A unified Iraq at stake after Kurdish referendum
The people of Kurdistan should be congratulated for engaging in matters of civic responsibility and turning out in such numbers for their referendum on independence from Iraq.
Kurds have been subjected to horrific repression and political violence before and during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Given the stability of the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq relative to other areas of the country since Saddam was overthrown in 2003, it is understandable why the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) seeks greater autonomy from Baghdad.
That said, the referendum on Kurdish independence is a distraction from more urgent political and security priorities in Iraq, including building up the capacity of the Iraqi government to project authority across the entire country, rolling back Iranian influence and defeating the last Islamic State (ISIS) holdouts.
Iraq’s Kurdish regions have been one of the few bright spots in the difficult transition from three decades of Ba’athist dictatorship after 2003. After years of division between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which included a four-year civil war in the 1990s, the parties reconciled in 2004 and worked together as the KRG carved out an autonomous niche in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The KRG assumed responsibility for most aspects of governance and security and increasingly bypassed Baghdad to build its own exporting capacity and deal directly with international buyers of its oil.
Developments since 2014 strained the KRG’s ability to stand alone and reinforced the need for unity in Iraq. The collapse in oil prices that began in June 2014 decimated the Iraqi budget just as ISIS surged across the Syrian border and captured large areas of western and northern Iraq.
Instead of cooperating against a common foe, Baghdad and the KRG engaged in a tit-for-tat struggle over whether the KRG could sign oil contracts independently of the Iraqi government. This resulted in the Iraqi government blocking payments to the KRG from the federal budget, plunging Kurdistan into economic crisis and leaving government workers unpaid for months.
Infighting between Erbil and Baghdad undermined Iraqi and international efforts in the fight against ISIS. The inability of the KRG to pay public-sector salaries extended to many of the peshmerga fighters on the front line whose operational capability was limited further by military equipment the KRG could no longer afford to acquire.
US attempts to broker a deal to end the stand-off failed to make headway and left the KRG unable to finance an expansion of the peshmerga ahead of the operation to retake Mosul from ISIS.
As the Iraqi government moves ahead with post-conflict reconstruction in Mosul and re-integrates other areas liberated from militants, it is vital that the global coalition for countering ISIS remains focused on the task and does not get distracted by the fallout from the two entities with boots on the ground.
Rebuilding Mosul and other villages and towns damaged by the fighting is a priority that will require a very considerable investment of time and resources over years but all this will be at risk if the city becomes part of a new front line with KRG-held territory less than a 100km away.
Any outbreak of conflict between the KRG and Baghdad would weaken British interests and strengthen those of our adversaries in Iraq. Moves to declare an independent Kurdistan will be resisted by Turkey — our NATO ally — and our partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who have swung round to the view that a strong Iraq is crucial to countering Iranian influence across the region.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have boosted political and economic ties with Iraq in recent months and will play an important role in getting the liberated areas back on their feet.
After years of acrimonious relations between Iraq’s Shia-led government and its Sunni Arab neighbours, the sudden thaw offers hope that the sectarian tensions that nearly tore Iraq apart can be overcome.
Finally, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi needs assistance as he tackles the paramilitary threat posed by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a loose collection of Shia militias that function as tools of Iranian influence in Iraq.
The PMF is a link in the chain of Iranian-backed “resistance” units and a part of the corridor of strategic influence connecting Iran to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria. Within Iraq, the PMF has contributed to the fragmentation of Iraqi military forces and has resisted Abadi’s attempts to bring them under control, leaving them in place as agents of Iran’s disruptive activities in Iraq and the wider region.
A unified Iraq is needed more than ever to push back against Iranian influence and ensure the final defeat of ISIS. Iraq remains a weak state vulnerable to internal divisions and external penetration but 2017 has seen significant progress in both areas.
The operation to retake Mosul took nearly a year of fighting but the hard work really starts now as the Iraqi government reasserts its authority and assists communities displaced by the conflict.
Economic weakness and security squabbling mean the KRG is not a credible governing alternative for the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.
At a time when real hope is on the horizon for the first time in years, Iraqis of all backgrounds must not squander the opportunities to move decisively away from decades of conflict and instability.