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Iraqi Kurdistan's wrong turn

Burdened by political and economic crises at home, the autonomous region faces difficult talks with a newly confident federal government in Baghdad

In the September referendum, Iraqi Kurds enthusiastically seized the rope that was supposed to haul them up into a new era of independence. But the rope turned out to be slippery. Within days of the overwhelming vote in favour of statehood the Iraqi Kurdish region was floundering—the long-held aspiration of independence snuffed out in a trice, the political leadership in Erbil humiliated.

How did the mighty fall? For more than a decade the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) exuded self-confidence, promoting an image of stability and efficiency that Kurds successfully contrasted with the flimsy security and administrative shambles in many of the parts of Iraq governed by the federal authorities in Baghdad. Erbil adopted some of the Dubai-style pazzaz, attracting foreign investors to a young and dynamic region, rich in oil and gas, that had thrown off the legacy of heavy-handed Baath Party rule.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) disdainfully brushed aside Baghdad's charges that its contracts with international oil companies were illegal, its direct oil exports unconstitutional. In 2014, as Islamic State (IS) forces began their surge through northern Iraq, the Peshmerga marched confidently into Kirkuk-city, province and oilfields-territory that was hotly contested between Erbil and Baghdad. The Kurds had always been adamant that Kirkuk was an inseparable part of their homeland. The federal authorities, with equal vigour, insisted that Kirkuk was a red line for them. But the Baghdad government's warning that it would take whatever action was needed to keep Kirkuk under its control sounded derisory in Iraqi Kurdish ears. How could an army that turned and fled when IS attacked Mosul recapture Kirkuk?

Then came the referendum. Until late into the last minute of the eleventh hour before polling stations opened on 25 September, friends and allies of the Iraqi Kurds pleaded with them not to proceed with the vote. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region and instigator of the referendum, stood firm. So it went ahead. With 93% support for independence and the streets heaving with celebrations, Barzani was confident that he'd done the right thing. For a little while, at least.

Even when the Iraqi government, angered by developments in the north, demanded that the KRG hand over control of the region's two international airports to the federal authorities and then closed the airspace over northern Iraq, the KRG felt no particular concern. The Iraqi parliament's call for the army to be sent to take back control of Kirkuk was dismissed in Erbil as posturing.

This was when the rope began to feel slippery. The Iraqi Kurds couldn't have foreseen that the referendum would bring about a profound change in prime minister Haider al-Abadi. Often written off as a weak leader without a powerbase—preoccupied with trying to stop Nouri al-Maliki usurping his position—Abadi revealed a hitherto unseen streak of steel within him. He dispatched the army northwards, backed by Shia militias. Within days, all the disputed territory that the Peshmerga had captured in 2014 was back in the hands of the army. So were the oilfields around Kirkuk.

Fatal miscalculation

The Iraqi Kurds hadn't bargained for the Peshmerga forces guarding Kirkuk surrendering to Iraqi troops. They hadn't bargained for a new-look Iraqi army, battle-hardened by the war on IS and a very different outfit from the one that fled in the face of the jihadists' advances in 2014. "We were expecting some kind of reaction [from Baghdad], but we had not calculated on a military attack," Barzani acknowledged in an interview with the US's National Public Radio. Under pressure at home and abroad for his fatal miscalculation, Barzani announced on 29 October that he would relinquish the presidency on 1 November.

Barzani, who heads the powerful Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), insisted that the referendum should go ahead in large part because he wanted to win popular support to justify remaining president. Prominent members of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran (Change Movement)—which has 24 members in the 111-seat regional parliament—opposed holding the referendum because they saw it largely as a cynical attempt by Barzani to boost his own political position.

The Kurdish president's term in office ended in 2015, but he remained there because of differences over the succession process. His insistence on retaining his position, along with the KDP's dominant role in the KRI's politics and its energy sector, contributed to the political tension within the region. The presidency controversy led to two Gorran ministers being suspended by the KDP and parliament suspended.

Barzani's decision to step down appeared at least to clear the way for a resolution of that particular crisis. But in early November, Gorran declined a call from KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani for their ministers to take their places again in the cabinet. A Gorran spokesman told the Rudaw news agency that the KDP and the government had "brought catastrophe on our nation…We demand the KRG resign and form an interim salvation government whose only mission will be to negotiate with Baghdad and prepare for elections."

The KRI, then, could face many months of domestic political uncertainty, compounding a catastrophic economic crisis, as it comes to terms with the body-blow it received in October. Establishing a new relationship with Baghdad—with the Iraqi government firmly in the driving seat—will be difficult. A confident Abadi government, which is bringing many of the previously autonomous Kurdish institutions back under federal control, wants the referendum result annulled.

To support their call, the Baghdad authorities sought and received a ruling from Iraq's Supreme Federal Court that no governorate or region can detach itself from Iraq. Abadi subsequently urged the Kurdish administration to "clearly state its commitment to non-separation or independence from Iraq". The development wasn't well received in Erbil. "We have not committed any illegal steps," a KDP spokesman told Al-Jazeera television. "We believe that this has been politicised."

Turkey's anger

The holding of the referendum has also complicated the KRG's relations with its neighbours. Those relations matter. Turkey has invested heavily in the KRI's economy and the export pipeline carrying oil from fields in the Kurdish region runs across Turkish territory. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Barzani enjoyed a close relationship. When Barzani rejected a demand from Erdoğan to call off the independence referendum, the Turkish president felt angry and personally affronted. He said Iraqi Kurds would "pay a price" for their "treachery". "Until the very last moment," he continued, "we weren't expecting Barzani to make such a mistake as holding the referendum. Apparently we were wrong."

While Turkey hasn't carried out its threat to stop oil exports or impose sanctions, it has said that henceforth it will deal at the official level with Baghdad alone. Iran has said the same. So not only has the referendum experience left the KRI isolated and friendless, but it has also boosted the status of the Abadi government, at home and abroad.

As he savours the kudos he received for his successful handling of the Kurdish crisis, Abadi will be looking ahead more confidently than he could possibly have imagined to the March elections in Iraq. The Maliki challenge suddenly looks less menacing. The Kurds also realise that in a pre-election period they can't expect the Iraqi prime minister to be in the mood to make concessions in the difficult rounds of negotiations that they now face with the Baghdad authorities. Instead of a rope to haul them to statehood, Iraq's Kurds now need a rope to cling to for political and economic survival.

This article is part of a report series on Iraq.

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