The Kurdish Future in Iraq: Independence or Confederation

by Mohammed A. Salih

Ebril — The Iraqi Kurdish media and public are these days buzzing with heated discussions about independence. The reason is simple: never before has there been such a promising opportunity for Kurds to establish their own state.

Even prior to the recent crisis in Iraq, the situation was not promising for Kurds. In addition to the ongoing political bickering between the politicians in Baghdad and the Kurdish capital, Erbil, the Iraqi government’s decision to cut off the Kurdish region’s share of the national budget meant that average people in Kurdistan were seriously affected.

Since the Baghdad government halted the Kurdish region’s budget in February, the Kurdish government has struggled to pay the hundreds of thousands of people on its payroll on time. With the government being the largest employer in this region of nearly 5 million people, the local economy has considerably slowed down. Moreover, there are now serious security threats posed by the Islamic State (IS) to the west and south of the Kurdish borders. Public services such as electricity, fuel and roads were always the cause of many complaints in Kurdistan even before this crisis. Now with the territory under the direct control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) expanded by over 30 percent, power and fuel shortages have become even more frequent.

Against this backdrop, pro-independence sentiments are rising among Kurds. With Iraq stumbling from one major crisis into another with no end in sight, the vast majority of Kurds have lost whatever faith they might have had in the idea of a functioning Iraq. Baghdad’s regression in the last couple of years to strong-arm policies of the past, such as using overt and covert military threats to cut the budget that so many people here desperately rely on have also worsened the situation.

With Baghdad now mired in conflict against the IS-led Sunni Arab militants, and Kurdistan’s border with the Iraqi government reduced to around 15 km from the over 1,000 km just before June 10, many in Kurdistan believe it’s time to break away from Iraq.

A major factor inspiring pro-independence feelings — in addition to the lack of trust in the Baghdad government and the desire to avoid the bloody conflict between Sunni rebels and the Iraqi army — are the opportunities that the idea of an independent Kurdish nation promises. With Kurdistan sitting on top of around 50 billion barrels of oil, an independent Kurdish state enjoying a reasonable level of regional and international recognition could experience unprecedented levels of prosperity and strength. If the Kurdish government can achieve its stated production target of one million barrels per day some time next year, it could achieve an income of around $35 to $40 billion per year. That figure is about triple the amount the KRG received from Baghdad last year.

Many Kurdish officials appear to be encouraged by the mix of relatively suitable conditions for secession and the prospects in store.

“We as Kurds are tired with what is going on in Baghdad,” Hemin Hewrami, a senior KDP official told me in early July after a session of the Kurdish Parliament when the President of the Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, called on lawmakers to set in motion a process expected to result in a referendum on independence. He was quick to point out that there will be “no rolling back.”

Baghdad appears unable to react. Despite pronouncing their opposition to the idea of a Kurdish state, many here believe Turkey and much of the western world will eventually come to terms with an independent Kurdistan. Iran is the only country that has expressed strong sentiments against Kurdish independence. It fears that Iraq’s central government will be further weakened without Kurdish involvement, and worries that Kurdistan’s independence might stir up stronger nationalistic fervor among its own sizable Kurdish population. Nevertheless, Iran’s trade with Kurdistan amounts to billions of dollars every year, so given the severe international sanctions against its economy, Tehran might eventually accept the idea of an independent Kurdistan to maintain its business interests and political influence. Meanwhile, much of the Arab world has remained silent on the matter, which has been perceived here as a covert sign of consent.

A major impediment to independence appears to be internal as the two most powerful Kurdish parties –- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — don’t see eye to eye over the push for independence.

While Barzani’s KDP has been very vocally supportive of the push at this time, the PUK (led by Iraq’s ailing President Jalal Talabani) seems to be divided over the matter.

However, if the referendum does take place, the people will ultimately make the decision and the consensus seems to be that they will vote overwhelmingly for independence.

Even if Kurdistan doesn’t achieve independence any time soon, many believe the nature of the relationship between the Kurds and the Iraqi government will change forever as a result of the current crisis. Kurdish leaders are already saying that if Kurds don’t declare independence, they will accept nothing less than a confederational arrangement where Kurdistan will further upgrade its autonomy from Baghdad.

“Our party has called for either independence or confederation,” Rizgar Ali, a senior PUK official told me in his office in Erbil last week. “There are no binders between Kurds and Iraq now…and Kurds cannot be a spectator forever.”

Talking to people here in Erbil, it’s hard to find someone who wants the old arrangement to persist.

Photo: Kurdish Peshmerga Keep Fragile Peace In Kirkuk. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Mohammed A. Salih is a journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. He has written for almost a decade about Kurdish and Iraqi affairs for local and international media.

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  1. Don’t know the politics, but there’s no reason to doubt the wanting of independence, especially for what it gives. At least this shows one bright spot in the M.E. toward democracy. Hope they achieve what they want. Who knows, perhaps if they do, others may also decide that’s the way to go. Peace in the M.E.? Sure hope so.

  2. A Confederation is certainly the only viable solution. While it will trigger similiar problematic requests in Turkey, Iran and Syria, it will still be acceptable to the Arabs.
    In case the KRG pushes for independence it will meet strong negative and probably violent reactions from the Iraqi Arabs and all the neighbors. The “independent” Kurdistan will find itself geographically and economically dependent exclusively on Turkeyas it has no access to a sea. Not a viable situation, indeed.
    Of course the Kurds, like many ethnic groups dream of being independent but they are not aware of the price they may have to pay in the long run.

  3. I have followed the Kurds’ quest for independence for decades. And there are several things that stick out: a) a lot of it hinges on certain patriotic iconic families that stand for the decades-long struggle for independence (leaving aside the PKK in Turkey) and b) the Kurds are spread across three states at least neither of which wants them to gain independence because they fear (probably rightly so) that only one independent Kurdish state, on whatever territory, will attract the other non-independent provinces who will vote for joining this new state. Now Iraq being the mess that it is the Kurds there have a fair chance of seceding without being hindered effectively. This will bring the tension within Turkey to a boil and immediately affect NATO and EU. So I would speculate that all intelligence services are hard at work to paralyze the Kurdish attempts.

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