Middle East: Iraq
Kurdish independence referendum sparks power struggle with Iraqi government; Iraqi military takes control of central Kirkuk as Kurds flee
The autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq was expected to hold a referendum on full independence in late September 2017. Kurds make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East region, yet they do not belong to an actual nation state. Instead, the Kurdish diaspora is spread across the world. In Iraq, Kurds make up a significant minority of between 15 percent to 20 percent and have faced repression, before receiving some degree of autonomy in recent decades, albeit short of actual independence.
A week ahead of that long-anticipated independence referendum in 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi formally called for the suspension of the referendum, pending s Supreme Court ruling on its legality. However, since Iraq cannot actually enforce the prime minister's call, Kurdish leaders were well within their rights to go forward with the referendum. Indeed, Iraq's Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, insisted that the referendum would take place, as planned.
The political dissonance being produced by the referendum within Iraq aside, it was also cause for consternation internationally. Both Turkey and Iran, which are home to their own Kurdish populations with aspirations of self-determination, have opposed the notion of an independent Kurdish homeland. The prospect of an autonomous and sovereign Kurdistan would likely spur separatist leanings among Iranian Kurds, while emboldening the already-activated Kurdish Workers Party in Turkey (known by the acronym, PKK). With this possibility in mind, Turkey wasted little time in commencing military exercises close to its border with Iraq, and warning that it would respond to any perceived threats to Turkish sovereignty. Iran did likewise and launched joint military exercises with Iraqi troops along the borders with Iraq's Kurdistan region.
Even the United States entered the fray, expressing concern that the Kurdish independence vote could obstruct the effort against the Islamic State (IS) terror group in the region. Meanwhile, the government of the United Kingdom indicated that it was committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq. The United Kingdom's Defense Secretary Michael Fallon was expected to meet with Iraqi Kurdish leaders in Irbil, with an eye on suspending the vote and exploring alternative scenarios for Kurdish autonomy. Indeed, the only country to have outright support the Kurdish independence bid was Israel.
Irrespective of these aforementioned efforts to stymie and suppress the Kurds' independence aspirations, the referendum went forward and delivered decisive ratification for the path of sovereignty.
This development raised the anger of the Iraqi government, which was focused on the territorial integrity of the Iraqi nation state. Accordingly, the government of Iraq in Baghdad responded to the referendum be instituting international flights ban on Kurdish airports.
For allies in the region, as well as allied actors in the region, including the United States and the United Kingdom, there were anxieties that the independence move by the Kurds might hurt the effort to fight islamic State.
Turkey, as noted above, was perhaps the most opposed to an independent Kurdish state, given its longstanding fight with the Kurdish Workers Party (known by the acronym, PKK) in that country, which has been accused of acts of terrorism. Turkey, as discussed above, has long feared that an independent Kurdish nation state would only fuel the PKK. As such and in retaliation for the holding of the independence referendum, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned that his country would levy harsh sanctions on the Kurdish northern region of Iraq.
By October 2017, Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region announced that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held on Nov. 1, 2017. In reaction, the federal government of Iraq in Baghdad imposed sanctions on Kurdish banks and stopped foreign currency transfers to the Kurdish region. These punitive moves were intended to pressure the Kurds, given their ostensible efforts to further bolster and legitimize their autonomy -- presumably along a longer march to full independence. As well, the Iraqi government in Baghdad rejected an offer by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to discuss independence.
That being said, it should be noted that in the aftermath of the referendum, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) did not follow up by declaring independence. Indeed, the announcement of presidential and parliamentary elections were not intended to be for an independent state, but for the existing autonomous Kurdish region.
To that end, the presidency of the Kurdish region was an open question since Kurdish law stipulates a two term limit and incumbent President Masoud Barzani started his tenure in 2005, and his second term was extended in 2013 amidst violence in the region. Technically, it was unclear how Barzani could run for a third term, given current law. Regardless of who would actually be eligible for the presidency, the campaigning was set to commence in mid-October 2017.
While these tensions were flaring between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurds in the north, former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani died in Germany in early October 2017. The veteran politician was perhaps one of the country's most famous persons of Kurdish background. He suffered a stroke in 2012 and stepped down from power two years later.
Talabani was buried at a grave on the Dabashan hill overlooking Sulaimaniya close to his family home in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq. The Kurdish flag draped on his coffin provoked anger by Iraqis who objected to the president of the country being buried under the Kurdish flag and not the Iraqi flag. Of note, however, was the absence of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at Talabani's funeral.
Note that Talabani served as president of Iraq -- a post as head of state of Iraq; the election to the Kurdish presidency occupied by Barzani as of October 2017 was intended to fill the leadership post of the Kurdish autonomous region. Talabani's views about the Kurdish independence referendum of 2017 were unknown since he was too ill to speak on the matter. That being said, Talabani generally had good ties with the post-invasion central government in Iraq.
Note that the serving President of Iraq, as of Oct. 2017 was Fuad Masum, a Kurd.
In mid-October 2017, Kirkuk was turning into a flashpoint between Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga fighters, as the former drove out the latter from the southern outskirts. The government of Iraq in Baghdad declared: "The central government and regular forces will carry out their duty of defending the Iraqi people in all its components including the Kurds, and of defending Iraq's sovereignty and unity."
That statement from Baghdad was issued just before the expiration of a deadline for Kurdish peshmerga forces to withdraw from areas they took control in 2014 during the thick of battles against the Islamic State terrorist group. The city of Kirkuk would have to be viewed as high value terrain, with the broader province being home to three major oil fields. In the event of an independent Kurdistan, control over Kirkuk would be a matter of contestation since Baghdad and the Kurds would want oil revenues.
The Iraqi government in Baghdad said that it was targeting Kurdish peshmerga -- a key fighting force in the effort to drive out Islamic State terrorists from Iarq -- because there were "foreign" Kurdish forces among them.
The Iraqi government in Baghdad asserted that the presence of foreign Kurdish forces constituted a "declaration of war." Indeed, the National Security Council, led by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said some members of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were among "fighters not belonging to regular security forces in Kirkuk." The National Security Council characterized the development as "a dangerous escalation." Moreover, it added, "It is impossible to remain silent" given the "declaration of war towards Iraqis and government forces."
For their part, Kurdish officials denied that fighters from Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were in their midst. General Jabar Yawer, chief of the peshmerga ministry, said, "There are no PKK forces in Kirkuk, but there are some volunteers who sympathize with the PKK."
While there were talks going on in mid-October 2017, with an aim to tamp down tensions and resolving the dispute, there was no immediate breakthrough between the Iraqi government and Kurdish officials.
Instead, the Kurds were hardening their position with the issue of the Kurdish referendum coming back to the fore. Hemin Hawrami, an adviser to the Kurdish region's presidency, Barzani, said via twitter that the main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), were united in rejecting "any demands to nullify the referendum results" and to "refuse preconditions" on talks.
Note that on Oct. 16 2017, the Iraqi military entered central Kirkuk retaking areas that had been under Kurdish control since Kurdish forces fought Islamic State there years earlier. Of note, the Iraqi military said it had captured control of the K1 military base, the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field, as well as state-owned oil company's offices.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said via a statement that the operation in Kirkuk was necessary to "protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition" because of the independence referendum. He urged citizens to "cooperate" with Iraq's armed forces. Abadi also ordered the Iraqi flag to fly over the area. There were reports from Reuters news of Iraqi forces removing the Kurdish flag.
The Iraqi military's capture of Kirkuk from the Kurds caused Kurdish political parties to devolve into infighting with the Peshmerga General Command, led by President Massoud Barzani of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), accusing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of assisting in a "plot against the people of Kurdistan."
The Kurdish people of Kirkuk were reported to be fleeing as a result of the influx of Iraqi forces.
-- Oct. 16, 2017
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief