Kurdish referendum fallout highlights contrasting fates of Abadi, Barzani
LONDON - The dispute between the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, headed by Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, led by KRG President Masoud Barzani, contrasts the trajectories of the two leaders’ fortunes.
The two are at loggerheads after Barzani proceeded with a referendum on the Kurdistan region’s independence from Iraq, despite calls by Abadi and regional and international leaders to scrap the move.
Prior to the referendum, the KRG had effective rule over most of the disputed territories that the Iraqi Army had lost to the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014. It controlled two international airports and revenue from Kirkuk’s oil sales even though Baghdad was paying the city’s expenses.
Most of those privileges have been lost since Iraqi forces, supported by the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), captured the disputed areas.
The Kurdish nationalist sentiment that the referendum had stirred allowed Barzani to trump criticism from his Kurdish rivals who were calling for the resumption of elections in the KRG. Barzani had suspended parliament and held on to the presidency even though his mandate expired in 2015.
The opposition Gorran Movement (Movement for Change) is calling for Barzani’s resignation. Bafel Talabani, the son of the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, branded the referendum a “colossal mistake.” Many Kurds accused Barzani of gambling with their gains for his own political interest.
The referendum appears to have stirred Iraqi nationalist sentiments as well among the country’s Arab, Turkmen and other communities, almost all united on preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity.
The crisis also boosted the fortunes of Abadi. Initially, the prime minister was criticised by Baghdad’s pro-Iran politicians as being too weak to hold the country together but after swiftly reversing all KRG gains since 2014, Abadi is being viewed by many as a strong leader who can chart an independent course for Iraq.
Abadi’s critics, however, contended that his swift military success came with the help of Tehran. This could explain why Abadi rejected a call by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for Iran-backed militias to go home, as it could have been understood as an admission that Tehran does indeed call the shots in Baghdad and an acceptance of US meddling in Iraq.
In both cases, Abadi would have been undermined, which is something that Washington did not wish to happen.
“US support of Kirkuk operation — misguided or not — should be understood largely as an attempt to protect Abadi’s political flank from Iran,” said Ben Van Heuvelen, editor-in-chief of Iraq Oil Report, on Twitter.
Abadi’s recent tour of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Iran is understood to signal that Iraq wants close relations with all countries in the region and will no longer be confined to the orbit of Tehran.
While Abadi is predicted to win in Iraq’s general elections next April, Barzani is facing mounting pressure to step down. In the midst of tensions and military clashes, Barzani has yet to make a public appearance while Abadi was hopping from one capital to another.