A Kurdish television interviewer recently demanded I give a straight yes or no answer on Iraqi Kurdish independence. It was difficult because, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, there are so many known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. But I have been deliberately diplomatic about this for longer.
British imperialism played a major role in enforcing Iraqi unity nearly 100 years ago, as it did in dividing Ireland. Involvement with Ireland led me to reject the British left’s timeless fixation with Irish unity and to conclude that outsiders should avoid fighting to the last drop of other people’s blood. I could see the merits of Iraqi
Kurdish independence and the benefits of Iraqi federalism. But that settlement is becoming far less tenable in Iraq.
Since the Kurds exercised their right to self-determination by rejoining the previously genocidal Iraq in 2003, it has been easier to see what Iraq gains from the Kurds: a model of security and prosperity that could be emulated in the rest of the country. Their more experienced politicians also brokered the deals that brought together a national unity coalition, essential in a country divided between two nations and two major sects between the two rivers.
There has been much intermarriage but the faultlines are essentially unchanged. Labour Friends of Iraq sought to boost fledgling forces such as unions which could consolidate non-sectarian politics, but with mixed success.
When the Americans left in 2011, the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki immediately let rip with many moves to marginalise the Sunnis and the Kurds. All promises made to the Kurds have been ratted on as Maliki bypassed Kurdish ministers and the Iraqi parliament.
The provisions in the Iraqi constitution to settle disputes about territories claimed by the Kurds were kicked into the long grass. Maliki has just declared that he will never implement this constitutional requirement. It symbolises his bad faith but is irrelevant now that the Kurds control all formerly disputed territories.
The Kurds were entitled to 17 per cent of the central budget but never received this. Maliki arbitrarily cut all budget transfers in January. The Kurdish prime minister asked how he could help cope with what he assumed was a budgetary problem affecting all Iraqis, only to be told that this was solely directed against the Kurds.
Then came Isis, incubated by Maliki’s savaging of Sunni rights, and the Iraqi army collapsed. Yet Maliki and his supporters will not budge on the budget, will not pay the Peshmerga – the only efficient military force left in Iraq – and unblock oil exports, as recently mandated by the federal supreme court. Even now the Kurds are abiding by the federal constitution and, even if Maliki will not follow it, they will share oil revenues according to the constitution, minus accumulated arrears.
If Maliki were a leader of any stature he would have stood down by now in favour of a truly inclusive leader and government that could reunite the Shias and the Kurds, who both suffered enormously at the hands of Saddam Hussein. A non-sectarian successor could extend a hand of friendship to the Sunnis and undercut the appeal of Isis.
But Maliki is still there and fast becoming one of the best arguments for the Kurds to go their own way and escape servitude in Iraq. Things would have to change radically for the Kurds to willingly remain in Iraq
The priority is to roll back or contain the vengeful and brutal forces at loose in the new Sunni entity. This also requires helping the Kurds defend their new 1,000 km border with it and that means supplying munitions and specialist military support.
The Kurds are set to hold a referendum on independence within months and exercise their right to self-determination. Their answer will, I am sure, be overwhelmingly clear. They hope that if there is no better offer other countries will not actively resist their claim even if they do not actively support it.
It is becoming increasingly feasible that the Kurds will no longer remain in the cold house that Iraq again became and parts of which are now ablaze. The response to the yes or no question on independence is becoming a definite maybe.
Gary Kent, director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region and of Labour Friends of Iraq, has just returned from his 18th visit to Iraq since 2006. He writes in a personal capacity
international, Iraq, Kurdistan, Middle East, Nouri al-Maliki