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Iraq: With a winning hand, the Kurds look for an endgame
Published June 21, 2014 - 12:00pm
They may not frame it quite so bluntly, but the dominant sentiment in the Kurds’ autonomous region of northern Iraq is a gleeful “We told you so.”
The Kurds have long accused the central government in Baghdad of shoving them to the margin. More recently they have taken to criticizing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for excluding Iraq’s Sunni Arabs too. Senior people in Erbil, the Kurds’ regional capital, say that they contacted their counterparts in Baghdad on June 8, two days before Mosul was conquered, to share concerns about the horrors of an ISIS takeover.
It was to no effect. At the crack of dawn on June 10, ministers in Baghdad called to beg for help, the Kurds say. By then it was too late.
Kurdish security forces take positions at Taza district, south of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 20. Among rolling wheat fields with machine-gun fire rattling in the distance, Kurdish fighters patrol the new frontier of their autonomous region of northern Iraq, dozens of miles from their official border. In front of them are Islamic militants, behind them is the Kurds’ newly captured prize, stretches of oil-rich territory. (AP)
As the rebels battle across Iraq toward Baghdad, life in the Kurdish region continues as normal. Indeed, in many respects it has improved. Whether Iraq fragments along ethnic and sectarian lines or remains a federation with its capital in Baghdad, the Kurds have strengthened their hand.
As the Iraqi army abandoned its posts along the “green line,” more than 621 miles long, that separates the Kurdish-run areas from Arab Iraq, the Peshmerga, the Kurds’ armed forces, leaped forward. They now control the entire disputed area, notably including the city of Kirkuk, which they call their Jerusalem, as well as the Bai Hassan oil field and Rabia, a key border crossing into Syria.
The Kurds now control around a fifth of Iraq’s territory, including land they long have claimed as their own but which was Arabized under Saddam Hussein. Though Iraq’s army commanders and Arabs in the area criticize what they see as the Kurds’ grabbing of Kirkuk, there is little they can do about it.
“We simply filled the security vacuum,” a Peshmerga says.
Falah Mustafa, who heads Kurdistan’s foreign relations, is more strident.
“We righted the wrong of Kirkuk,” Mustafa says, “and Article 140 has been de facto decided on the ground.”
He is referring to a clause in Iraq’s federal constitution, endorsed in a nationwide referendum in 2005, that provides for a census followed by a referendum to decide whether the people of Kirkuk and other disputed areas want to stay in the Arab-governed part of Iraq or join Kurdistan. That census and referendum never have happened.
The Kurds’ reputation surely has been enhanced. The Peshmerga have held together while the Iraqi army has fallen apart. The Kurdish region has welcomed more than 300,000 refugees from Mosul and other places overrun by ISIS. While Baghdad has for years been beset by bombs, foreign businessmen have been flying in and out of Erbil. Christians have fled from other parts of Iraq to live in peace in Kurdistan. Democracy in the Kurds’ region, though imperfect and tainted with corruption, functions far better than elsewhere in Iraq.
Though Maliki may need the Kurds, they have less reason to need him. Relations between Erbil and Baghdad remain patchy. Communication between the two cities during this crisis has been limited. Since ISIS began sweeping south, Maliki has not asked the Kurds for help. Nor would they be keen to oblige.
“Why should we?” Mustafa asks.
Their priority is to defend Kurdistan and its people.
Moreover, amid the turmoil, old grievances toward their Arab compatriots still fester. The attack by Saddam Hussein’s air force on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 or so Kurds were gassed to death, still outrages them. Some Kurds reckon that the Sunnis, led by ISIS, may yet turn on Kurdistan.
“You can’t trust them,” says a Peshmerga officer in Dohuk province, close to ISIS-held territory.
Because the balance of power has tipped in favour of the Kurds, they are sure to press forcefully for three big concessions from Baghdad. They want a law to legitimize the export of oil from the Kurdish region and to allow them to benefit directly from contracts with foreign companies for managing and extracting new finds. They want Maliki to hand over their full share of the federal budget, and they want the Peshmerga to be paid from central government coffers. Maliki has been reluctant to agree to such demands, but now his bargaining position is weak.
The leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, with its population of 6.5 million, say that their region increasingly makes sense as an economic unit. If it were now to enjoy the proceeds of the oil fields around Kirkuk, the number of barrels at its disposal could double, even as the price has risen to a nine-month high of nearly $113.
Besides, the Kurds recently have completed their own pipeline. Last week more than 1 million barrels of Kurdish oil were sold on the international market, through Turkey, and several more shipments are in the offing. A great deal of Kurdish oil also is trucked out, to Iran as well as to Turkey.
If international buyers become less concerned by the government in Baghdad’s veto on dealing with the Kurds, exports through Kurdistan’s new pipeline could speed as much as 400,000 barrels a day by the end of the year, up from 165,000 today. The old pipeline through northern Iraq to the Turkish port of Ceyhan has been closed since March because of attacks. If the Kurds complete another pipeline between Kirkuk and their own new network, they could funnel that field’s output to Turkey too.
The Kurds’ Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, a nephew of President Masoud Barzani, says that Iraq no longer can hold together. However, the Kurds, though united for the moment, habitually debate the degree of independence they hope to achieve and the tactics they should pursue.
The Barzanis’ Kurdish Democratic Party, which is enjoying increasingly warm relations with Turkey, is bidding for an ever-greater degree of autonomy. The weaker Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, run by the ailing Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s federal president, is closer both to Baghdad and to Iran. To complicate matters, most of the land taken by the Kurds this month has been on the Patriotic Union’s side of Kurdistan.
America, which the Kurds regard as a crucial ally, does not support the full independence of Kurdistan from Iraq, seeing that as a bad precedent and as a destabilizing force in the region. The governments of Iran, Syria and Turkey also dislike the idea of an independent Kurdistan breaking away from Iraq, since it might give ideas to another 21 million or so Kurds spread across their three lands. Iraq’s Kurdish leaders have been particularly careful of late not to antagonize Turkey’s government.