Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Kurdistan’s broken road to statehood

Even as internal divisions widen, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani see the region’s break with the rest of Iraq as a priority, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, and his son Masrour have never tired of reiterating their determination to see the Kurdish enclave separate from Iraq, even though they have been repeatedly reminded that ditching Iraq would be a mistake for the Kurds and a tragedy for the region.

Over recent months and following the advances made by the Islamic State (IS) terror group that has seized vast swathes of Iraqi territory, Barzani and members of his family, many of them holding top posts in his administration, have been stepping up a campaign to drum up the cause of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

Barzani has even suggested that a vote on statehood be held before the end of the year, apparently in an attempt to put more pressure on internal opponents and sceptics in neighbouring nations and the world’s major capitals.

On Saturday, Barzani fired one more salvo in his break-away rhetoric and declared that Kurdistan’s independence from Baghdad remained his “primary goal.”

Last week, his son and heir apparent Masrour said that once IS militants had been driven out from Iraqi cities, Iraq should be divided into three separate entities with a state each given to the Shia, the Sunnis and the Kurds.

Barzani junior, whose official title is head of the KRG’s Security Council, told Reuters that Iraq’s federal system, fought for by the Kurds following the ouster of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, had not worked and that the level of mistrust between Iraq’s three main communities was such that they should not now remain “under one roof”.

The Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed a semi-independent status since Saddam’s overthrow in the 2003 US-led invasion because of the wide-ranging powers and advantages they have secured by exploiting the country’s turmoil and the escalating Shia-Sunni divide.

In addition to having their own armed forces, the Peshmergas, and their own flag, government, parliament, foreign representation and sports teams, the Kurds also export their own oil independently from Baghdad.

Since the IS advances in summer 2014, the Kurds have been consolidating their power by grabbing more land and oil resources in northern Iraq, taking advantage of the war the Baghdad government is waging against the terror group.

The ratcheting up of the secessionist rhetoric by the two Barzanis come as Masoud Barzani’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) remains locked in disputes with other main political parties in the region over Barzani’s presidency.

Barzani, who has led the enclave for most of the past two decades and has been the KRG’s president since 2005, refused to step down after his terms in office expired last year.

The conflict escalated in October when Barzani’s nephew and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani abruptly fired opposition ministers, and the region’s security forces prevented the parliament’s speaker from entering Erbil, virtually blocking the assembly from meeting.

Since then the KRG has been in stalemate, and Barzani, his family and his party have been taking full control over the region’s political, economic, security and military affairs.

The conflict escalated further after the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Change Movement (Gorran) finalised a partnership agreement on 17 May ending seven years of separation and creating Kurdistan’s largest political bloc.

Under the partnership deal the two parties agreed to work together to build “a parliamentary system” in the Region to replace the current system which gives Barzani sweeping powers.

The president would be elected by the parliament, and the prime minister would hold supreme executive power, the agreement text read. The two parties also called for “the unconditional resumption” of sessions of the Kurdistan parliament.

On the key issue of holding a referendum on Kurdistan’s statehood, the PUK and Gorran insisted that this should remain a “national matter” to be decided by Kurdistan’s parliament.

They also called for “finding suitable solutions” for outstanding problems with the Baghdad government through “dialogue based on national interests.” The two parties said their alliance remained open for other political parties that have also been at odd with Barzani’s KDP to join.

If the two parties back their tough words with action against the KDP, Iraqi Kurdistan may be heading towards a new era of instability. Over the course of the Iraqi Kurds’ national struggle, the KDP and the PUK (Gorran is a splinter group of the PUK) have repeatedly been drawn into fighting over power in the enclave.

Thousands of people were killed in several rounds of clashes between 1994 and 1997, which ended with a US-brokered peace agreement but not before KDP Peshmergas succeeded in pushing PUK fighters back to their strongholds in the Sulaimaniyah Province.

Though the two main rivals worked out a power-sharing formula for the Region’s administration following Saddam’s ouster, mutual distrust and rancour remain.

The power struggle deepened with the rise of Gorran and its success in clinching large numbers of seats in parliament in the KRG elections in 2009 and 2013, becoming the second-largest bloc in the Region.

With the new deal the mood in Kurdistan is now as divisive and as intimidating as many can remember. 

The PUK and Gorran are now demanding the de-centralisation of power in the Region in order to weaken the KDP’s grip on the government and its resources.  

The Kurdish media reported last week that the two groups had given the KDP an ultimatum to meet their demands, which include giving Sulaimaniyah, their power base, autonomy as well as a share in the Region’s budget and its natural resources.

They also want a new security deal that would end the KDP’s monopoly over the Peshmergas, the intelligence services and the security forces.

Barzani’s KDP, meanwhile, has blasted the PUK-Gorran deal as “not serving the interests of the Kurdistan Region and its unity.” It has also accused the two parties of trying to separate Sulaimaniyah from Erbil.

Using IS as a scarecrow, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani urged the parties to set aside their differences and focus on winning the war against the terror group.

In addition to condemnation there have also been some signs of escalation and intimidation by the KDP against Gorran, leaving the Region’s politics dangerously polarised at a time of increasing uncertainty.

Last week, a court in Erbil, the KRG capital, issued an arrest warrant for Gorran chief Nawshirwan Mustafa on charges of threatening foreign missions in Kurdistan, a serious crime which amounts to terrorism and could be punishable by death.

As Kurdistan’s political system continues to break down, the dispute is likely to spiral from demanding changes in the governing system to a larger conflict that could destroy the Region’s autonomous experiment and draw in regional and international powers.

There is an increasing sense that Barzani’s strategy to drum up Kurdistan’s secession from Iraq is self-serving and a populist tactic designed to outmanoeuvre the opposition.

For many analysts, Barzani is fanning the flames of separatism in Kurdistan in order to stay in power, despite the legal and constitutional limitations on his terms in office.

While Kurdistan’s self-determination enjoys some common support among the Region’s populace and main political parties, many still remain sceptical about the timing and the undemocratic tactics used by the Barzanis.

Both Kurdistan’s powerful neighbours of Iran and Turkey remain vehemently opposed to an independent Kurdish state on their borders. The relationship between Erbil and Tehran is already poor, with the Barzani-owned media highlighting reports of Iranian opposition and anti-regime propaganda.  

Moreover, some of the Iraqi Kurds’ closest allies have recently shown that they are not keen on seeing Kurdistan leave Iraq.

Last week, the United States reiterated its support for “a whole [and] unified Iraq”.

“We believe that a strong, pluralistic, unified Iraq is good for the region,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in response to questions about the Barzanis’ independence rhetoric.

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