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
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
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
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.