Tuesday,19 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Tuesday,19 February, 2019
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Barzani’s referendum backfires

Behind the façade of Kurdish unity, cracks are showing, helping Iraqi government forces to regain control over strategic territories, writes Salah Nasrawi


Barzani’s referendum backfires
Barzani’s referendum backfires

From the moment on 7 June when President of the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani announced his plans to stage a unilateral referendum to secede from the rest of Iraq, it became clear that a potential conflict had begun to unfold.

Backed by the United Nations, Western powers and regional heavyweights, the Iraqi central government in Baghdad fiercely rejected the poll as unconstitutional and threatened that it would do “everything necessary” to block the separation of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Nevertheless, intransigence prevailed, and Barzani went on with his plans to hold the vote despite repeated warnings from Iraq and its two powerful neighbours of Iran and Turkey that also have stakes in Kurdistan’s secession.

Now that Barzani has got what he wanted, the Kurds, Iraq and the wider region seem to be facing the consequences – a deeply unstable country fast heading towards a broader conflict and increased fragility with devastating effects on the region.

If Barzani’s strategy was to unite the Kurds behind his ambitions for an independent Kurdish state in their self-ruled region of Iraq, it has backfired since the Iraqi security forces are now back in control of Kurdish-held territories, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Even worse, Barzani’s leadership is in tatters after Iraqi government forces regained the Kirkuk province and several towns in a bold offensive on Sunday. The territory was seized by Kurdish Peshmergas fighters during Iraq’s fight with the Islamic State (IS) terror group in summer 2014 and Barzani decided to annex it to the KRG.

Iraqi army units advanced late Sunday night towards the northern enclave and seized positions in and around Kirkuk in a major operation ordered by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to “impose the federal government’s authority, ensure security, and safeguard national resources.”

By Monday morning, the Iraqi forces had captured major oil fields, military bases, power stations and industrial infrastructure, before heading to the city centre to take control of the provincial government offices.

Asserting the Baghdad government’s control, Al-Abadi appointed a new Arab chief administrator to the province to replace Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor who was fired by Iraq’s parliament after agreeing to hold the independence referendum in the city.

The crackdown indicates how the strategic city about 165 miles north of Baghdad has taken its place at the heart of the existential rivalry between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Earlier, the Iraqi forces took control of several towns in the neighbouring provinces of Diyala and Salaheddin, also seized by the Peshmergas during the IS rise and declared part of the KRG.

Monday’s onslaught forced thousands of Kurds to leave Kirkuk and other cities as the Iraqi army advanced on Kurdish military positions, fearing impending clashes between the two sides.

The mass departure brought back to many Iraqi Kurds the memory of the exodus of the Kurds in 1991 following their uprising against former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.  

The Iraqi forces’ full-scale advance towards Kirkuk marks a major victory for the Baghdad government in its efforts to stall moves towards an independent Kurdish state.

But the rapid collapse of the Peshmergas in Kirkuk has raised serious questions about the US-trained force’s performance and why it was so easily overrun by the Iraqi forces.

Reports have indicated that the Iraqi troops did not face any opposition from the Peshmergas in the area, most of them belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Video footage posted on social media showed PUK fighters falling back from their positions around Kirkuk as federal Iraqi forces advanced on the city.

The overwhelming Iraqi victory in Kirkuk remains a mystery. Kirkuk is generally considered part of the PUK’s sphere of influence. The PUK’s founder-leader and former president of Iraq Jalal Talabani, who died earlier this month, used to call the city “the Jerusalem of the Kurds.”

Its interim leader, Kosrut Rasoul, said last week that the party was sending 6,000 more troops to join the tens of thousands of Peshmergas, many of them belonging to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), to confront what he described as “threats” from Iraq’s central government.

The loss of Kirkuk therefore seems directed against Barzani who had promoted the push for the referendum and vowed afterwards to make the Kurds’ dream of independence a reality.

Barzani’s administration blasted “some” of the PUK’s leaders for “treason,” accusing them of having helped Baghdad in “this plot.” Pro-Barzani media named the plotters as Talabani’s sons Bafel and Qubad and several of his close relatives and associates.

But Talabani’s wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmed denied the allegations, saying that the Talabanis had been “on the forefront [in Kirkuk] and did not withdraw”. Ahmed had earlier voiced reservations about the referendum and called for dialogue with Baghdad.

The two parties, which have been ruling the region for more than two decades, have been divided over control and influence. Both parties control their own Peshmergas units, and they have long wrangled over who controls the oil-rich territories in the region.

Kirkuk and its oil has become another point of contention between the KDP and the PUK since it fell to the Peshmergas in 2014.

The region’s geopolitical situation has also spurred Kurdish divisions. The PUK is aligned with Iran, which borders Sulaimaniyah, the seat of the party’s leadership and its powerbase, while the KDP is traditionally closer to Turkey.

The vote to leave Iraq has exposed differences within the PUK. Some PUK figures were reluctant to participate, expressing concerns that the independence bid was a tool that would serve Barzani’s interests and his drive to become Kurdistan’s absolute leader.

Like the PUK splinter group the Gorran Movement, which also opposed the referendum, these leaders have sought guarantees for democratic institutions prior to declaring independence.

Having originally been divided over these and other issues, the Iraqi Kurds are now facing the sharp splits hanging over Kurdistan. The fall of Kirkuk to the Iraqi forces has certainly brought Barzani’s independence drive to an end, and it will likely now tear through the region, with the Kurds falling on either side of the divide.

Baghdad’s stunning victory in Kirkuk and the consequential shattering of the Kurdish dream of independence must have given Barzani a bloody nose and many Kurds a sense of humiliating defeat.

By now the veteran Kurdish leader must have realised that neither capitalising on the chaos in Iraq to make territorial gains, nor his ceaseless independence rhetoric, has, to quote Russian revolutionary Georgi Plekhanov, “added enough yeast [to the Kurdistan] dough to make an [independence] cake.”

This time it seems Barzani’s ambitions and not the place of Kurds in an unfriendly world that have betrayed Iraqi Kurds. This is why Kurds deserve better leaders than those Sisyphean politicians who are doomed to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it come back to them.

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