BAGHDAD – Iraq's parliament on Tuesday passed a law to change the Saddam Hussein-era flag, meeting the demands of Iraq's Kurdish minority who threatened not to fly the banner during a pan-Arab meeting in the Kurdish-run north next month.
The measure, which expires in one year, was approved by show of hands, with 110 lawmakers of 165 present voting in favor of removing the three stars and changing the calligraphy of the words "Allahu Akbar" in a symbolic break with the past.
A law to establish a new banner must be passed in one year.
The absence of Iraq's internationally recognized flag during a regional gathering on the territory of a founding member of the Arab League would have created negative publicity in the Arab world, where many see the Kurds as being too close to the Americans or harboring separatist intentions. In Iraq, not flying the country's flag would be seen as fresh evidence of the Kurds' go-it-alone policies.
To head off embarrassment for the Shiite Arab-dominated central government, parliament in Baghdad had scrambled for a solution in time for the conference.
"It's a potentially explosive issue and we need to tread carefully," said Haidar al-Abadi, a legislator with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party.
Many Kurds remember Saddam's forces hoisting the Iraqi flag during campaigns of persecution that saw thousands killed with poison gas.
"It is not possible to raise the flag in its present form, even for the meeting of the Arab parliamentarians," Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish lawmaker, had said before the measure was adopted. "The Kurds have been persecuted and killed under that banner. It must be changed."
The Arab-Kurdish differences go to the heart of a wider debate over the future shape of Iraq. A constitution adopted in a nationwide referendum in 2005 recognizes Kurdish self-rule and provides a legal mechanism for other areas to govern themselves. But an overwhelming majority of Sunni Arabs voted against the document and now demand that it be amended to address their grievances over issues of identity and the extent of self-rule that provinces should have.
The Kurds maintained that the colors of the national flag were not representative of all Iraqis and had demanded that yellow, which dominates their own flag, be added.
They failed to win on that point.
The Iraqi flag's three green stars are thought to symbolize Saddam's now-dissolved Baath Party, which had three stated objectives: unity, freedom and socialism. They are to be removed under the new law.
The Arabic words "Allahu Akbar," or "God is Great," were added after Saddam's army invaded Kuwait in 1990. The words were to be left under the new law, but the calligraphy — a copy of Saddam's handwriting — will be changed.
The flag's black, red and white colors are inspired by a poem composed by al-Mutanabi, a famous Arab poet who lived in medieval Baghdad.
Lawmaker Mohammed al-Daini of the Sunni National Dialogue Front voted against changing the flag.
"This flag," he said of the old one, "does not belong to the Baathists. It is an old flag that belongs to all Iraqis."
But other lawmakers applauded the change.
"I am in favor of changing the flag under which the Iraqi people were oppressed," said Mohammed al-Himedawi, a Shiite cleric from the United Iraqi Alliance. "This flag is connected to the former regime."
Azad Barami, a lawmaker from the Kurdish coalition, echoed this sentiment.
"The Kurds are happy with the change because they have suffered a lot of miseries under this flag. This is a victory not only for the Kurdish coalition, it is a victory for all ... who were oppressed under the this flag."
The self-rule Kurdish region had mostly flown the Iraqi national flag along with its own since its creation under Western protection in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. But Massoud Barzani, the region's president, banned the Iraqi flag soon after Kurdistan's two rival administrations were united under his leadership in 2006. The move followed the election of his one-time rival, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, to the presidency of Iraq.
Tension between the Kurds and the government of al-Maliki were already on the rise.
Kurdish authorities have signed several deals with foreign oil companies without the involvement of Baghdad, which says it doesn't recognize the deals.
The fiscal budget for the calendar 2008 has been stalled in parliament because the Kurds want to set aside a chunk of the defense expenditure for their own force, the peshmerga.
There are also strains over the future of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that Kurds want to annex to their region over the opposition of Arab and Turkomen residents. The government, aware of the sensitivity of the issue, is counseling extreme caution.
Last week, nearly 150 Arab lawmakers, both Shiite and Sunni, issued a statement criticizing what they claimed to be overreaching by the Kurds and alleging that their unilateral approach to oil and other major issues threatened national unity.
Kurdish politicians dismissed the statement as negative and unhelpful.