Iraq unrest highlights long-standing political divisions

October 22, 2017
Deeply divided. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) attends a session of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad. (AP)

London- 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
“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.”