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Iraqi Flag Changes, but Not Sectarian Distrust
Lawmakers Approve Interim Banner Dropping Vestiges of Hussein Rule and Appeasing Kurds, Shiites

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.

"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.

The democracy on display Tuesday in parliament resulted in removing three stars from the flag, which represent the Baath Party ideals, and rendering "God Is Great" in an Arabic font called Kufi rather than the earlier font, which looked like Hussein's handwriting. Parliament members from the leading Sunni bloc, as well as the followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, opposed the changes.

Alayan, the Sunni parliament member, said he had initially expected to vote on revisions that would change the meaning of the stars but leave the design in place. He arrived at the legislature and was faced with a different choice, and thus the conspiracy he decried.

"This was just a show," he said. "This should not be a question of satisfying this side or that side. It's the dignity of the country, and the country should be above everyone."

Opponents will get another chance for a say on the flag, having secured the right to make amendments within a year. The Sadrist lawmakers opposed the law because they did not want the confusion of repeated changes to the design, or to provide an opening for other provinces to choose, as Kurdistan has, which flag to fly, according to Nasar al-Rubaie, a Sadrist lawmaker. When asked whether the design itself would be acceptable to his colleagues, Rubaie demurred.

"That needs to be studied," he said. "And then we will decide."

Special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.

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