The dispute between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil may have escalated in September but the conditions that brought about the unrest have been present since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The latest fallout stems from KRG President Masoud Barzani’s call for a referendum on Kurdish independence despite objections from the central government and much of the international community. Most Kurdish voters said “yes” in the September 25 referendum but Baghdad branded it as unconstitutional.
“Has our great constitution even been a reference for us to solve our problems? Today, both Arabs and Kurds say let’s go back to the constitution. They go to the constitution but find no solution,” Izzat al-Shahbandar, a former Iraq parliament member, told al-Sharqiya TV.
“There was no Iraqi state at all after 2003. No one thought of the state: Not from the Shias, not from the Sunnis nor from the Kurds. The constitution was not written to build a state,” said Shahbandar, a Shia politician.
Shahbandar said the whole Iraqi process needed to be revised to minimise ethnic and sectarian divisions.
A similar referendum called by Iraqi Kurdish authorities in 2005 did not attract as much controversy as the latest poll, presumably because it was carried out in the recognised KRG region: Erbil and Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah provinces. The inclusion of the so-called disputed territories in the referendum infuriated the central government and much of the country’s non-Kurdish community.
“Yazidis, in particular, say they were abandoned by Kurdish forces to be massacred and sexually enslaved by [Islamic State] militants,” wrote Tamer el-Ghobashy in the Washington Post.
The United Nations previously tried to resolve the problem of the disputed areas.
“In 2008-09, the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) carried out an extensive study on what it called Iraq’s ‘Disputed Internal Boundaries’ (DIBs) and proposed specific ways forward to settle the question of the Kurdish region’s boundary and the disposition of the income derived from the sale of oil and gas located there,” wrote Maria Fantappie, a senior Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Fantappie suggested renewing the UNAMI mandate “to address the DIBs question as a matter of priority.”
Political divisions are not just between Baghdad and Erbil. The timing of the referendum was questioned by Kurds who feared that it was being used by Barzani as a pretext to consolidate his powers and crackdown on dissent.
“Once the referendum was certain, the [Barzani-led Kurdish Democratic Party] KDP would have branded leaders of the other parties as traitors if they abstained or voted against independence,” wrote Christine McCaffray van den Toorn in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank.
Following the fallout with Baghdad and the KRG’s cancellation of parliamentary and presidential elections, Barzani’s Kurdish rivals — most notably the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran Movement (Movement for Change) — have been more vocal in their criticism of the referendum.
In Baghdad, politicians are also divided. Pro-Iran Iraqi politicians have painted Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as a weak leader who is overseeing the breakup of Iraq. When Abadi ordered Iraqi forces to reclaim federal territories from Kurdish peshmerga control, his critics — on opposing ends — attributed his military success to the help of Iran.
“The United States sees in the Abadi government a critical buffer against Iran and fears that the balance of power may shift towards Iran if it distances itself from Baghdad or if Abadi cannot hold on to the disputed territories his forces have just retaken,” wrote Fantappie.
Although US President Donald Trump said he is not taking sides in the Baghdad-Erbil dispute, Iraqi politicians said they have Washington’s support.
“We have a strategic framework agreement with the United States, signed in 2008, which states very clearly that the United States of America is behind a united federal Iraq. That’s why they are supporting the government to regain control in the disputed territories,” Mowaffak al-Rubaie, member of parliament and former Iraq national security adviser, told Al Jazeera TV.
The United States, which backs Iraq’s central government and the KRG, was urged to mediate de-escalation between Baghdad and Erbil before Iraq’s national elections next April.
“America’s goals in Iraq over the critical six-month period leading up to April’s vote should be to persuade both sides in the Baghdad-Kurdistan dispute to avoid further conflict for now while Washington helps Abadi to deliver election-winning progress on growth, services, and security,” Douglas Ollivant, a director for Iraq of the US National Security Council during the Bush and Obama administrations, wrote for the website warontherocks.com.
“If the United States can bring the Iraqis and Kurds towards a ‘grand bargain’ that helps to further reduce Iranian influence, so much the better.”
Mamoon Alabbasi is Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor of The Arab Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter @MamoonAlabbasi