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Iraqi Flag Changes, but Not Sectarian Distrust

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

BAGHDAD, Jan. 22 -- Legislators were outraged, insults were hurled. Opponents dragged out old ethnic divisions and warned of a dark collusion.

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"It was an organized conspiracy to change the flag," said Khalaf al-Alayan, a Sunni member of parliament.

Nothing goes unchallenged in Iraq's parliament, and the legislation adopted Tuesday to create a new, temporary Iraqi flag proved no exception. If anything, the contentious process reflected the larger sectarian differences that consistently tug at this country.

The aesthetic changes to the flag proved to be minor: Three stars were removed, and the font of the phrase "Allahu Akbar" -- "God Is Great" -- was altered.

But the revisions forestalled possible embarrassment at a major upcoming Arab conference in Iraq, appeased the Kurdish politicians who refused to raise the current flag, and wiped away another vestige of the rule of Saddam Hussein.

"It's not a question of if I like it or not, but it solves a problem," said Kurdish lawmaker Adil Bak al-Barwari, who voted to approve the new flag. "Now the signs of Saddam Hussein have vanished in front of our eyes, and we're not going to see them again."

The Iraqi flag has been a subject of dispute since shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. In an attempt to create a new flag for the new Iraq, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in 2004 proposed a design featuring an Islamic crescent on a background of white, with two blue stripes for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and a yellow stripe for the Kurds. This was met with derision as many Iraqis saw in it the color scheme of Israel's banner.

"People completely rejected it," said Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite legislator.

Officials reverted to a version of the prewar flag, but Kurds in particular have been resistant to flying it, instead raising in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq their own flag of red, white and green bars behind a yellow sun. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, banned the Iraqi flag in 2006, and Kurds had threatened not to fly it during a meeting of parliament members from Arab countries scheduled for March in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.

"The majority of Shiites and Kurds refused the former flag because under this flag, Saddam Hussein killed members of every single family among them," Barwari said.

But the Kurds' stand against the flag angers many Arabs in Iraq who believe it exemplifies the Kurdish regional government's tendency to pursue its own affairs independently. The government recently decided to negotiate contracts with foreign oil companies over the orders of Iraq's Oil Ministry.

"The majority of Arabs are against the contract signed by the Kurdistan government. But this is democracy," Barwari said.


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