Post-referendum tension in Iraq

02 Kasım 2017

Iraq has been in turmoil one way or another since Saddam Hussein, the former president of Iraq, decided to invade Iran in September 1980. The latest twist in the 37 years of turbulence came with the decision of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani to hold an independence referendum on Sept. 25 in territories controlled by the KRG. While the referendum went ahead despite opposition from all regional and international actors except Israel, the obviously miscalculated policy ended in military and economic retaliation from Iraq’s central government, assortment of sanctions from neighboring Iran and Turkey, and chaos in Kurdish politics.

The deciding move was the central government’s decision to send military forces to recapture the oil-rich Kirkuk province, which was controlled by the Kurds since 2014, and to push Kurdish forces further to the north from the disputed areas. On Oct. 16, Iraqi forces took control of the Kirkuk province without any serious confrontation and then captured all territories that the KRG seized amid its weakness against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Not stopping there, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi asked for the return of the control of “all border crossings in and out of Iraq” and international airports to the central government. Finally, on Oct. 31, Iraqi forces, accompanied with Turkish troops, moved to take control of the Habur Border Gate, controlled by the Kurds since 1991.

The fall of Kirkuk and the loss of control over its crossing point to Turkey without the central government’s interference have been major blows to Kurdish hopes of independence on Iraqi territory. Besides the symbolic and sentimental reasons, the loss of Kirkuk’s oilfields has halved the KRG’s revenues and heavily weakened its hand in negotiations with the central government. The loss of the border crossing will also limit its freedom of movement and endanger its logistical supply line as well as most of its revenues.

Amid this turbulence, Barzani resigned on Oct. 30 as the president of the KRG, which was expiring on Nov. 1, without waiting for the elections, which was delayed yet again for eight months with the decision of the KRG parliament last week. He had been leading the KRG since 2005, and will still be a decisive figure in the Kurdish political scene despite his resignation. As he retains his leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), he would most likely determine the interim president of the KRG, which is expected to be his nephew, the current Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.

The heightened political rivalry between the Kurdish groups, the constant pressure from the central government, and the positions of the neighboring Iran and Turkey will shape the future of the KRG in the coming days. While the Kurds suffered a setback and the Iraqi government has been emboldened with its swift success in reclaiming lost territory, the situation remains volatile and ripe for further escalation of conflict, as the Kurds would not be willing to give up their gains obtained since Saddam’s fall from power after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

While Iraq has remained in a vicious circle of terrorism, political killings, war, and conflict since the U.S.’s withdrawal in December 2011, the future is now in the hands of its politicians, much more than any time since 2003. Particularly the negotiations with the Kurds would be critical along with the upcoming parliamentary election in May 2018. Al-Abadi should avoid the mistake of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies, which is still the most divisive factor in Iraq. As the saying goes, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”