A Post-Saddam Iraq Conference Series — Constitutional Issues and Federalism: Ethnicity and Justice in Post-Saddam Iraq
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I will actually talk on a totally different subject. I would like to emphasize mainly the problem of Assyrians. So first of all, I would like to thank the Institute for allowing me this opportunity to present the vision of our Assyrian people in a democratic post-Saddam Iraq.
The Assyrians are also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs. Assyrians are the original inhabitants of today's Iraq. Most of you are familiar with the numerous contributions made by the Assyrian nation to modern civilization. Some of you may not realize that there still exist today remnants of Assyrians living in their homeland. Since the fall of our last empire some 2,500 years ago, we have lived in the land of our forefathers with Arabs, Kurds, Persians, Turkomans, and others. Our people were among the first to accept Christianity, and over the centuries we have maintained our national identity, language, culture, and religion through great suffering and sacrifice.
The Assyrian people are the indigenous Christian people of Mesopotamia. There are approximately 1.5 to 2 million Assyrians living in Iraq, and probably constitute the third-largest demographic population in the country. However, the Iraqi government does not officially recognize the Assyrians as a people or as a nation. The present constitution only recognizes Arabs and Kurds, referring to Assyrians as a Christian minority or Assyrian sect. Sometimes they also refer to the Assyrian people as Syriac-speaking people. On other occasions, they call us Christian, Arab-Christian, and Kurdish-Christian.
The Assyrian people have long suffered because of their religious and cultural identity. They have been deprived of their home and have been victim to several massacres and other kinds of oppression over centuries. The Assyrians have been subjected to systematic attempts by the fascist regime to Arabize them. Recently, the Iraqi government has also forced the Assyrians, the Kurds, and the Turkomans to sign national correction forms that require them to renounce their national identities and declare themselves to be Arabs.
Assyrians, who have suffered national and political persecution and other brutal aspects of the dictatorial regime were forced to leave their homeland and seek refuge in other countries. Today, a majority of American citizens of Iraqi descent are actually Assyrians. There are about 300,000 Assyrians living in America. What I mean by "Assyrian" — usually they call themselves by different names, like Chaldean and Syrian and so on. Assyrians have been in the United States for some time, but maintain their national aspiration and link of affection with their homeland.
Assyrians in Iraq deserve specific attention because they are the oppressed among Iraqis, have been denied their human rights and equality, and suffering discrimination living as second-class citizens. We share the suffering of all Iraqis under Saddam's dictator rules. Along with our Kurdish, Shiite, and Turkoman brothers, however, we are further oppressed because we are Christian.
The Assyrian people in Iraq who have made great sacrifice in opposing the regime of Saddam Hussein will continue their struggle for a unified democratic and secular government that constitutes principles of democracy and human rights. Assyrian representatives of political organizations and Assyrian rights activists attended different Iraqi opposition meetings, or more recently, London meetings in December of last year. Assyrians participated — although they were under-represented actively with all Iraqi patriotic and democratic forces toward the end result of creating a unified Iraqi national leadership to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein and establish a democratic regime that would allow our Assyrian people the opportunity to participate in the administration and political organization in Iraq.
Nowadays there is much talk about changing the regime in Iraq, and especially the talk of Washington's determination to end Saddam's regime. Talk of such action becomes more serious, and attack is probably inevitable after the president's speech on Wednesday, February 26, at this institute. Actually, the objective of the crisis is no longer regime change, but the liberation of the Iraqi people.
How will the political and human rights concerns of the Assyrians factor into any future Iraqi political equation? In other words, would we be dealt with as Iraqis or would we be regarded as second-class citizens?
Although the future of the political system in Iraq after the passing of the current dictatorship is the sole responsibility of the Iraqi people, we believe that an Iraq constituted on principles of democracy, respect for human rights, and recognition of legitimate national rights of all elements of its entire people, including our Assyrian people, will be a peaceful Iraq dedicated to stability and prosperity in the region and the world.
Recently, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, drafted a new constitution for Iraq, calling for Iraq to become a united federal state called the United Republic of Iraq. According to this plan, Iraq would be comprised of two territories, or federated states — Rend mentioned, actually, about it — one in which the majority are Arabs, and the other the majority are Kurds. The proposed draft states that Iraq consists of mainly Arabs and Kurds and other minorities. The draft fails to mention Assyrians and Turkomans, and tries to put them under the word "minority," or squeeze them under the word of "minority."
The proposal should stress that Iraq comprises many national or religious groups, including Arab, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, Yizidis, Mendaeans, Armenians, and so on. In addition, the draft actually fails to address the basic national rights of the Assyrian people.
Federalism should not be for only one part of Iraq, but for the whole country. And it should not be only for the Kurds, but also for Shiites, Turkomans, and the Assyrians. Our objection to these and other issues within the draft does not mean that we reject the aspiration of the Kurdish people and their right to express the formula they envision to create Iraqi national unity.
I should stress here that the Assyrians are represented in the local government and parliament of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq through the Assyrian Democratic Movement (website) as a member of the Kurdistan Patriotic Front.
Furthermore, the communiqué of the Iraqi opposition groups presented by Mr. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, representative of the Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and approved by all the Iraqi opposition groups — that's what we call G-6 — attending the Washington meeting with Vice President Cheney — in it Mr. al-Hakim says, "Our people are eager for a fair and elected government with participation of all Iraqi opposition segments from Arabs, Kurds, and Turkoman, from Sunni and Shia, and the rest of minorities." Again, the Assyrians and the Christians of Iraq were ignored. It is thus to his credit that President Bush in his October 7th speech to the United Nations General Assembly formally addressed Iraqi oppression over the Assyrians.
The existence of different identities and cultures may create practical problems and challenges in the near future unless a lot of attention is paid to ethnicity and the equation of diversity. To avoid minority conflict in the future, any government must have different autonomous regions within the context of an integrated and sovereign Iraqi state. This will guarantee the legitimate national and administrative rights for all Iraqi ethnic communities. This will be absolutely necessary to the security and survival of the Assyrians in Iraq — or Assyrians of Iraq. The establishment of such an Assyrian area would allow greater local Assyrian controls within an integrated sovereign Iraqi state. Such an Assyrian area would allow for political education or linguistic, religious, and cultural expression.
In a questionnaire that was set up by the State Department for members of the Democratic Principles Working Group, which Rend mention about it, there were points concerning the advantages and disadvantages of a federal democratic republic. Most of the participants answered that federalism would abolish dictatorship, minimize central government, and consolidate Iraqi unity. As for the disadvantages of federalism, the answers centered on fears of minority conflict, possibility of separation, and possibility of intervention by neighboring countries. And today, the population of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq fear what they have achieved may be endangered not only by Saddam's army, but also by neighboring states' armed forces. I think it's very important to protect them, in particular against the incursion from — interference from Iran and Turkey.
As to the number of units that should be established in a federal state, it was suggested from two up to 18 units, as Rend remembered, be created.
Finally, the other important question was whether federal units should be defined ethnically, geographically, or by using a hybrid system. In our case — I mean the Assyrians — the federal units should be absolutely based on ethnicity — I don't agree with you on that — because of the abnormal demographic situation of Assyrians in Iraq due to their displacement, which was enforced upon them by the Iraqi government. We don't have really an area where the Assyrians are concentrated so we could have a geographic advantage of it.
If federalism is not based on ethnicity, however, then Assyrians would support the establishment of a unified democratic, secular, pluralistic, and parliamentarian government. That would guarantee human rights and equality for all citizens irrespective of their ethnic background or religion — an Iraq that's multi-ethnic and based on the rule of law, an Iraq that enjoys full sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In addition, we demand that the future government of Iraq recognize the Assyrian nation constitutionally as one of the principal nations, or ethnic groups, within the political framework of the Republic of Iraq.
Now, the League of Nations mandate countries agreed on Iraq admission in 1932, with reservations dealing mainly with the rights of minorities. The Iraqi government presented this report regarding minorities to the League, in which they guaranteed the right of all Iraqi citizens regardless of their race, religion, language, or nationality. None of this happened in reality. On the contrary, one year later, the new Iraqi government launched an anti-Assyrian campaign in which scores of Assyrian civilians were massacred — this was in 1933, August 1933 — with their villages set on fire.
The main problem of the indigenous Assyrian people is that they have not been accorded self-determination, a right that is expressed in the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people.
So who is going to serve guard and protect the Assyrian in post-Saddam Iraq?
I think official constitutional recognition for the Assyrian people would be an important catalyst for democracy and human rights in Iraq. And without such an improvement, there will be no democracy at all. Assyrians wish to live in peace and prosperity and enjoy full equality with our Arab, Kurdish, and Turkoman brothers. In an atmosphere of mutual respect, Assyrians wish to contribute to development of greater tolerance and diversity in a sovereign, democratic, and secular Iraq.
In conclusion, let me emphasize that the vision of the Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac people in a post-Saddam democratic government among other things includes equality, human rights, constitutional recognition; representation in a democratic, secular, multi-ethnic government; the right to return to their homes and their lands; being allowed to practice and preserve their language, culture, and customs; to be free of political, religious persecution; and to be granted the same national rights of autonomy and self-determination afforded any other group within Iraq.