Some Bush Aides Wary of Autonomy for Iraq Regions
By Adam Entous
April 16, 2003
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some Bush administration officials are concerned about
Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni regions having a great deal of autonomy as part of a
postwar Iraqi government, people familiar with the deliberations said on
President Bush hailed advocates of Kurdish autonomy visiting the White House
last month, saying he envisioned replacing Saddam Hussein's government with a
"federation" made up of the country's major ethnic groups.
Saman Shali, executive vice president of the Kurdish National Congress of North
America, said he had received assurances the Kurds would have the "autonomy to
run their own affairs" after the war.
"Please do not sell out the Kurds again," Shali implored White House national
security adviser Condoleezza Rice at the end of the visit. "We will not, I
promise," Rice said in response, according to Shali's account.
In subsequent meetings with lawmakers, administration officials raised the
possibility of a federation of states drawn along ethnic lines, congressional
Officials say they have not committed to a federation or any other structure for
a future Iraqi government.
"We're going to leave those decisions to the Iraqi people where they belong,"
one official said, putting the onus on yet-to-be-named Iraqi leaders to draft a
constitution with the help of American and other outside advisers.
But some Bush administration officials see "potential pitfalls," including a
heightened risk of power struggles, in a federal system that grants autonomy to
regions based on ethnicity, sources close to the deliberations said.
Iraqi Kurds want to retain at least the autonomy they now have as the price for
remaining part of a federated Iraq and as a reward for helping American forces
fighting in the north.
"In the end, some kind of federated system -- with local governments that takes
into account regional differences in the population -- may work," said a source.
"But when you have a country as ethnically diverse, with certain ethnicities
concentrated in certain areas, you have the potential for ethnic conflict."
U.S. policy-makers hope to avoid the fate of Afghanistan, where lawless regions
dominated by warlords pose a real threat to future stability.
The fear in Iraq, officials say, is that semi-autonomous regions could work at
cross-purposes, undermining centralized authority in a nation with a history of
divisions between Kurds and Arabs, Sunni Muslims and Shi'ite Muslims.
Regions might vie for independence, undercutting a central principle of U.S.
policy: maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity.
A federation could also give undue weight to regional powers, which are in some
cases hostile to the United States. Saudi Arabia might shape policies in a
semi-autonomous Sunni region, while Iran could influence Iraq's Shi'ite
The politics of setting up a semi-autonomous Kurdish region within Iraq could be
especially difficult. Turkish leaders are uncomfortable with the degree of
autonomy the Iraqi Kurds have gained since Saddam lost control of a slice of
northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. But for the Kurds, that autonomy is the
baseline from which they expect to improve their lot in a post-Saddam Iraq.
The capture of the northern oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul underscored the
danger. When Kurdish fighters swept in, they triggered an immediate threat of
Turkish military intervention. American troops were sent to the city to ensure
Turkey stayed on the sidelines.
Kurds, who had a majority in Kirkuk and a share of its oil wealth before Baath
party ethnic cleansing "Arabized" the city, want Kirkuk as their capital. "We
have to strengthen what we have, not weaken it," said Shali.
Mike Amitay, executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, warned of a
public outcry and "maybe violence" if the Kurds' autonomy is rolled
back. "The genie is already out of the bottle," he said.