Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Should the Kurds Remain in a Federal Iraq?

Masoud Barzani & Jalal Talabani
This is the first in a series of posts on challenges facing Iraq, including authoritarian rule, youth and terrorism, women's rights, sectarian identities, building civil society and conservation of cultural heritage, among others.

What do the ISIS attacks and occupation of northwestern Iraq mean for the territorial integrity of Iraq?  The Iraqi army’s collapse in Mosul, Tikrit and al-Anbar Province has provided the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) with the opportunity to occupy much of the so-called “disputed lands” that it has been contesting with the central government in Baghdad. Of the areas claimed by both the KRG and the central government in Baghdad, the oil rich city of Kirkuk is the most significant.  

With the chaos in the Arab northwest, many Kurds have been expressing a desire for the KRG to declare independence from Iraq.  Should the KRG become an independent state or remain within a federal Iraq?  What would be the consequences if the Kurds would take such a step?

Iraq’s Kurds’ desire for an independent state is understandable.  The Kurds suffered brutal treatment under Saddam Husayn’s Ba’thist regime during the notorious Anfal campaign of the late 1980s that destroyed hundreds of Kurdish villages and the Kurdish agricultural sector and killed hundreds of Kurdish men between the ages of 15 and 55. The bombing of the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988 with chemical weapons was the most egregious of Saddam’s attacks.

Under the current Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Kurds have not been treated with respect.  Maliki’s rhetoric has indicated a lack of desire to negotiate with the KRG. Instead, he has tried to coerce and intimidate them to act in the way that he wants through bluster and even sending Iraqi army units to towns such as Khanaqin near the so-called Green Line that separates the KRG from Arab Iraq.  

While Baghdad has struggled with developing its oil sector, the Kurds have sought to modernize their facilities working with assistance from foreign firms.  In both cases, there has been major corruption, but the KRG has been more effective in attracting and working with foreign investment.  One of the main points of contention between Arbil and Baghdad has been the Kurds’ desire to upgrade their oil industry without bureaucratic impediments from the central government.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there are many reasons why an Iraqi Kurdistan that enjoys significant autonomy in a truly federal state should remain within Iraq.  The reasons I discuss below are are strategic, political, economic and cultural.

Strategic considerations
When ISIS attacked Mosul and large numbers of Iraqi troop abandoned their positions, Kurdish Peshmerga forces rushed to fill the vacuum, occupying considerable amounts of land below the so-Green Line.  Cries for the KRG to declare independence began to be heard.  However, as the extent of ISIS victories, the amount of weapons at its disposal and its brutal treatment of Iraqi army forces became known, many Kurds now seem less enthusiastic about leaving Iraq (

As ISIS has advanced and seized more towns in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq, Peshmerga forces have begun noting the difficulty of defending a 1000 km (600 mile border), the inferiority of their weaponry compared to ISIS, and the fanaticism of ISIS fighters who were not afraid to die in battle to achieve “martyrdom.”  As long gas lines have appeared in Arbil and other Kurdish cities and towns, the fact that the KRG possesses no refinery and is dependent for gasoline on external entities, especially Arab Iraq, began to sink in.  The large number of Arab refugees that the KRG allowed to enter its territory has become a serious economic burden.

Beyond the traditional antipathy of Turkey and Iran to an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, and of course the hostility of Arab Iraq to this idea, the KRG leadership seems to have realized that declaring outright independence might entail too many costs. The US is likewise against the KRG becoming an independent state.  During their June 24th meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry asked KRG President Masoud Barzani not to pursue independence.  Were the KRG to declare independence, the US would no doubt be less inclined to supply the KRG with advanced weaponry.
KRG Peshmerga forces
Political considerations  
If the KRG were to declare independence, there would be a number of political costs.  First, the new Kurdish state would become a dependency of Turkey.  During a recent trip to Arbil and Dohuk, I was struck by the extent to which Turkey dominates the KRG economy, from consumer goods to large scale construction projects.  As Turkey, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s AK Party, becomes more authoritarian, and corruption scandals rock his government, do the Kurds really want to tie their fate to Turkey?

Turkey’s Kurdish population is rapidly expanding (with a much higher birth rate than the Turkish population) and demanding greater economic investment in eastern Turkey and more political rights.  Turkey still faces a powerful challenge from the Turkish Worker’s Party (PKK) that uses the KRG as a refuge from the Turkish army.  There is also turmoil in northeastern Syria where Kurds have broken away from Damascus’ control and are fighting ISIS and other extremist groups.
 PKK women commanders & fighters

The KRG can more effectively negotiate solutions to these problems if it remains part of Iraq and continues to maintain strong international support, than as a vulnerable land-locked nation with hostile neighbors.
Kurds themselves still face tensions between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and between the two major parties, the KDP and PUK, and the upstart Gorran (Change) Movement that has strong support among the educated middle classes, as well as the Kurdistan Islamic Union.  

Closer to Iran, the PUK has been more keen to fight ISIS than the KDP.  We should not forget that the tensions that still exist led to a civil war between the KDP and PUK from 1994 to 1998, with the Iranians providing military aid to the PUK and Saddam Husayn’s army preventing a KDP defeat by coming to its defense in 1996.
Lt. Gen. Babakir Zebari
Finally, the Kurds would lose their control of important political leadership positions in the Iraqi government.  Despite being very ill, Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd.  Hoshyar Zebari, its foreign minister, is a Kurd.  Even though he has been ignored and marginalized by Nuri al-Maliki, Lt. Gen. Babakir Zebari, the commander of the Iraqi army and an officer with considerable military experience, is a Kurd.  Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Lukman Faily, a member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiya), is also a Kurd

I would argue that the KRG can achieve more of its goals if it continues to have strong political influence in Baghdad, influence it would lose through declaring an independent state. 

Economic considerations
While many argue that the KRG’s oil and natural gas reserves provide the basis for a stable, independent economy, this argument has flaws.  Visiting the KRG this past May, I was told that the figures I cited of 40% of Iraq’s oil being in the Kurdish majority provinces of Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaimaniya were actually exaggerated and the figure is closer to 10%.  (Other oil analysts say the KRG has reserves of 45 billion representing 25% of Iraq’s total).  It is true that the Kurds now control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, but they certainly won’t be able to control Kirkuk’s oil production without cooperation from the large non-Kurdish population and the central government in Baghdad.

Further, the KRG still lacks significant human resources that it needs to develop its economy and society.  Declaring independence will make it much more difficult to attract professionals and engineers from the Arab world.  While there is a strong desire for higher education in the KRG, Kurdish universities still do not have the science, technology and professional academic units that they need to train young Kurds.  In fact, many Kurds still attend Arab Iraqi universities, e.g., many Kurds are graduates of Mosul and Baghdad universities.

SCF Altai oil tanker
Despite shipping a tanker full of oil from the KRG from the port of Ceyhan in Turkey in May, the KRG encountered resistance in selling it.  First, Morocco refused to allow the offloading of the oil as the Iraqi federal government threatened international legal action against any state that purchased the oil.  Finally, the SCF Altai was able to deliver the oil to Israeli port of Ashkelon.  The key question remains: will the KRG be able to sell its oil without constant threats and legal challenges?

Cultural considerations
Although it may not seem relevant to cite the long relationship that exists between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq’s ethnic and confessional groups, these relationships are, I would argue, very important, especially in terms of historical cultural bonds.  These bonds can be used by political leaders who believe in Iraq’s need to develop a political culture based on pluralism and tolerance.  Put differently, there are a wide range of cultural bonds between Arab and Kurdish Iraqis that would be disrupted by a declaration of independence.

The term Kurd probably finds it origins in the Sumerian, “Qardu.”  Tablets from 3000 BCE refer to a people known who lived in the “Land of the Kar-da.”  Thus Kurds have as many cultural connections to ancient Mesopotamia – the Land between the Two Rivers – as do Iraq’s Arabs or any other ethnic or confessional group in Iraq.

Moving to the modern period, we find Kurds playing a central role in Iraq’s nationalist movement and government and in its economic and cultural life.  The Guardians of Independence (Haras al-Istiqlal) was a key player in the June-October 192o Revolution that erupted after Britain reneged on its promise to give Iraq complete independence (al-istiqlal al-tamm) when it occupied the country in 1917.  Jamal Baban, a Kurd, was a member of the Guardians’ board of directors and worked with other ethnic and confessional groups – Shi’a, Sunni Arabs, Jews and Christians – to pressure the British to keep their promise.

The commander-in-chief of the Iraqi Army in the mid-1930s was Bakr Sidqi al-Askari, a Kurd who was related to the highly popular military commander and Defense Minister Ja’far al-‘Askari.  Lionized for putting down a purported uprising by Iraq’s Assyrian community in 1933, one in which many Assyrians were killed, Sidqi used his popularity to engineer the first military coup in the Arab world in 1936. 

Kurds played an important role in all ministries under the Hashimite monarchy (1921-1958).  Many Kurds served as ministers, especially as Minister of Interior.  In the last elected government that as overthrown by the 1958 Revolution, the prime minister Ahmad Baban was a Kurd as was the Interior Minister, Sayyid Qazzaz.

Kurds have played a central role in what was, historically, Iraq’s most powerful political party, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP).  Widely popular, not because of its Marxist origins, but because it emphasized social justice and was anti-sectarian, the party attracted member from all sectors of Iraqi society, including the Kurds.  Time and time again, the ICP stressed the unity of Iraqis and the political irrelevance of their ethnic or confessional backgrounds.  Kurds, such as Baha al-Din Nuri, headed the party and were consistently represented in the party’s leadership.

Kurds joined Arabs, Jews, Christians, Turkmen and others in the large number of strikes beginning in the 1930s -  in the oil industry, oil pipeline construction and the Iraqi national railways - to the 1958 Revolution to increase wages and improve labor conditions during the nationalist struggle against the British (See my, "History for the Many or History for the Few: The Historiography of the Iraqi Working Class Kurds have contributed to Iraq’s cultural life through art, poetry and literature.   

Kurds continue to contribute to the media.  For example, Iraq’s best newspaper, al-Mada, and its Mada Publishing House, have contributed enormously to Iraq’s cultural life, and to the promotion of democracy, under its Kurdish owner and editor-in chief, Fakhri Karim. Both the KDP and PUK print daily Arabic editions of the newspapers, al-Ta'akhi and al-Ittihad, respectively.

Perhaps the strongest feelings of national unity were expressed during the Asia Cup match between Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2007.  Iraq won an unexpected victory with 3 goals being scored by the team's Kurdish striker, and one each by a Shi'i and a Sunni player, an outcome of which Iraqis were very proud.  Shi'a, Sunnis and Kurds celebrated together in Baghdad as football (soccer) brought the entire country together.

The point to be made is that Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs have a much longer history of ties with one another than Kurds do with its other neighbors such as Turkey, Iran or Syria.  This doesn’t insure smooth relations but it does call attention to the problems as being more at the level of competing political elites than at the level of people. 
Kurds and Arabs constantly tell me that they have no problem interacting with each other.  When I conducted research in the KRG in 2007 and 2008, I learned some Kurdish (which I’m still studying) so I could apologize that I wasn’t able to hold a serious conversation in the local Sorani dialect.  

Instead, we spoke in Arabic as Kurds indicated that it didn’t matter to them whether we spoke Arabic or Kurdish.  Indeed, I noticed many Arabic terms in the Sorani dialect (as we see Persian influences on Iraq’s Arabic dialect).

There is a parallel to be made between the KRG and Quebec.  Many Québécois have sought to develop an independent state for over two centuries.  Nevertheless, in referendum after referendum, they have decided that the economic and political costs out way independence. Instead, Québec’s citizens have opted for a robust federalism that has given them equal rights with English speaking Canadians. The same narrative can be applied to the Scots and Welsh in the United Kingdom where economic imperatives continue to dampen enthusiasm for independence.

In short, the Kurds are in a strong position to pressure the central government in Baghdad to institutionalize a truly federal system in which Kurds play a key decision-making role and in which a new unity government begins to promote policies that will help bring Kurds and Arabs closer together.  
Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim in his physician's garb
In the areas that the KRG Peshmerga forces have seized, especially in Kirkuk, the Kurds should follow a tolerant policy and one that shares oil production in the city and its environs.  The Governor of Kirkuk, Dr. Najmaldin Karim, an accomplished neurosurgeon, has already won much support from the Arab, Turkmen and Christian populations.  Indeed, the Kurds won 8 of the provinces 12 seats in last April's parliamentary elections (

 Speaking to Kirkuk residents in May, many said that Arabs and other had voted for Najmaldin Karim because he had dramatically improved city services and cut corruption.  Indeed, Kirkuk might become like Trieste after WWI, a city and governorate shared by both the KRG and Arab Iraq.

An understanding that Kurds and Arabs have not been engaged in continuous conflict based on so-called ‘ancient hatreds” is especially important for the new generation since 70% of Iraq’s population is under the age of 30.   

School curriculum, religious education by Kurdish and Arab clerics and priests working together to promote a curriculum of  tolerance, greater ties between Kurdish and Arab democratic forces and civil society organizations, e.g., women’s rights organizations, and summer camps that bring Kurdish and Arab youth together are just of the policies that could promote a new spirit of national reconciliation, especially among Iraqi youth, Iraq’s “generation in waiting” and future leaders.

No comments: