On July 3 the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani proposed the local parliament to hold a referendum on the separation of the Region from Iraq. A vast majority of deputies must support this motion since it coincides with the Kurdish national idea of and an old dream of them being able to create a national state.
After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the Kurds took an active part in the formation of a new state and they have become a sort of a link between the Arab Shiite majority and the Sunni Arab minority. Kurds allowed the state to overcome parliamentary and governmental crises and preserved Iraq as a nation. But now the credit of trust that was provided to the government of Nouri al-Maliki on the elections of 2006 elapsed. The negligent actions of this highly corrupted government had no chance of consolidating different ethnic and religious groups, and, in fact, ruined the country.
The removal of the Sunni minority from power and its consequent discrimination led to civil disobedience, outbreaks of violence and terror and, ultimately, full scale rebellion in Sunni provinces. This fact was exploited by the international radical Islamist organization “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), which managed to establish control over the western, central and northern provinces of Iraq largely due to the support provided by the local Sunni groups. The Iraqi troops fled the battlefields in panic, leaving samples of modern heavy weapons and military equipment behind. There is a real threat that the militants can launch an assault against Baghdad and Kirkuk. They have already been opposed by the Peshmerga (armed Kurdish forces) that took the protection of the population of Kirkuk in their own hands.
The Iraqi Kurds that have until recently been in a somewhat better position than the Sunni Arabs population of Iraq believe that they were betrayed by the central government. Formally, they had a number of representatives in Baghdad and enjoyed a considerable autonomy in their region. But Nouri al-Maliki has clearly sabotaged the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which provided a step-by-step road map to the peaceful solution to the issue of administrative subordinacy of the native Kurdish city of Kirkuk and the adjacent oil-bearing regions. Iraqi Prime Minister has as well derailed the adoption of new bills on hydrocarbons and the law on the special status of the Peshmerga units. Recently the federal budget has stopped allocating oil money on the development of the Kurdish region, even those 17% that were due under the current legislation were not provided.
Nouri al-Maliki has also lost the unconditional support of its fellow-Shiites among the Kurds. His appointment to second term was criticized by a number of representatives of the Shiite community in Iraq, including Imam Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Note that both Ayatollah al-Sistani and Imam al-Sadr enjoy the support of the neighboring Iran.
The inability to rebuild the infrastructure that had been destroyed by the war, poor health protection and education, constant shortages of water and electricity supplies have become the last straw for the al-Maliki’s office. Billions of dollars from the export of oil and gas were being stolen or spent on irrational weapon purchasing. Under the present conditions Massoud Barzani was forced to appeal to the regional parliament with his initiative.
The reaction to this step shown by the internal and the external players was predictable. Baghdad saw this as an attempt to jeopardize Iraqi sovereignty and its territorial integrity, hence it made a number of harsh statements, it’s clear that this position is supported by the Shia majority of the country. Sunnis don’t like the idea of the separation of Kurdistan as well, but they are occupied with more vital concerns, since they are basically at war with the al-Maliki regime. Turkmens, Christians and those Shia Arabs that are living in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kirkuk or Mosul are seeking refuge from the ISIL militants so they are taking neutral standing.
As for the regional players, Israel has expressed an unconditional support for the right of self-determination for the Iraqi Kurds, Turkey and a number of other Arab states have cautiously embraced this development. The most abrupt criticism came from Tehran, which considers the creation of a new Kurdish state nothing less than a “project of the US and Israel.” Iranian leaders fear the emergence of a new major competitor in the oil and gas trade along with the growing Turkish influence in northern Iraq. They are particularly concerned with the transition of the Kirkuk oil field in the hands of Irbil. Iranian emissaries are engaged in an active political bargaining in an attempt to persuade Barzani to cooperate with al-Maliki and to deploy armed Kurdish forces on the side of the Iraqi Shiites, or at least get them to fight the ISIL units. This has not been explicitly mentioned, but Tehran is clearly concerned that Iraqi Kurds can serve as a “bad” example for Iranian Kurds that can engage in a fight for their national rights and freedoms in Iran (by some estimates, a total of 8.9 million Kurds dwells in Iran). Massoud Barzani, in his turn, tries to explain to Tehran that an independent Kurdistan is not a threat to Iran, it’s nothing but a necessary measure to protect the Kurds.
Washington, Brussels and a number of other Western powers continue to mechanically declare the necessity to preserve at all costs the territorial integrity of Iraq and make all efforts to overcome yet another crisis of the Iraqi government. In the present situation they have still managed to initiate the summon of a new Iraqi parliament on July 15, which elected a Sunni politician Selim al-Juburi as Parliament speaker. The parliament now has to elect a new President (since it’s a purely ceremonial post it will and most likely be given to a Kurd) and the Prime Minister. Thus, the visibility of a coalition of the major Iraqi ethnic and religious groups will be retained, although in fact the real power will still be concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. It is also assumed that the Arab-Shiite majority in parliament will support their own protege. Despite his shaky seat, Nouri al-Maliki has not yet abandoned the idea of fighting for this post for the third time. But more and more politicians in the country and abroad are beginning to understand that the preservation of the sitting government in Iraq — is a disaster for the country. Washington and Tehran are trying to pick al-Maliki’s successor from among the Arab-Shiite elite which will still be able to represnt their national interests in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Arab-Shiite majority in Iraq is split into separate factions and they cannot agree on a future candidate. Washington and Brussels, judging by the situation on the ground in Iraq, believe that the state can undergo the process of disintegration into two or three enclaves, hence a new Kurdish state will be created.
Although Massoud Barzani has asked the parliament to form a regional election commission and set a specific date for the referendum, it’s still too early to make any conclusions. Apparently, the negotiations on the issue are still being held on the regional and international levels. The parties have a chance to find a reasonable compromise, and in this case, even when the referendum is scheduled there are chances to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq.
Stanislav Ivanov, a leading researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, PhD in history, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“