Kurds have little motivation remaining to 'rebuild Iraq'

Kurds have little motivation remaining to 'rebuild Iraq'
Analysis: With growing disillusionment, Kurdish eyes are turning to an independence referendum, notes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
20 July, 2017
Masoud Barzani had previously wanted Kurdistan to be 'the Scotland of Iraq' [AFP]

In April, a delegate of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited the Kurdistan Region and called upon the Kurds to forgo their desire to secede from Iraq - and instead help rebuild the country after the war against Islamic State group, as they had following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.

Today, however, there is little appetite - across Kurdistan's political spectrum - for investing in another such effort.

"For 14 years we have been waiting, and we have been discussing this partnership, but we have always been told 'it's not a good time' [for a Kurdish independence referendum] - and 'it's not acceptable timing' - so my question is, 'when is the right time?'" Kurdish President Masoud Barzani recently said in a Reuters interview.

Following Saddam's overthrow, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) spearheaded Kurdish efforts to rebuild Iraq and integrate their autonomous region into a successful federal state.

At the time Barzani expressed his aim to bolster the autonomy for which his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) had fought Saddam's regime, and its predecessors, for decades.

He invariably told journalists that Kurdistan aspired to become the Scotland of the new Iraq.

But even before Saddam's overthrow, the PUK's Barham Salih argued - in September 2001: "We cannot leave the future of Iraq to be shaped by others - we are directly affected and must be involved to ensure that the future of Iraq is different from its miserable and brutal past. This is surely consistent with the principle of Iraq's territorial integrity to which we are committed and upon which our neighbours insist."

Salih would later become the deputy prime minister of Iraq.

The PUK's Jalal Talabani was the first Kurd to become Iraq's president - now more of a ceremonial role, but nevertheless groundbreaking.

In a 2006 talk at the Council on Foreign Relations the late Arab-American academic Fouad Ajami championed "the new Iraq", arguing that "the Kurds have really brought this idea of Iraq".

"It's not their first choice, but it's the practical choice," he argued. "And many, many Kurds will tell you that their sentimental choice is independence; they are actually reconciled to the idea that the best political life they could have is to be part of Iraqi nationalism."

'Barzani stays in the hills,' he said of Kurdistan's president. 'He stays in the mountains. He stays in Kurdistan. His bet is on Kurdistan.'

Ajami also illustrated how the PUK leadership were more enthusiastic about the Iraq project than the KDP.

"Barzani stays in the hills," he said of Kurdistan's president. "He stays in the mountains. He stays in Kurdistan. His bet is on Kurdistan."

In contrast, Ajami gave Barham Salih as an example of someone who "doesn't want to be in the mountains in Kurdistan. He likes being in Baghdad".

Barzani himself, in an April 2007 interview, also pointed out: "After the fall of the [Saddam] regime, we Kurds protected the unity of Iraq. To this day, we are the main reason that Iraq is united."

"We devoted our greatest efforts to expand the Kurdistan experience to the other regions of Iraq, but the brothers in the other regions, I'm sad to say, did not benefit from our experience," he added. "We adopted a culture of forgiveness, whereas they adopted a culture of vindictiveness."

According to a March 2009 WikiLeaks profile, the leader of Kurdistan's Change Movement (Goran) Nawshirwan Mustafa did "not believe in creating an independent Kurdistan", since he contended, "the day of the mini-state is over".

Instead, Mustafa "resolutely" supported "full Kurdish integration with a strong, democratic Iraq, whose constitution he views as a bulwark that will protect the Kurds and guarantee their rights". 

By the time the Islamic State group emerged, Kurdistan had to fend for itself without its constitutional 17 percent annual share of Iraq's national budget

After the first decade of the new Iraq, however, Salih, among many other Kurds, grew discontent. In November 2013, he lamented: "The political performance of the ruling elite in Iraq has been miserable. They seized public funds. Failure led to failure regarding security, political, and service issues. In addition to that, these dangerous conditions are inflaming the region."

The premiership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki severely undermined Baghdad-Erbil relations. Maliki sought to place the autonomous region's Peshmerga forces firmly under Baghdad's command and control, and even sent the Iraqi Army to Kurdistan's frontiers, resulting in tense standoffs.

By the time the Islamic State group emerged, Kurdistan had to fend for itself without its constitutional 17 percent annual share of Iraq's national budget. Barzani subsequently called for the holding a referendum on independence for the region, arguing that they could no longer remain part of Iraq.

The PUK governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, also grew extremely frustrated with Baghdad for not sending revenue to his cash-strapped region. He floated the idea of autonomy for Kirkuk last year and has said time and again that remaining with Baghdad has proven "a disaster".

Today the PUK are for the referendum, but argue it shouldn't be necessarily spearheaded by the KDP - insisting, along with Goran, that parliament be reopened to organise it.

Maliki's successor, Haider al-Abadi, has been more open to negotiating with Erbil. Under his leadership Baghdad and Erbil's militaries cooperated against IS. Barzani told Foreign Policy that he would continue to support Abadi "post-independence" and uphold military cooperation between the Peshmerga and Iraqi Army against terrorist groups which threaten both of them.

However, on other fronts not all that much has changed.

Maliki is still working behind the scenes in Baghdad and is believed to have been the one who orchestrated the vote of no confidence against Iraq's finance minister, the KDP's Hoshyar Zebari, last September.

"By the time Zebari resigned, Kurds lost posts in Baghdad and Barzani said 'we are not going to replace Zebari because Baghdad is not abiding by agreements we had at the beginning of Abadi's government',” Beriwan Khailany, an Iraqi MP representing the KDP bloc in the Iraqi parliament, told The New Arab.

"He didn't elect anyone for the position for minister of finance, so we lost that department. We lost other positions which were occupied by Kurds. Barzani said we have no agreement with Baghdad any longer so we should not be part of the next election in 2018."

Given this, and the general disappointment in the post-2003 Iraqi order, it's become clear that Kurds no longer have much motivation, nor self-interest, in once again focusing their efforts in forging a new unified Iraq.

"We should be going for the referendum instead," Khailany argued. "That is the first step, the second step is independence."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon