COPENHAGEN, Denmark – When Swedish MP Fredrik Malm argued in a newspaper article that Sweden should support the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in its plans to declare independence from Iraq, he probably was not looking for an argument.
"The Kurds, like other peoples, have right to decide their future,” Malm, an MP from the Swedish Liberal Party, wrote in the SvD Nyheter newspaper.
“If the Kurdistan Region chooses by referendum to declare independence, then Sweden and other states should recognize that decision, as we have done with Kosovo and South Sudan," he added, referring to plans by Iraqi Kurds to hold an independence vote.
Malm noted the KRG’s good ties with Sweden: several Swedish ministers have been on official visits to the Kurdistan Region and met at the presidential level.
"We have many citizens of Kurdish origin, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs has no travel restrictions to the KRG area and a number of Swedish companies are present there," he argued.
And that’s exactly what he got: an argument – from Afram Yakoub, chairman of the Assyrian Federation in Sweden, who responded in the same newspaper that dividing Iraq would be a disaster for minorities.
“The best way for Sweden to influence and contribute to positive developments is to emphasize the importance of a unified Iraq with respect to its ethnic and religious elements, and not to push up a division that most likely will lead to more people expulsions and war in the region," Yakoub wrote.
He accused the Kurdish leadership of taking advantage of the chaos to “advance their positions instead of working with the rest of Iraqi society.”
Since Iraq’s current crisis began in early June with a massive jihadi military blitz and a Sunni rebellion against the Shiite-led government, the Kurds have moved into territories outside their zone that they consider their own, and declared plans for an independence vote.
According to Malm, Swedish support for Kurdish statehood would also increase the Swedes' own ability to influence in relation to minority rights, Arabs, Assyrians, Yezidis, Shabaks and Turkmens.
"Kurdish leaders have done much to protect minorities and today they sacrifice their soldiers to protect non-Kurds. But there are also examples where minorities have been attacked, for example, in Zakho two years ago, where hotels with sales of alcohol was attacked by Islamists," wrote Malm.
But Yakoub disagreed that Kurdish leaders have done “much to protect” minorities. He wrote that Kurdish leaders have done “much to weaken and suppress minorities.”
“The Kurdish leadership tries to form and finance alternative organizations among minorities to undermine and compete with their independent organizations. Just over the past 12 months Assyrians in two villages in northern Iraq have seen their property taken from them without any sanction from the authorities,” he charged.
He also claimed that Yezidis and Shabaks are not Kurds, and that the KRG leadership tries to “force the two communities into a Kurdish identity.”
Sukri Demir, a former member of the city council in the Swedish city of Solna who has been active in various Kurdish associations, called Yakoub’s accusations baseless.
“The Assyrians in KRG can speak their language, cultivate their culture and are represented in the Kurdish parliament," Demir told Rudaw. "There are problems in the KRG. I criticize them, too. But democracy is a process and Kurds need more time to develop."
He also criticized Yakoub’s allegations that Shabaks and Yezidis are not Kurds.
"It is an attempt to divide the Kurds when Yakoub writes like that. He should ask Shabaks and Yezidis whether they are Kurds, and the answer will be ‘yes.’"
The large Assyrian community in Sweden consists of approximately 80,000 people, who have roots in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Lebanon, according to the Assyrian Federation, which has 28 member associations in Sweden. Not all Assyrians share Yakoub’s position.
Yasar Kucukaslan, spokesman of the Mesopotamian and Democratic Change Party, an Assyrian party in Sweden, said that all people have the right to self-determination, including the Kurds and Assyrians.
"If Kurdistan becomes independent and Assyrians live under better conditions than they do in Iraq today, we cannot be against Kurdish independence," he told Rudaw. "But if a new state will not recognize Assyrian rights and treats them like second-class citizens, then we obviously have a different opinion on an independent Kurdistan."
Malm, writing in SvD Nyheter, also supported Assyrian rights for autonomy.
"If the people of the Nineveh area don’t want to participate in a future Kurdish state, they should not be forced into such a state. They should be given autonomy, as previously declared by the KRG," he said.
Demir also backed Assyrian rights: "If they want autonomy, then it is their natural right," he said.