The Flag Controversy in Iraq
By Eamad J. Mazouri
For over a week now, there has been a frenzied controversy in Iraq and in the Arab world concerning a decision by the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Region Mr. Massoud Barzani not to allow dictator Saddma’s flag to be flown in Kurdistan. Arabic media selectively and subjectively has taken the issue out of its context and tried unsuccessfully to portray the issue as a step toward separation and declaring an independent Kurdistan. Before delving deeper into the subject, I like to shed some light briefly on the history of flag in general, what it stands for and when and how it changes, using the available resources on the net.
“Brief History of Flag”
“Over 4000 years passed since people first started using flags. Authentic flag design of ancient peoples includes a metal flag from Iran, ca. 3000 BC. The first type of flag was called a vexilloid”. “Vexillology is the scientific study of flags. This word comes from a Latin word which means "guide". First flags or vexilloids were metal or wooden poles with carvings on top. About 2,000 years ago, pieces of fabric or material were added to some vexilloids for decoration. These looked more like the flags we know today.”
“A flag is a piece of colored fabric or material that is used as a symbol, or for sending a signal. Some flags are used only for ecoration. Usually, flags are messages from a person or a group of people.” “People use flags to give others information, such as, who they are. “ “Long ago, knights carried flags into battle because it was hard to know who the knights were when they were dressed up and covered in armor ready for battle! Flags were important because they helped soldiers tell their friends from their enemies in battle.”
“Today, every country in the world has a flag. As governments change, so do their flags. Every state in the United States has a flag, too. Flags are used to give information, signals or stand for special symbols or things. Many organizations or groups like the Girl Scouts or the United Nations have flags. Clubs, sport teams and organizations have their own flags too. The five circles of the Olympic flag represent the coming together of people from five continents in friendly competition. Peace is the message of the olive branches cradling the world in the flag of the United Nations. Some people, like a king or queen, have their very own personal flag. Sometimes it flies over any building or place where they are staying.”
“Flags include symbols that are used to show ideas which would otherwise take many words. Flags are used for wars, as well as for the celebration of special events. On sad occasions, flags are flown at half-mast to honor the dead, and draped over the coffins of national heroes.”
“National flags are not merely symbols of a country. Their colors and designs convey past history and future goals. Flags have powerful connotations. For all the controversy it is interesting to point out that the United States did not even have a standardized flag until 1912!”
History of Iraqi Flag
The flag of Iraq has had four different designs since the establishment of Iraq in 1921.
“The original flag of Iraq was adopted in 1921, when the country was formed. It was a black-white-green horizontal tricolor, with a red trapezoid (some variants have a triangle) extending from the mast side. Two seven-point white stars on the triangle denoted the then 14 provinces of the kingdom. The colors chosen for the new flag were those of the Hashemite leaders of the Arab Revolt who provided the country with its first king, and thus it is very similar to the Flag of Jordan, another Hashemite Kingdom.”
“Following Abdul Karim Qassim's 1958 revolution that deposed the monarchy, in 1959 Iraq adopted a black-white-green vertical tricolor with, in the middle of the white band, a red eight-pointed star with a yellow circle in its center. The yellow color was considered a Kurdish symbol.”
“After the Qassim government was overthrown, a new flag was adopted in July 1963. The new flag had three stripes, of red, white, and black, with three green stars in the white stripe. The green stars were originally placed there for the proposed union with Egypt and Syria (United Arab Republic), which both had flags with two stars in the middle at the time. They would have changed to three if the Union had not fallen apart.”
“On 14 January 1991, the flag was changed again. The meaning of the three stars was changed from their original geographic meaning to representations of the three tenets of the Ba'ath party motto, Wihda, Hurriyah, Ishtirrakiyah (Unity, Freedom, Socialism). Saddam Hussein decided to place the words, Allahu Akbar (God is Great) between the stars. It is said (though unconfirmed) that the words on the flag are in Saddam's own handwriting, and many interpreted the change as an attempt to garner support from the Islamic world in the period immediately preceding the first Gulf War.
Although the flag has not "officially" been changed, this design has been largely replaced by the version with modified script. It is presumed that the modified version of the 1991 design will become the official flag of Iraq upon the creation of a new Iraqi Constitution.”
2004 Flag Controversy “
On 26 April 2004 the Iraq Interim Governing Council announced a new flag for post-Saddam Iraq. The occupied government stated that from around 30 competing entries, it had chosen a design by the distinguished Iraqi artist-cum-architect Rifat al-Chaderchi (aka Rifat Chadirji). The flag was white, with parallel blue-yellow-blue bands across the bottom quarter or third; the blue bands represented the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, and the yellow represented Iraq's Kurdish minority (the reason for this symbolism was unclear, but the flag of Kurdistan does feature a yellow sun). In the middle of the white field was a large Islamic crescent which was, unusually, depicted in a shade of blue.”
Current Flag Controversy
The recent controversy started when Kurdistan President Mr. Barzani declared officially not to hoist Baathists’ flag in Kurdistan. Instead of that the flag of July 14th to be used until the implementation of article 12 of the permanent Iraqi Constitution of 2005. The reasoning behind that decision was the fact that all of the crimes and atrocities were committed under that same flag not only against Kurdish people alone, but the rest of Iraqi people as well, not to mention the war against Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and bombarding neighboring countries with his deadly rockets.
It was under this flag that Saddam’s regime destroyed more than 4500 Kurdish villages, used chemical weapons on Halabja that killed more than 5000 people all civilians, waged the al-Anfal campaign in Kurdistan where more than 180,000 people killed. It was under this same flag that he waged a genocidal war against Kurdish people and the mass graves are the proof on these heinous atrocities.
All the accusations mentioned by the supporters of Saddams flag are baseless, unsubstantiated and far from the truth. However, as a result the row still is in progress and various contradicting and threatening statements have been issued from a variety of offices and governments regarding this matter that has become the topic of the hour in a heated debate. This dispute has dragged in the highest offices of the federal government in Baghdad and was topped today by intervention of the American ambassador to Iraq Mr. Khalil Zade in a statement that reads: these kinds of actions should not be taken unilaterally, instead the issue needs to be resolved through the constitution and the Iraqi national assembly.
Unfortunately and to the astonishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government, some Arab circles and Arabic media came to defend Saddam’s flag. They started an unfair and unjust campaign against KRG and Kurdish people in an attempt to keep the Baathist flag as the national one. First of all, for those who are defending this flag, it is not clear yet which flag they are defending. Is it the one with Saddam’s own handwriting on it? Or is it the same tri-color 3 star but the expression (God is greater) written with Kufic? Or perhaps a different version of that. These people are requested to tell us which one they consider it national. While they talk so much about the legality and the constitutionality of the Kurdish action, they need to be reminded that the change of 1991 and all the ones that followed were neither official nor legal. Neither the Iraqi government nor the Iraqi parliament had a saying in that or approved it.
It is worth mentioning that the flag in dispute has never been hoisted in Kurdistan since 1991, except a modified version of it in Sulaimania region for a short period of time.
This flag has brought nothing on the Iraqi people in general other than destruction, war, mass-killing, genocide, chemical weapons and mass graves. It is hard to believe that there are some Iraqi people out there who would defend such a flag that symbolizes the deposed regime of dictator Saddam and the tyranny of the Baath party that reduced Iraq to rubbles and surviving Iraqi people to live below minimum living standards of the poorest countries of the world, despite the huge human and natural resources of Iraq.
Undemocratic regimes changes, along with them all the emblems and symbols that represent them. There is no single justification for keeping this flag and hailing it as the national Iraqi flag except for those who are trying to cause obstacles in the way of the progress the new democratic federal Iraq is making towards peace, stability and prosperity. One thing is for sure. These attempts are not serving Iraqi people or their gains of rights and freedoms.
After all, let’s keep in mind that flag as a form or symbol while sacred and sacrosanct, it cannot be more sanctified than the essence it represents or embodies. These are the people themselves, their history, rights, liberties, struggle and heritage. It would be wrong to hail the form as holier than essence as some are trying to do. This issue has been dealt with in democratic societies clearly through constitutional process. In non-democratic societies, of course they are still killing the citizen in the name of patriotism, but the new Iraq is not going to capitulate to those who are still defending Saddam’s regime.
Where as the Iraqi permanent constitution of 2005 is silent when it comes to which flag is considered the national flag, it is clear and straight forward in article 12 that the flag and national anthem along with all the national emblems would be regulated by a law where all Iraqi components are reflected. This article should have been implemented long time ago. The Kurds are still waiting for that day.
One of the basis of accusations against Kurds is that this was a step towards separation and the declaration of independence from Iraq. These people realize they are not telling the truth, but they are trying to deceive others. Kurds have participated aggressively in the formation of the Iraqi government; this includes the elections, the draft of the constitution and the federal government in Baghdad. In fact the Kurds have become the stalwart proponent of a federal Iraq. If they feel today they need to declare their independence, they would come and declare it straight out. Kurds have accepted to join Iraqi Arabs in a voluntary union where all are equal, live in peace, harmony and prosperity regardless of their race, religion or sect. To try to coerce the them into an involuntary union as it has been the case for the last 80 years or imposing certain solutions on Kurds or others not going to serve the purpose of building a new democratic federal Iraq. This might be the recipe for the disintegration of Iraq.
Mr. Barzani’s repeated statements should be more than enough to clear the Kurdish position in this regard. It could be summed up as follows: Kurds are not a minority, but rather a divided nation against its will. Like any other nation and according to every international chapter, covenant and treaty they have the right to determine their own fate, including the right to establish an independent Kurdistan on their own land. However, KRG chose federalism within the framework of a democratic federal Iraq based on a voluntary union as the best solution for the Kurdish problem at present. The justification behind that, is the fact that Kurds under such circumstances would be able to have all their rights short of statehood within Iraq while enjoying the protection of a strong sovereign state.
What Kurds are trying to do is to exercise their regional powers that were granted to them by the constitution within that framework not outside it as some are trying to portray them. The constitution is very clear in distributing these powers. Regrettably, some Arabs until this very minute do not believe in federalism and would try anything to undermine it, or perhaps they don’t fathom the core of federalism, subsequently do not differentiate between federalism and autonomy. Autonomy comes from the top to down. The central government grants the territories certain rights. On the contrary, federalism comes from down –up. Regions enter into a national contract where they give up certain powers to create a federal government, without which there will not be any federal government.
Perhaps, one of the best outcomes of this whole controversy , it might lead to speed up the process of implementing article 12 of the constitution where a new flag and a national anthem would be chosen to really reflect the history, geography, struggle, sacrifices and sufferings of all the people of Iraq without any discrimination as previous national symbols were about.