The New Jersey Star-Ledger

Can These Men Save Iraq?

Is there an Arab state with a non-Arab leader? As of last week, the answer to this question is yes, improbable as that may seem. Iraq, once a vanguard of Arab nationalism, now has a Kurdish president.

For Iraq's 4 million to 5 million ethnic Kurds, who suffered brutal persecution under Saddam Hussein, this is welcome news. Although the presidency is largely ceremonial, the selection of Jalal Talabani, who has dedicated his life to Kurdish autonomy, speaks volumes about the nation-building project currently under way.

In stark contrast to centuries of Sunni supremacy, the new Iraq is a country where the Shi'a Arab majority and the Kurdish minority are strongly represented. The post of prime minister—where real power lies—went to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'a political leader, while Hajim al-Hassani, a Sunni, became the speaker of the parliament. Similarly, the two vice presidents under Talabani are divided according to a Shi'a-Sunni balance.

For many Sunnis, this radical change in the country's power structure is nothing less than dismaying, and it remains to be seen whether the promise of a new constitution with clear checks and balances against tyranny will allay their fears. With the insurgency in predominantly Sunni provinces showing no signs of abating, the question of legitimate representation may prove more challenging than most Shi'as and Kurds expect.

Perhaps more disturbing is the question of whether a multiethnic sectarian balance among Kurds, Shi'as and Sunnis is possible at all in a country like Iraq, which has no tradition of ethnic power-sharing. One only needs to look at the bloody modern history of Lebanon to truly understand the risks. A civil war in Iraq would be even more devastating, and it would drag regional powerhouses such as Turkey, Iran and Syria into the conflict.

There is no question that Iraq and the whole region are better off without Saddam. Still, he was not ousted by the kind of home-grown revolution seen recently in Lebanon and Ukraine. That would almost certainly have created a stronger sense of solidarity and national pride among all Iraqis. Instead, history books will record that post- Saddam Iraq had its origins in an American expedition.

This will deprive future generations of Iraqi schoolchildren of the glory that flows from a national liberation movement against external oppression. The sad reality of Iraq is that it took the Americans to get rid of Saddam. With any luck, it will not also take Americans to establish and sustain Iraqi democracy.

The possibility of multiethnic harmony in Iraq will soon be tested on the ground, in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk has been a setting for all the ethnic-sectarian conflicts in the country's history—Muslim against Christian, Sunni against Shi'a, Kurd against Arab. Moreover, it is home to the Turkmen, ethnic cousins of the Turks who look to neighboring Turkey for protection.

The last official Iraqi census, in 1957, listed 40 percent of Kirkuk's population as Turkmen and 35 percent as Kurds; the rest were Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians and others. During his rule, Saddam deported thousands of Kurds and Turkmen from Kirkuk as part of his "Arabization" campaign.

Today, tens of thousands of Kurds are returning to this city they view as their "Jerusalem." Meanwhile, most Arabs and Turkmen reject what they see a Kurdish plan to create an oil-rich regional capital as a springboard toward eventual Kurdish independence. It is crucial for Iraq's Kurds to allay regional and national concerns about their intentions.

This is why Talabani's presidency is a step in the right direction, allowing Kurds to warm up to the idea of considering themselves Iraqis first, and Kurds second. This will not be easy for a persecuted ethnic minority that understandably dreams of one day living in its own state. But the alternatives are much grimmer. It will be a tragic irony for the Kurds if a Shi'a-Sunni Iraqi identity emerges at their expense.

In this sense, the Kurds are no different from the many other ethnic and religious factions in Iraq. Together, they have a chance to succeed; divided, they invite disaster.