Jeff Johnson Headshot

Iraq's Struggle for Civil Rights

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The election of President Barack Obama, signals an important change in America's Iraq policy. It is time to end this war. We are withdrawing our forces from Iraq, first leaving the towns and cities this coming June, and then moving out of the country entirely by the summer of 2010 [in line with the President's campaign promise of "phased and responsible redeployment" in 16 months.] President Obama's plan also specifies a small "residual presence" in Iraq to conduct counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups and to protect U.S. personnel.

For the supporters of President Obama, his opposition to the war in Iraq was central to the appeal of his already-historic candidacy. However, as the Obama administration now moves beyond the inspirational rhetoric of change to the integral development of transformative policy, the President has to consider carefully other vital issues at stake in withdrawing from Iraq, including our nation's responsibility to ensure that all minority groups in that country enjoy equal rights and protections. As America celebrates Black History Month, we must be mindful of the struggles of minority groups elsewhere around the world, and especially cognizant of our responsibility toward such groups in places like Iraq where we have stepped in to control local affairs.

The plight of the Iraqi Kurds is especially poignant. The tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein grossly and systematically violated the rights of its Kurdish population, including by population displacement, torture and execution, and even the use of chemical weapons. It is estimated that nearly 180,000 Iraqi Kurds died at the hands of the Ba'ath regime. As the CNN special Scream Bloody Murder, that aired last December described it: "Years before the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was slaughtering Iraq's Kurds with bombs, bullets and gas." In the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, the Iraqi regime forcibly displaced tens of thousands of Kurds as part of Saddam's discriminatory "Arabization" policy.

Since the Iraq war began in 2003, the Kurdish civil rights story has changed dramatically. Through the Iraqi Constitution of 2005, the legal rights of the Kurds in the new Iraq have been guaranteed. The preamble to the Iraqi Constitution should have a familiar ring to all Americans: "We, the people of Iraq, of all components and across the spectrum, have taken upon ourselves to decide freely and by choice to unite our future." Similarly, Article 14 of the document evokes the struggle of African-American and other discriminated groups in the United States: "Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, color, religion, creed, belief or opinion, or economic and social status."

As all Iraqis move toward building a democratic society, the Kurds are relishing their newly found freedoms by building a society committed to tolerance. When violence in other part of Iraq has forced other ethnic minorities in the country -- including Christians -- to flee to the Kurdish areas, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has welcomed these refugees and provided housing and other benefits.

The Kurds are America's best friends and allies in Iraq, contributing to the overthrow of Saddam's regime in 2003 and to security and stability in the country ever since. The autonomous Kurdistan Region is the most peaceful in Iraq -- not a single US soldier has died in that part of the country. On February 6, CNN reported, "Iraq's Kurdish North is thriving like never before" including a massive construction boom in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region.

It is in significant part due to U.S. efforts that the Iraqi Kurds have managed these impressive gains. In the spectrum of disappointing decisions regarding the Iraq war by the previous administration, the success of the Kurds stands apart as a distinct success story.

President Obama is properly committed to ending the war in Iraq, as was his clear mandate from the American people following this historic election. However, in carrying out this mandate, America must live up to its moral responsibility. We cannot abandon Iraq's minority groups -- most importantly, the Kurds -- to the tender mercies of those who have systematically oppressed them in the past. One of America's champions for equality that profoundly stated, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Martin Luther King Jr.'s words penned in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail are as true now as ever before and history will never forgive us if we do not seek to leave behind a legacy of justice and respect for civil rights worthy of our nation.