|KRG PM Masoud Barzani and a Turkish flag|
Saddam Husayn's overthrow in 2003 radically restructured Arab-Kurdish relations in Iraq. Prior to 1991, the Kurds had been in almost constant revolt throughout the 1960s and 1970s against the central government. In 1991, the US declared a "no-fly" zone above the 36th parallel which allowed to KRG to be established. When the US occupied Iraq in 2003, the Kurds, especially with American support, were placed on an equal basis with Iraq's majority Arab population for this first time in the history of the modern state.
During the 1990s, both Saddam Husayn and the KRG cooperated to smuggle oil out of Iraq, primarily to Turkey but also to Iran. The significance of this cooperation is that it came in the wake of Saddam Husayn's notorious "Anfall" campaign of the mid to late 1980s which destroyed the Kurdish agrarian sector and led to thousands of Kurdish deaths , including the bombing of the Kurdish city of Halabja with chemical weapons in March 1988. One would think that the Kurdish political elite would have adamantly refused to have any contact with the Ba'thist regime after violence it bestowed on the Kurdish people. Neverthless, Saddam and the KRG had no trouble dividing up the spoils from their joint oil smuggling.
A civil war broke out between the two main Kurdish parties in 1994 - the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which broke away fronm the KDP in 1975. When his forces were about to be defeated, KDP leader Masoud Barzani had no qualms in 1996 about inviting Saddam Husayn to send tanks to Arbil to avert a defeat by PUK forces. Barzani sought to offset the support Iran was providng the KDP with assistance from Saddam's army. The KDP leader had no trouble turning over members of the Iraqi opposition in Arbil to Iraqi intelligence in return for Saddam's support.
What these considerations tell us is that we need to look beyond the rhetoric when seeking to comprehend Arab-Kurdish relations in Iraq. Despite the insults being traded between Arbil and Baghdad, it is very much in the realm of possibility that the two parties may still be able to come to some sort of an agreement over the extraction and sale of oil. A declaration of independence will not be based on romantic notions of Kurdish nationalism. If independence is proclaimed, it will only come after extensive hard headed calculations on the part of the KRG leadership.
What has changed since 2003 that might make the Kurds considering leaving a federal Iraq? First, Turkey's position towards Iraq's Kurds has changed. In 2003, Turkey was extremely hostile to the KRG thinking that it could provide a model for its own restive Kurdish population which is 15% of the population but increasing faster than the Turkish population. This opposition was implicit in its emphasis on its support for Iraq's "territorial integrity." Turkey was especially concerend that KRG autonomy or even independence would further intensify support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) insurgency in the east against the central government in Ankara.
But Turkey's rapid industrail growth requires huge amounts of energy. Further, the KRG lacks the necessary techical personnel to develop its economy. Thus it turned to Turkey after 2003 for needed investments and techical assistance. Turkey now has close to $7 billion invested in the KRG, far more than in Arab Iraq. As Turkey's economic investments in the KRG have grown and economic integration bewteen the two parties has increased, Tuirkish opposition to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan has waned, especially after the KRG has sought to help the Turkish army prevent the PKK from mounting attacks from the rugged mountains along the Turkish-Iraqi border.
A second area of change has been the increased struggle between the KRG and Baghdad over the production and sale of oil. A formula exists which allows the KRG to extract and sell oil, but only if it sends revenues to Baghdad which are then distributed according to a formula based on the assumption that the Kurds comprise 17% of Iraq's population (most feel the figure is closer to 13%).
However, the KRG has contiued to claim oil fields which are located in the disputed areas south and south-west of the so-called "Green Line" which divides the KRG ferom Arab Iraq and which includes the important city of Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city made up of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. The Kurds are furious that Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution which called for a referendum to be implemented in 2006, and which was then postponed to 2007, has yet to held. The KRG feels that such a referendeum would lead Kirkuk to join the KRG bringing with it a large amount of oil reserves in fields in and around the city.
The KRG feels that it cannot depend on the dysfunctional al-Maliki government to help it develop its oil industry which, as in Arab Iraq, provide the overwhelming bulk of its financial resources. The KRG has signed contracts with foreign oil firms not just in the KRG but in the disputed areas. It has also signed agreements with Ankara to build pipelines which will transport oil directly to Turkey. Meanwhile, it is an open secret that the KRG is smuggling large amounts of unregistered oil to neighboring Iran.
The al-Maliki government and Arab politicians generally view developments in the KRG with alarm. For them, the Kurdish political elite's behavior points to its building an economic foundation for declaring independence. After relations between Nuri al-Maliki and Turkish Prime Minister Rajib Tayp Ergogan deteriorated following the latter referring to al-Maliki as a dictator, many Arab politicians now also see a Turkish hand in efforts to weaken the KRG's ties to a federal Iraq.
A third source of change has been the US withdrawal from Iraq. The Kurds are very nervous about the military buildup in Arab Iraq, especially its ability to acquire sophisticated fighter aircraft. Might not these aircraft be used to once again attack the Kurds if they don't acquiesce to Baghdad's demands on agreeing to new hydrocarbon law that favors Arab Iraq? While the KRG could count upon US support prior to December 2011, it no longer has that option. If it were to declare independence and Turkey were willing to support that move, Iraqi forces would not dare mount an attack on the KRG.
Finally, the challenge that the KDP/PUK elite faces from the Gorran (Change) Party has forced political change in the KRG. Having won 40 seats, along with Services and Reform List, in the July 2009 KRG Regional Parliament elections, Gorran has constantly raised questions in the parliament about the pervasive corruption and nepotism. This was impossible prior to 2009 when the parliament was completely dominated by the KDP and PUK. According to Kurdish colleagues, the level has corruption has been reduced.
As the Kurdish population's anger at the corruption, lack of jobs and inflation has grown, pressure on the KRG leadership has increased to implement political and economic reforms. Because the KRG elite is unwilling to do so, oil revenues have assumed increased importance as they are the key tool in the KRG arsenal. Oil wealth is crucial to KRG efforts to coopt potential opposition elements, and to augment the power of their security forces to suppress those who refuse to play their political game.
The KRG is not at the point where independence makes political and economic sense. First, it would become a client state of Turkey as in incurred the wrath of its two most powerful neighbors Arab Iraq and,
Iran. As many Kurds pointed out during my interviews in the KRG, declaring independence would effectively cut the new state off from investments from the Arab Gulf. Such investments would become politically impossible by any Arab state, including those in the Arab Gulf.
Another disincentive to declaring independence stems from the KRG's realization that the true prize sought by foreign oil companies lies in the south where huge reserves of oil (and natural gas) are still to be found. An estimated 70% of Iraq's oil reserves have yet to be discovered. Also, new reserves of natural gas have been discovered, such as those in the Ukaz field in western al-Anbar Province. Would the KRG be cutting itself off from possible sharing in this bounty if it were to declare independence? By remaining in Iraq, it could demand access to revenues derived from oil production in the south as being part of the federal state.
What would make most sense would be for the KRG and the central government to hold secret meetings in which Arab and Kurdish technocrats, who specialize in the intricacies oil and natural gas production, try and work out a formula which will meet the broad demands of both sides. The KRG would only add external to exising domestic pressures should it declare independence and thus has an incentive to find such a solution.
With Kurdish fears of a rearmed Iraq to the south, the US is in a unique position to both convince the KRG to remain within a federal Iraq and to seek a solution to the hydrocarbon crisis which will satify both Kurdish and Arab needs. The KRG needs American security assurances and support which gives the US a powerful bargaining card in domestic Kurdish affairs.
In this context, the US should use its clout with Arbil to strongly encourage it to implement democartic reforms, reign in corruption and distribute jobs and other economic resources according to need rather than via the KDP/PUK patronage network. Ties to the political elite (al-wasta) should be replaced by a government that demonstrates a civic concern for the Kurdish populace as a whole.