Iraqi Kurds see fortunes reversed after referendum
In less than a month the fortunes of Iraqi Kurdistan, its leaders and inhabitants have reversed.
Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence and optimism appeared to reign. The referendum, however, brought complications and immediate repercussions and illuminated systemic problems within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including political and economic dysfunction and general social malaise.
Then the unthinkable occurred. Iraq’s federal government, aided heavily by Iran-sponsored militias in the form of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), moved to occupy territory that had been under Kurdish control since 2014. What followed was a remarkable reversal of fortune for the KRG.
“Peshmerga has retreated from all disputed areas without exception,” said Abdulla Hawez, a King’s College London researcher looking at Kurdish politics and society. The retreat was an embarrassment and created great tension within Iraqi Kurdistan.
KRG President Masoud Barzani, who is among the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), blamed the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for the retreat.
The situation was exacerbated in recent days. Hawez said: “Now Iraqi forces and PMF are advancing even further. So Kurdish leaders are realising, if they just leave areas, the Iraqi forces won’t stop there but push to advance even further.”
Many Iraqi Kurds are deeply disheartened. The loss of Kirkuk, a symbolic city with real significance to many Kurds, stands out among the rapid reversal Iraq’s Kurds have suffered.
Paul Iddon, an Irish journalist in Erbil, said: “Friends and locals I know feel betrayed. In the immediate aftermath of Kirkuk, people were devastated and felt demoralised. Kirkuk is everything to a lot of people here.”
Initially, despite stories of extensive resistance from peshmerga around Kirkuk, there was little violence. It is assumed that a covert deal had been struck by the PUK, whose peshmerga largely defended Kirkuk, and the advancing Iraqi state and PMF forces.
Hawez noted that on October 23 there had been limited clashes in Altun Kupri between Kirkuk and Erbil but there have been no further fighting in that area.
Since then, there has been additional fighting between the PMF and the peshmerga. “Clashes were reported in Makhmur in Erbil province and in Mahmudiyah, near [the] Rabia border crossing with Syria and in Telskuf in north-eastern Mosul,” Hawez said.
Aside from rare outbreaks of violence, however, the KRG appears to be seeking to avoid confrontation. Its peshmerga is capable of fighting the PMF and Iraqi state forces but are deliberately refraining from doing so.
The KRG announced that the contentious referendum result had been frozen. This took place in a climate dominated by the threat posed by the PMF and after the United States effectively failed to demonstrate any support for Iraq’s Kurds.
Emma Sky wrote in the Atlantic that, because the “United States stated that it would not take sides in what it viewed as a dispute between the Iraqi government and the KDP, instigated by Barzani,” mediation between the KRG and Iraqi state forces “is unlikely to be from Americans.”
Kamal Chomani, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, said: [The KRG] has “realised that, if they do not suspend it, then the situation will get even more severe and if they do not resolve the issues, then Baghdad will take other measures.”
He said: “The KDP and PUK are afraid for their existence now.”
Barzani, who has been blamed for much of the crisis, is likely to leave office. He already exceeded the limits of his official term. Paradoxically, this leaves the way clear for continued KDP control of Iraqi Kurdistan politics by other means but offers little prospect of a solution to the crisis.
The PMF and Iraqi forces have moved deeper into Kurdish territory. Rumours abound that the PMF, unrestrained by international pressure, may push the KRG into a confrontation. In truth, however, the Iraqi state and the Iran-backed PMF with which it is working have secured a strategic triumph. They have stolen the initiative from the KRG.
Calling the referendum, which seemed to symbolise a new age of Kurdish prosperity and promise, appears to have been a terrible mistake, all the more bitter because it did not have to be.