Kurdish referendum fallout highlights contrasting fates of Abadi, Barzani

October 29, 2017
Different trajectories. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi (R) meeting with KRG President Masoud Barzani in Baghdad, last year. (AFP)

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.