Does the recent deal on oil exports between the Iraqi Kurds and Haider al-Abadi’s new federal government in Baghdad end dreams of Kurdish independence? The interim agreement, prompted by the need to urgently maximise oil revenues, given falling prices, and also maximise unity against their common enemy, the so-called Islamic State, was widely welcomed.
It could prefigure a final reckoning of myriad disputes, and bolster stability. The initial mood music sounded sweet. Kurdistan prime minister Nechirvan Barzani said that ‘Abadi’s desire to reach an agreement was motivational’ and hoped for a new chapter in Arab-Kurdish relations without the threatening tone so common before from Baghdad. Warm relations are vital if Kurdistan remains in Iraq or becomes a neighbour and economic partner. Other good news from Baghdad includes an overdue purge of army corruption. Abadi appears to be a new broom after all.
The interim deal agreed at an executive level needs to be turned into a permanent one supported by the Iraqi parliament, where anti-Kurdish backwoodsmen lurk and could revive the deep pathologies that often bring Arab-Kurdish disputes to the boil. The pot is already being stirred by former prime minister Maliki, whose actions did much to alienate Sunnis and Kurds and weaken the Iraq state.
Even when Kurdistan was being attacked by Isis, Maliki refused to pay a dinar to Erbil through obligatory budget transfers. The new deal resumes budget payments and includes Baghdad paying the Peshmerga, which had never previously been funded by Baghdad although their official role was recognised in the 2005 constitution.
When Baghdad was blockading Kurdistan, where were the protests by poets, intellectuals or anyone? Nowhere. That there was no protest about the sabotage of the most successful part of Iraq and that kicking the Kurds was, and is, electorally popular in the Arab south, says much. It is not a happy federation.
The 2005 constitution, endorsed by most Iraqis in a referendum, should have prevented disputes between Baghdad and Erbil but was as much use to the hopes of a fully-fledged federalism as Stalin’s constitution was to human rights in the Soviet Union: great on paper but useless in practice. Arab Iraq has got used to insisting that the Kurds remain in Iraq and toe the Baghdad line but does not see the Kurds as equals. Deals come and go, and some may last longer than others, but the chauvinist mentality in Baghdad towards the Kurds seems permanent.
The possibility of independence suddenly came to the boil in June when Iraq lost a third of its territory to Isis and its Ba-athist allies, who overnight established a 650-mile hot border with Kurdistan. Iraq broke into three pieces. But independence simmered down when Isis forces came perilously close to the Kurdish capital, Erbil, in August.
The dream persists but the Kurds live in a landlocked country and dread the risks of breaking from Baghdad. Some think that Baghdad can be reformed, others are closer to Iran which favours Iraqi unity with Shias in the driving seat, and others are closer to Turkey. Many fear jumping from the Iraqi frying pan into the Turkish fire, although the relationship between Kurdistan and energy-hungry Turkey is now good. But most Kurds would jump at independence if they could maintain imports, exports, passports, airports, security and dignity.
America and Britain, as status quo powers, understandably fear that unravelling borders in the Middle East could spark massive bloodshed. The minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood was recently grilled by the foreign affairs select committee as part of its inquiry into British policy on Kurdistan. He commented that ‘the Kurds are actually the largest minority population in the world without their own country,’ to which the chair and Conservative member of parliament Richard Ottaway retorted, in an aside that speaks volumes about possible new thinking on Kurdistan, ‘I am not sure if it will be long before they have their own country’. Labour figures share this view. Such discussion was theoretical, even heretical, when the influential committee began its inquiry nearly a year ago.
A key figure in American foreign policy, Richard Haass, who was a senior adviser to George Bush and now president of the Council of Foreign Relations, praises the effectiveness of the Kurds in fighting Isis. He adds that it could be too late for Iraq to survive intact with a ‘maybe’ for its break-up.
Unity against Isis is vital but opinion-formers should also prepare for the possibility of a Kurdistan Republic (perhaps even joining the Commonwealth) or a loose confederation. We helped the Kurds in their hour of need, and more aid and arms are needed. One day, we could welcome them to the international community as a sovereign nation and ally.
Gary Kent is director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region and writes in a personal capacity
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