Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

After the Kurdistan Referendum

The independence of Iraqi Kurdistan may have become a distant dream, but Baghdad should be careful about the backlash, writes Salah Nasrawi


After the Kurdistan Referendum
After the Kurdistan Referendum

The Iraqi Kurds may have lost their latest bid to break away from Iraq after the Baghdad government and Iraq’s neighbours aborted their controversial 25 September independence referendum.

Yet, relations between the Iraqi central government and the country’s Kurdish ethnic minority will remain rocky, not least because their yearnings for independence have deep historical roots.

The Kurds have ruled an autonomous area within Iraq since Baghdad’s defeat in the Gulf War in 1991 when the United Nations imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq to protect them against Saddam Hussein’s attacks.

Their endeavours to create a national home were intensified after they enjoyed political autonomy after Saddam’s ouster in the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, taking advantage of the political chaos and an escalating Shia-Sunni conflict.

Over the years, the Kurds have consolidated their power by grabbing more land and energy resources in northern Iraq, including the oil-rich Kirkuk Province which they seized in summer 2014 amid turmoil triggered by the Islamic State (IS) group’s onslaughts.

Following the independence vote in September this year, President of the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani declared victory and called on Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi to start negotiations for Kurdish independence from Iraq.

Baghdad rejected the referendum as unconstitutional and threatened to take retaliatory actions against the KRG. Turkey and Iran, Iraq’s two powerful neighbours, also threatened to cut off economic and other ties with Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, the Kurds truly lost their independence vote after failing to receive regional and international support, and Baghdad gained an upper hand by taking back control of land seized earlier by Kurdish forces.

In mid-October, Iraqi federal forces recaptured the ethnically mixed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk along with swathes of oil-rich territory across the southern edge of the Kurdistan Region.

Following the Kurdish forces’ loss of the province, the Baghdad government took a series of drastic steps to roll back the region’s federal status and the political and economic gains made by the Kurds.

Autonomy for the Kurdistan Region has meant running its own airports and borders, maintaining its own Peshmergas security forces, and exporting oil through its own economic arrangements.

Baghdad now says the new measures aim to enforce central authority in the region and that it should have only enjoyed limited autonomy or federal status under Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution.

Its first step was to place a ban on international flights to airports in the country’s Kurdish area after the KRG failed to surrender control of its international airports at Irbil and Sulaimaniya.

             Iraq’s federal government also plans to slash the Kurdish share of the country’s revenues in the 2018 federal budget and distribute the Kurdish Region’s share of the budget to the three provinces that make up the region on an individual basis.

The move will further undermine the KRG’s control over the allocation of funds. It will also deepen the divide between the Kurdish political factions and weaken Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) grip on power.

The Baghdad government also wants to put border crossings in and out of Kurdistan under the exclusive control of the federal state and extend its power to the management of oil exports through Turkey.

Al-Abadi wants to see the Kurdish Peshmergas forces drastically reduced in size, making them work as a small local force and one answering to the command of the Iraqi armed forces.

In October, Iraqi forces tried to move into Peshmergas-held territories and impose their control on the main border crossing with Turkey before they stepped back under pressure from Western nations.

The United States and several European governments tried to soften the edge of the Iraqi political and military build-up after the Kurdish Peshmergas showed defiance and refused to give up control of the crossings.

To increase the pressure on Irbil, Iraq has announced plans to construct a new pipeline to transport oil from Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean.

The announcement came after reports that Kurdistan’s crude oil exports had increased recently despite rising tensions between Baghdad and Irbil. Kurdistan’s oil flows rose to 270,000 barrels per day (bpd) in late November, compared to flows of between 200,000 bpd and 230,000 bpd in October, the Kurdistan 24 news outlet reported on its Website.

Baghdad, meanwhile, has claimed that the new pipeline is to replace a damaged section of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline and will double Kirkuk’s oil exports to one million barrels per day.

On paper, Al-Abadi can certainly point to successes in stopping Kurdistan splitting from the rest of Iraq by taking these radical actions, but he can hardly claim that he has crushed Kurdish dreams of independence.

As the Kurdistan government has decided to put independence on hold and seek negotiations with Baghdad, Al-Abadi also needs to stop being an arrogant bully trying to humiliate the Kurds for holding the referendum.

Al-Abadi has been insisting that the KRG should cancel the results of the referendum before engaging in a dialogue with Baghdad. Kurdish media reports have also suggested that Al-Abadi has made a set of other preconditions for talks with the KRG for normalising ties with Irbil.

In order to open talks, Al-Abadi now wants a Kurdish negotiating team that represents all political factions in the region and not only KRG representatives.

He also wants commanders of the Peshmergas to participate in the talks in order to make them commit to any agreement made on security affairs, including on the border and the crossings.

Ostensibly, Al-Abadi is trying to divide the Kurdish ranks, and he hopes to see a new leadership emerge in Kurdistan to replace Barzani who is blamed for holding the poll.

But by trying to use the referendum as an excuse to change the terms of Kurdistan’s federal status in Iraq, Al-Abadi is digging more trenches between Baghdad and Irbil and is making his victory come at a very high price.

On Saturday, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said his administration was “ready to discuss” issues with Baghdad and agreed on shared control over Iraq’s borders with Turkey and Syria.

Nechirvan Barzani, who is acting as interim leader of the region after his uncle Masoud Barzani stepped down, told reporters in Paris that he wants to open a new page with Baghdad.

Barzani had travelled to Paris through Turkey to seek France’s mediation with the Iraqi central government in order to end the stalemate. After talks with Barzani, French President Emmanuel Macron said his country would “do everything” it could to help preserve Iraq’s unity and the recognition of the rights of Iraq’s Kurds through new negotiations.

As stability in the Middle East continues to shrink and Iraq remains in political deadlock over its lingering communal disputes, the Iraqi-Kurdish crisis poses a great challenge which needs to be tackled carefully to avoid another flare-up.

For the moment Baghdad seems to have won the referendum battle, but if the Iraqi state enters a prolonged and dangerous crisis with its Kurdish population, then this happy story will be threatened by an unexpected twist in the plot.

The shout for independence as demonstrated by the referendum results was a painful reminder that the Iraqi Kurds’ ultimate aim of breaking away from Iraq can still stir the blood in Kurdistan and in the rest of Iraq.

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