Prime Minister Barzani at the signing ceremony. Photo: Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish government signed a decision Thursday to turn the district of Halabja into a province, setting off jubilation in its streets, as residents this week mark the anniversary of a calamitous poison gas attack by Saddam Hussein in 1988.
Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani signed an order to begin demarcation of the new provincial borders as a first step toward the change.
"It is decided to demarcate the borders of Halabja Province, based on section 4 of article 1 of the legislative decision of the Kurdistan parliament... as the first stage,” Barzani said at a press conference in Erbil, where he also met with a delegation from Halabja composed of officials and relatives of poison gas victims.
Barzani said the province would have “the same administrative borders as the District of Halabja." Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani is expected to issue a decree shortly, endorsing the decision and asking the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to take the legal and administrative measures to implement the decision.
In Halabja the decision set off street dances and singing by residents, who on Sunday also commemorate the 26th anniversary of Saddam’s March 16, 1988 poison gas attack on what was then the village of Halabja, killing 5,000 innocent people, among them dead mothers and fathers clutching lifeless infants and children.
The attack devastated Halabja, causing 10,000 injuries in people who inhaled the mustard gas and nerve agents used against the population and sending survivors fleeing across the Iranian border, emptying the village and devastating families and communities.
"Economically, socio-culturally, morally and psychologically it (the decision) has a big impact, because a province has privileges that a district does not have," said Halabja Mayor Goran Adham. He expressed confidence that Halabja would prosper economically, because now it would be entitled to its own budget and could make decisions locally. “I can say that Halabja will witness full growth."
The new province is composed of sub-districts and villages within Halabja’s current jurisdiction. A referendum is expected to be held in the nearby districts of Sharazur, Said Sadiq and Penjwin to decide if they want to be incorporated into the province.
The KRG has taken the decision on Halabja, as the 2005 Iraqi constitution now in force does not define procedures for new provinces. The KRG says that automatically grants authority to the regional government.
While Baghdad has declared no official position over the KRG's move, several officials have already dismissed the act as unconstitutional, arguing that only the central government has the power to declare new provinces.
"We support Halabja becoming a province and appreciate the efforts of the KRG. But the issue of making a province is a constitutional one and lies within the authority of the federal government, not the KRG," said Muhammad Jasim, the Iraqi minister of sports and youth.
The KRG’s decision over Halabja is likely to heap kindling on burning dispute between the autonomous Kurds and Shiite-led Arab government in Baghdad over oil exports and the budget. The Kurds want to begin oil exports through pipelines to Turkey, and have balked at Baghdad saying it will control revenues. Baghdad has outraged Erbil by cutting it off from the national budget for weeks, in a bid to put pressure on the Kurdish government.
Khalid Assadi, a top leader of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law Party, echoed comments by the sports minister, saying that the KRG lacked the authority to declare a province. “The KRG's or Kurdish Parliament’s decision will not turn Halabja into a province, because changing any town of Kurdistan and Iraq requires the approval of the Iraqi government and parliament," he said.
In January, the Iraqi Council of Ministers decided it would turn several Sunni areas into new provinces, including Tuz Khurmato, Fallujah and the Nineveh Plains and Talafar.