Both regional and internal factors are pushing the Kurds to have a referendum but it does not necessarily mean that independence for the Kurds will be declared immediately after, nor does it mean that the road ahead will be easy especially in light of a huge obstacle called Kirkuk.
In Iraq, Iran got what it wanted. The regime in Iraq now is sectarian and it’s no secret that its backbone is the Iran-backed sectarian militias of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). So, what can the Kurds do in these circumstances especially when the central government in Baghdad needs every dollar of the oil revenues?
The Iraqi Kurds have slowly lost any power they had within the central government. At some time, Jalal Talabani, former president of Iraq, had been able to secure a minimum of Kurdish participation in the central government in deference to the man’s personal political history and also to his personal relations with Iran. There was also Hoshyar Zebari as Foreign Affairs minister during Talabani’s term. But Talabani had to leave office because of illness and Zebari was pushed out of office.
In Iraq, everything has been dispersing at all levels. The city of Mosul had been handed over to the Islamic State (ISIS) then was recaptured in 2017 in highly obscure circumstances. It turned out that the objective of the Mosul campaign was not to just recapture the city but rather to destroy it to ascertain the legitimacy of the PMF with the blessings of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The thing about Kurdish independence and the future of Iraqi Kurds is that no agreement will be possible without first settling the question of Kirkuk and its underground sea of oil. There is also the question of the Turkmen who are settled in Kirkuk. The Kurds, however, have the advantage of lessons learned from the tough experiences of their recent past including the open confrontation between the two major Kurdish nationalist parties. The post-2003 experiment of an Independent Kurdistan Region was rather convincing. The semi-independent region provided a safe haven for all Iraqis fleeing sectarian hegemony. Christian Iraqis, Yazidis, and even Sunni Arabs found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite everything, the region was pretty stable.
Independent Kurdistan was an interesting experiment because there were people who were thinking about the future rather than ruminating on the past. There were projects for cosmopolitan cities where all Iraqis would be welcomed regardless of their sect or ethnicity. There was thinking about having reasonable relations with Turkey and about building decent schools and universities for Kurdish children and for all Iraqis for that matter.
If the Kurds are adamant about having their independence referendum it’s because nobody in the region or internationally has offered them an alternative project which would preserve their right to exist as a unified entity on the region’s political map. The Kurds exist also in Iran, Turkey and even Syria. But the real question is about the American position on the subject. The Kurds have given proof, especially during the war on ISIS, that they are reliable partners. So how far is the US administration willing to support Kurdish rights?
Until a convincing alternative plan comes their way, the Kurds have no choice but to go on with their planned referendum, despite the threats coming from some sectarian militias. The issue of the city of Kirkuk will simply have to wait. The Kurds want to ensure their rights first because a unified Iraq has so far failed to uphold the rights of all of its citizens without discrimination.
If we want to speak about a post- 2003 failure in Iraq, it’ll have to be the failure of the successive Iraqi governments to offer an attractive and convincing solution in any domain whatsoever. The experiment of an Independent Kurdistan however had overall more positive aspects than negative ones. Notwithstanding some minor exceptions, it was and still is a step in the right direction towards establishing a civil state where corrupt officials or people with connections in Baghdad have no place.
Still, the question of Kirkuk and many other questions as well are still awaiting answers. Will the referendum ignite new strife in Iraq or will it constitute a chance for self-criticism? The real tragedy is that there is no one in Baghdad right now with enough guts to push for self-criticism, even among those who are accusing the Kurds of having old relations with Israel. So why blame the Kurds?
Khairallah Khairallah is a Lebanese writer.
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