were serious about their claims, especially as the clock ticks on America’s presence in Iraq.
“They are not backing down anymore,” Mr. Stansfield said. “They are being very forceful.”