On July 10, 2009 the Kurdistan Regional parliament agreed to postpone a referendum on a new controversial constitution. The vote was to coincide with elections for the Kurdish parliament and president on July 25. The proposed constitution has been criticized from both within and without Kurdistan.
The Kurdish parliament passed the constitution at the very last minute. The legislature was supposed to end its term on June 4, 2009, but extended their session to pass the constitution on June 24. The document has two controversial parts to it. First it lays claim to the city of Kirkuk, and other areas in Diyala and Ninewa provinces. In June 2009 talks began behind the scenes between the United Nations, Baghdad, and Kurdistan over these disputed areas. The constitution was a signal that the Kurds were not going to give up on their territorial claims to a greater Kurdistan, which they say consists of areas that are historically theirs. One member of the Kurdish parliament said that they no longer had confidence in the national constitution because there had been no movement on the disputed areas. The Iraqi constitution includes Article 140, which called for normalization, a census, and then referendum on Kirkuk and the other disputed territories. The vote was supposed to happen by December 31, 2007, but that was extended to June 2008 and then abandoned. All sides have now agreed to let the United Nations mediate this issue, yet the Kurds still talk about implementing 140.
The move caused consternation in Baghdad and Washington. 50 members of Iraq’s parliament immediately signed a statement rejecting the Kurdish constitution. They claim that it is unconstitutional. Some claimed that it was the first move towards secession by the Kurds. On July 2 Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Iraq where he said that the new constitution was not helping the increasing divide between Baghdad and Kurdistan. The new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill went to talk with the Kurds shortly afterwards, followed by a visit by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, to Kirkuk. All three U.S. officials said that Iraqis needed to negotiate and resolve these disputes themselves, and that the Americans would help if needed. The problem is that the U.S. has stood on the sidelines waiting for the U.N. to make progress on the issue, when the international body cannot really do anything without a strong U.S. role. At the same time the differences between Baghdad and Kurdistan have increased. The proposed Kurdish constitution then just added fuel to the fire.
The constitution has also caused protests within Kurdistan. The biggest problem is that it gives new powers to the regional president. The president would be allowed to dissolve the Kurdish parliament, gives the office executive power, command over the peshmerga, the ability to pass and veto laws, and remove any ministers. Opposition parties claim that the document is an attempt to preserve the power of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that have ruled the autonomous region since 1991. In this year’s vote they are facing serious challengers for the first time. Incumbent Kurdish President Massoud Barzani of the KDP however, is expected to be re-elected. The belief is that if the KDP and PUK loose power to these new parties in parliament they will have a new trump card in the expanded powers of the president. In response, several social organizations in Sulaymaniya began a campaign against the new constitution in June 2009, and some of the opposition parties are talking about joining behind one candidate to oppose Barzani in the election.
The whole issue is now going to be postponed. Iraq’s Election Commission said that it couldn’t have an election for the Kurdish parliament and president at the same time as a referendum on the new constitution. The Commission said the soonest it could hold a vote for the constitution would be August 11, and the Kurdish parliament said they would have it no later than September 2009.
This delay is only holding off the inevitable. Annexing Kirkuk and other disputed areas is widely popular in Kurdistan. Many Kurds have not even heard or read the constitution either, and will probably be unaware of the changes that it will make in the power of the president before the vote. That means the constitution will likely be passed. If it does it will ensure the continued rule of the PUK-KDP alliance no matter what the outcome of the Kurdistan parliamentary vote is, and add to the growing Arab-Kurdish divide within the country. It also shows the obstinacy of the Kurdish ruling parties to not budge on either domestic Kurdish issues, or national ones.
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