An independent Iraqi Kurdistan: further away than ever?

Mon 30 Oct 2017

An independent Iraqi Kurdistan: further away than ever?

One month after the failed independence referendum, the curtain falls for Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani. The President of the three autonomous provinces in northern Iraq announced his resignation in a television speech on 29 October. Iraqi Kurdistan parliament approved his request to step down on 1 November. However, the announcement of the KRG President went not without incidents. Armed supporters of Barzani stormed the closed session of the parliament as it met to discuss Barzani’s request not to renew his term as President. Several MPs and journalists were attacked, only managing to leave the building later that evening. In response, the Iraqi governmental body on Communication and Media Communication issued a ban on two Kurdish television channels close to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Rudaw and Kurdistan 24.

Furthermore, offices of Iraqi Kurdish opposition parties Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Movement for Change and Gorran were looted and burned down in several cities in the Duhok region overnight. The KRG said it had ordered local police forces to stop the attacks.

Northern Iraq in turmoil
The push to hold a non-binding independence referendum has backfired, as the overwhelming ‘yes’-vote was not recognized by the central government in Baghdad. Iran and the US rejected the results of the Kurdish referendum as well. Iran cut its oil-imports from the Kurdish region. The US denounced the referendum, saying the referendum draws attention away from the fight against ISIS in northern Iraq. Barzani condemned the US for failing to back the Iraqi Kurds, as both Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed paramilitaries seized areas held by Kurdish Peshmerga forces outside the autonomous Kurdish region over the past two weeks. The disputed areas are claimed by both Baghdad and the KRG. According to Barzani, the troops of Iraq used US weapons. ‘’Our people should now question, whether the U.S. was aware of Iraq’s attack and why they did not prevent it,’’ he said.

Also Turkey, which has supported the Iraqi Kurds for a long time, denounced the referendum results, and stopped training Peshmerga militias fighting ISIS, as it feared that the referendum would invoke separatist movements in Turkey. The country also closed its oil-pipelines. Furthermore, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent military vehicles to Turkey’s border with northern Iraq. In coordination with Iran and Iraq, the forces held military exercises.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sent troops to expel Kurdish Peshmerga forces from the oil-rich area of Kirkuk, outside the autonomous provinces of the KRG. The region had been controlled by the Kurdish armed groups since 2014, after Iraqi troops left the area in fear of ISIS. However, Kirkuk as well as other disputed areas outside the Kurdish autonomous region were seized by Iraqi troops as well as Iranian-backed Shiite militias without much fight over the last two weeks. The KRG-led government criticized the quick recapturing of the main oil centre. During his television speech in which he announced his resignation, Barzani said PUK founder Jalal Talabani, who died in early October, had been guilty of ‘’high treason’’ for capitulating without a fight. The loss of Kirkuk is a major blow, as the KRG heavily depends on it for its revenues. In addition to military intervention, the central government in Baghdad imposed economic sanctions on the KRG. The air space for flights from the Kurdish autonomous region was closed and oil imports from northern Iraq were stopped.

What will happen next?
Barzani’s downfall exposed deep fractures among the Iraqi Kurds. Although they seem to be united from the outside, they are divided between supporters of the KDP, who are mainly based in the area around the regional capital Erbil, and supporters of PUK, who mostly live in the second biggest city Suleimaniya. The two main political parties have a deep history of conflict. In the 1990s, they fought each other in a civil war.

Iraqi PM Abadi said on 27 October that border crossings between the Kurdish region and Turkey, Iran and Iraq will also be seized by Iraqi forces, suggesting the military intervention has not ended yet. However, the step down by Barzani could help to facilitate reconciliation talks with Baghdad. Baghdad and Peshmerga forces already started talks on 27 and 28 October, after Abadi announced a 24-hour suspension of military operations. A second round of talks was held on 29 October. The question is whether the talks will bear results. Abadi dismissed the proposal of the KRG in which it asked the suspension of the referendum and to start talks with Baghdad. ‘’We won’t accept anything but its cancellation and the respect of the constitution,’’ the Iraqi PM said. Furthermore, the question is who will be next the president of the autonomous Kurdish region. Some say current KRG Prime Minister and Barzani’s nephew Nechirvan Barzani might have a good shot. Anyway, the resignation of Barzani has created a gap, as presidential and parliamentary elections have been postponed by eight months now. What will happen to the presidency in the interim is therefore unclear.

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Red: three autonomous provinces led by KRG; Lines: Disputed areas (Wiki)

Sources: Reuters Al Jazeera Al Arabiya Al Arabiya I Al Arabiya II