In which country one would go to jail simply by raising the national flag?
The answer is Iraq, more precisely the three Kurdish majority provinces of the northeast where the central government has had little effective presence since 1991.
The incident came last month when crowds poured into the streets of Erbil, the Kurdish region’s largest city, to celebrate the victory of the Iraqi national football team in the Asian Cup. It was inevitable that some people would raise the flag under which the Iraqi team had won the cup. However, that turned out to be something of a crime, at least in the eyes of the local authorities who ordered a crackdown. Over 50 youths were arrested, to be released shortly afterwards.
The incident was the latest illustration of the Kurdish region’s rejection of the national flag. Earlier, in a ceremony in which the US-led coalition handed over the security of the region to local forces, not a single Iraqi flag was in evidence.
The Kurdish attitude is not easy to understand. Nor should we dismiss it as a chauvinistic quirk. The flag shunned in the Kurdish region is precisely the one that Kurdish elder statesman Jalal Talabani has sworn to uphold as President of Iraq.
The Kurds say it is too painful for them to see a flag under which so many of them were tortured or massacred. The controversial flag consists of colours associated with pan-Arabism and, in its current form, was designed under the late dictator Saddam Hussein shortly after his invasion of Kuwait.
However, I think the Iraqi Kurds are wrong to ban the flag from their autonomous region. As long as there has not been a national consensus on a new flag, the Kurds must accept the old one and fight for a new flag through the nation’s new democratic institutions.
Massoud Barzani, the paramount Iraqi Kurdish leader behind the anti-flag campaign, would do well to remember that one could not fight pan-Arab chauvinism with Kurdish chauvinism.
I first ran into Massoud in Tehran in 1975 when I went to see his late father Mullah Mostafa Barzani. I had always had a certain admiration for the old mullah and was genuinely sad to see him subdued. Forced to shed his Kurdish clothes, he had been asked by his Iranian minders to wear a Western-style suit for the occasion, complete with a necktie that was obviously choking him. Dexterously, he peeled an orange for me and poured the tea, trying to maintain the legendary tradition of Kurdish hospitality.
This turned out to be the last of our many meetings that had started in 1969. We did not know that this would also be the mullah’s last interview (he died in the United States soon afterwards.) Throughout the evening, Massoud, in a sombre mood, stood a few feet away with his back to the wall, observing the scene as an eagle atop a Kurdish hill.
It was a pity that Massoud could not hear our conversation. For his father seized the opportunity to make three crucial points in explaining the tragedy that had broken his heart and was soon to kill him, (a deal between Iran and Iraq, a few weeks earlier, had ended Iranian support for the Kurds, making it impossible for them to fight alone against Saddam Hussein’s Soviet-equipped army).
The mullah’s first point was that neither the Kurds, under his leadership, nor the Iraqi regime, then dominated by Saddam Hussein, had been able to temper their demands, recognize limits beyond which they might create a situation that neither controlled, and acknowledge that history cannot be written in advance. In that context, Barzani quoted the Surah “Al Takathur”, a short manifesto against transgression.
Between 1969 and 1971, Barzani had done all in his power to placate the Baathists and achieve a compromise to save Iraq from yet another bloody civil war. Those who covered the largely secret negotiations knew that the Kurdish leader had agreed to eat much humble pie in order to prevent war. Saddam, however, had responded by plotting Barzani’s assassination.
And, yet here was the defeated Barzani still wondering whether he shared part of the blame for the advent of an unchallenged Baathist dictatorship that would, in time, lead Iraq into more wars and ultimate disaster.
Was it intransigence on both sides that had produced a situation in which Iraqi Kurds could neither live with Iraq nor live without it?
The mullah’s second point, put with delicate diplomacy, was that he had been wrong in trusting the Iranians and their American allies who had used the Kurdish revolt in Iraq as a means of forcing the Baathists to offer the Shah what no other Iraqi government had done since 1936. In that context, Barzani quoted a poem from Nizami about a cat who, unhappy at the fare on offer at an old woman’s hut where it abides, finds a hiding place in the Shah’s palace. Soon, however, the cat is spotted by the guards who start firing arrows at it. Horrified, the cat runs for its life, back to the old woman’s hovel.
Barzani’s third point was even more important as it underlined a wisdom accumulated during four decades of struggle for Kurdish rights.
He said he now realized that Iraq’s tragic experience was not caused by ethnic enmity between Arab and Kurd but by the fact that virtually all Iraqi governments had treated all their citizens as actual or potential enemies. Thus, Arab and Kurd shared a common struggle for an Iraq in which every citizen could live in freedom and dignity. When it came to essentials such as human rights, the Baathist regime did not treat its Arab citizens any better than it did the Kurds.
He insisted that the future Kurdish movement in Iraq should be largely political, as opposed to an armed revolt, and designed to put the Kurds at the vanguard of the struggle by all Iraqis for freedom and the rule of law.
In that context, he quoted from Sa’adi, the poet of Shiraz, who believed that “joint interests make the best of friends.” It was obvious that Barzani had understood that Kurdish particularism, if perceived by Arab Iraqi as a threat to their statehood, would be a source of endless war in Mesopotamia.
Thirty-two years ago, Massoud Barzani was a young and inexperienced politician. Today, he is the “white-beard” of the Iraqi Kurdish elite. He would, therefore, do well to ponder the lessons of history, including his father’s distilled wisdom. Charles X lost the French crown because he refused to accept the tricolor flag, plunging his nation into crises that lasted decades.
Rather than emulate Gamal Abdul-Nasser and his misguided pan-Arabism, Massoud Barzani should do what Mullah Mostafa would have wanted him to do: put the Kurds at the vanguard of the struggle to unite the Iraqis in a common quest for a new life- a life of freedom and dignity. Such unity cannot be achieved through petty quarrels about the flag or opportunistic maneuvers disguised as a quest for federalism.