The current flare-up between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad over the disputed land and oilfields in Kirkuk is nothing new. However, it was the Kurdish referendum for independence held on 25 September that inflamed tensions between the two sides.
The federal government in Baghdad not only declared the referendum illegitimate, but also announced a number of measures that aim to impose Iraqi will on the Kurdish region.
As Iraqi forces advanced into Kirkuk, located just outside KRG territory, they managed to seize vast areas as the Kurdish Peshmerga withdrew. Iraqi forces also recaptured positions that used to be held by the Iraqi army until 2014 when security forces retreated in the face of Islamic State (IS) group attacks.
But Kirkuk, with a population of more than one million, is one of several reasons why the federal government in Baghdad decided to escalate militarily against the KRG following the referendum. The view from Baghdad suggests that the referendum triggered the current conflict over Kirkuk, whose oil is considered to be the sole guarantee for the sustainable existence of a Kurdish state. Baghdad also fears that the separation bid may reinforce or embolden those who call for the formation of autonomous rule in Arab Sunni-majority provinces and perhaps even for an eventual separation.
This, along with international and regional opposition to the referendum, particularly from Iran and Turkey, might explain why the federal government has been able to escalate against Erbil and impose punitive measures. Baghdad refused to start any negotiations with Erbil over the referendum. The government insists on its cancellation as a precondition for engaging in a fresh round of negotiations.
At the same time, the Iraqi government announced that it will seize control of the international land border crossings of Iraqi Kurdistans and seize control of the telephone and internet companies that operate within the region.
Indeed, Baghdad has banned international airlines from using KRG airports when the Erbil government refused to place the Kurdish city’s airports under the control of the central government. In addition to suspending financial transactions with Erbil, Baghdad has proposed a joint administration of the Kirkuk province. When the KRG refused to withdraw its troops from the city, Baghdad mobilised its forces, raising fears of a war-torn Iraq on the verge of a new Arab-Kurdish conflict.
While Iran’s backing of Baghdad over the referendum issue is not surprising, it was Turkey’s stand and its threats of alienating the Kurds and imposing a siege that raised a few eyebrows. Over the past few years, Turkey has provided Massoud Barzani with sanctuary and political protection when the Iranians and Shia political groups together with the Kurds of Sulaymaniyah and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) tried to bring him down.
A coalition of Turkey, Iran and Iraq thus emerged to subjugate Erbil.
The dividing constitution
Interestingly enough, it was mainly the Shia-Kurdish alliance that drafted Iraq’s constitution in the aftermath of the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003. This was the constitution that granted the Kurdish region a high degree of autonomy and sowed the seeds of dividing Iraq or transforming it into feuding entities.
The constitution was drafted at a time when Iraqi resistance against the US occupation was escalating and the political scene was dominated by sectarian and ethnic fragmentation. Iraq’s Shia leaders might have contemplated at the time the likelihood of ending up with a divided Iraq should the civil war continue and the central government fail to win the allegiance of Iraq’s Arab Sunni-majority provinces.
However, circumstances have changed considerably since then. Despite the continued Shia political parties’ hegemony over the government and the state, the Arab Sunni majority stood by Iraq’s unity. Armed resistance has receded since the withdrawal of US troops in December 2011. The majority of Iraq’s Arab Sunnis agreed, somehow, to coexist with the new state and believed that it would be possible, by means of some political, parliamentary and legal work, to eventually amend the constitution, reform the institutions of the new state and find a just and less sectarian regime.
However, not only did Iraq’s ruling class reached an impasse with the Arab Sunni majority but also with the Kurdish partners who played a crucial role in the system of governance that dominated following the US invasion and occupation. This ruling class has been responsible for the marginalisation of the Arab Sunni majority and for the drafting of a deformed constitution that created all the factors leading to this political implosion.
But balance, moderation and consideration for the public good are not among the common virtues of the minority sectarian mind. So, it has not taken long for the Shia-Kurdish partnership to fall victim to the protracted disagreements over the disputed territories, oil, sovereignty, the KRG’s budget as well as a host of other issues that are not any less complex.
There are indications that the motivations behind holding the referendum were not only inspired by desperation that wholesome and stable relations between Baghdad and Erbil may be established, but also by considerations pertaining to the personal future of Barzani himself.
But even if such an assessment is sound, it is difficult to ask the Kurds, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, to remain within Iraq while living captive and under the mercy of an Iraqi central ruling class that is short-sighted, lacks the minimum requirements of political common sense and is obsessed with the illusions of sectarian hegemony.
Turkey realises that the Iraqi state that was born out of the US invasion and occupation has not enjoyed, not even briefly, the necessary conditions for ruling Iraq. Turkey also realises that the successive convulsions to which Iraq has been subjected over the past one and a half decades are not the product of foreign conspiracies or some astronomical curse, but the result of the brittle and deformed structure of the new Iraqi state.
This is what renders the Turkish threats to the KRG and its unconditional alliance with Tehran and Baghdad to lay a siege over Erbil rather exaggerated and unjustified.
If Iraq were to remain unified, and if the Middle East were to avoid the evils and repercussions of Kurdish division, it is mandatory to first reconsider the structure of governance and of the Iraqi state as a whole.
This article was first published by Middle East Eye