Iraqi Kurdish men carry fire torches, as they celebrate Nowruz Day, a festival marking the first day of spring and the new year, in the town of Akra near Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq March 20, 2019. REUTERS / Ahmed Jadallah
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 9 minutes

Iraqi Kurdistan Twenty Years After

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq infused the country’s Kurds with renewed hope of loosening the bonds that tie them to Baghdad. But subsequent events have dampened that spirit. Despite considerable progress toward autonomy, the historical Kurdish predicament endures.

Nowruz, the new year for Persians, Kurds and many others, marks the arrival of spring, a time of joyous renewal. For Iraqi Kurds, the occasion is bittersweet, because it was springtime 35 years ago, at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq war, when the Iraqi army swept through the Kurdish countryside, razing villages and massacring the inhabitants. Some 100,000 men, women and children were systematically murdered at sites in Iraq’s southern desert during what Saddam Hussein’s regime called the Anfal counter-insurgency operation. Today, twenty years after the U.S. invasion, the Kurds are free of such repression, and rural communities are slowly coming back to life. 

The Kurds tasted a measure of liberty earlier than people in the rest of Iraq. In 1991, following the first Gulf War, they rose up against the regime. The revolt prompted the U.S.-led coalition that had driven the Iraqi army from Kuwait to establish a no-fly zone and a small safe haven in northern Iraq. Combined, these measures convinced the Iraqi high command to withdraw its troops from the Kurdish region, and the following year, the two Kurdish parties whose fighters had come down from the mountains to lead the rebellion began trying to make de facto autonomy work. The parties laboured at it for the next few years, holding elections and setting up a regional power-sharing government while the Iraqi dictator glared at them from Baghdad. But soon they started fighting each other over economic resources, primarily customs duties, in an internecine conflict that ended only through U.S. mediation. When, in 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, the two parties, having partitioned the Kurdish region, were ruling their respective areas of control through parallel administrations.

These events underlined a sobering reality that every Kurd has grown up with. Throughout their modern history, the Kurds have been unable to escape the trap laid for them by colonial powers, the division of their traditional territory among four hostile nation-states (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Türkiye), which has left them both landlocked and without a state of their own. It has not been for lack of trying. The U.S. invasion, which happened to take place in the spring, infused the Kurds of Iraq with renewed hope that they could be less reliant on Baghdad, paradoxically by playing a prominent, sometimes even kingmaker, role in Iraqi politics. In Kurdistan, they reunified their government (though not their security forces or intelligence agencies), and in Baghdad, they provided pivotal input into the 2005 constitution, which created a federal Kurdish region with unprecedented powers, and won informal agreement that the president be a Kurd. Over time, they started exploiting oil fields in Kurdistan and established their own revenue stream from exports. They made the case for their right to statehood at international forums and began preparations to press for independence when the time was right.

But developments in the past five years, in reinforcing the Kurds’ subordinate status in Iraq, have shown that these hopes were misplaced. First, in 2017, the Kurdish regional government botched an independence referendum that, rather than delivering on long-time aspirations, prompted Baghdad to send its troops back to a belt of disputed territories, including oil-rich Kirkuk, separating the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq. Then, in February 2022, came a Federal Supreme Court decision declaring that only the federal government has the constitutional authority to export crude oil, invalidating the Kurdish region’s own oil sales. 

March 2023 saw another setback for the Kurdish government’s desire to maintain an independent revenue stream. The International Court of Arbitration in Paris ruled that Ankara had violated a 1973 bilateral treaty with Baghdad (renewed in 2010) giving the Iraqi federal government sole authority over Iraq’s oil sales through the pipeline to Türkiye. In response, Türkiye promptly shut down the pipeline on its territory, which the Kurdish government had been using to pump 400,000 barrels a day to market from fields in Kirkuk and in the Kurdish region. (The federal government has used the same pipeline to export 75,000 barrels a day of Kirkuk oil to Ceyhan near the Turkish Mediterranean coast, in cooperation with the Kurdish government.)

All these events have somewhat dampened the Nowruz spirit in Iraqi Kurdistan today, twenty years after the U.S. invasion. On a recent visit, I found an impossibly deep green countryside, fed by spring rains. In a month, these rolling hillsides will already have started to yellow, parched by an unforgiving sun. 

Salih gave Kurds who long smarted under the previous regime’s oppressive rule what they value the most in life: the freedom to move, think and congregate without fear.

As with the seasons, so with the politics: a spectacular but momentary revival, soon followed by infighting and the scourge of corruption (gandali in Kurdish). Ever since the two main parties emerged from their mountain hideouts to seize control, they have held out the promise of a far better future. They made considerable progress in leading the population they ruled out of misery. In the late 1990s, Barham Salih, president of Iraq from 2018 to 2022, was prime minister of one of the two Kurdish parallel governments, the one based in Suleimaniya. He did three great “things” for the city, a resident said: he built an airport, he established the American University of Iraq and he allocated a large plot of land for a municipal park. With the combination of these three “things”, whether by design or otherwise, Salih gave Kurds who long smarted under the previous regime’s oppressive rule what they value the most in life: the freedom to move, think and congregate without fear. Oxygen, in other words, along with a bit of money to put bread on the table.

Yet despite these achievements (one can also mention the glittering malls, five-star hotels and foreign businesses bringing in hard currency), the parties made a hash of things. Nepotism and graft have marked their reign, as they compete, and even fight, over the spoils: oil revenue, customs duties levied at the Turkish and Iranian borders, and bribes from foreign businesses. In 2014, due to plummeting oil prices and the battle with the invading Islamic State (ISIS) horde, society began to experience financial hardship. The public-sector salaries on which most depend were frozen or cut, and the economy went into a tailspin, even as the rebel-turned-clan leaders, and their entitled offspring, continued to amass riches. It is a painful irony that the mechanism the Kurds have used to escape the dual curse of being a landlocked people without a state – oil wealth – has itself become a cancer on the body politic.

Then came the repression – worse in Erbil, the dour seat of the reunified regional government, than in Suleimaniya, with its relatively open society and flourishing cultural scene. Kurdish leaders frequently say they want Kurdistan to become the new Dubai, the go-go economic hub of the United Arab Emirates. In trying to emulate that model, however, they managed to get Dubai’s autocratic trappings right before anything else. Both main parties have engaged in police state tactics, limiting freedom of expression and quashing dissent, whether internal or public. If the one in Erbil (referred to as Malalis, after the Kurds’ historical leader, Mala Mustafa Barzani) is more adept at it, that is because the other in Suleimaniya (known as Jalalis, after the party’s late leader, former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani) has started to fragment. But the inclination toward authoritarian practices is the same. 

In the past year, the oil price stabilised, and ordinary people seemed to believe the worst of the economic crisis was behind them. Yet I sensed a fury raging underneath, which was expressed, privately, by some of my old friends from the pre-1991 underground, whose choice words for the leadership are not fit to print. State employees have yet to see their salaries, or their pensions, fully restored. 

Against this backdrop, in March, just before Nowruz, the American University of Iraq in Suleimaniya organised the seventh convening of the Suleimani Forum, an annual extravaganza that attracts Iraqi and foreign scholars, businesspeople and media representatives. Salih, now the university president and the event’s ringmaster, gathered the usual array of luminaries: the Iraqi prime minister and foreign minister, the president of the Kurdistan region and its deputy prime minister, the UN chief in Iraq, and others. Conspicuously missing from the line-up were Salih’s political enemies, notably the president of Iraq (a Kurd from Salih’s party who replaced him as head of state) and the Kurdistan region’s prime minister, Masrour Barzani, who has set up his own American University of Iraq, which holds a parallel annual forum, in the city of Dohuk.

[Qubad Talabani] suggested that the Kurdish government ... opt ... to negotiate a revenue-sharing law with Baghdad for all of Iraq, including the Kurdish region.

At the Suleimani Forum, the Kurdistan region’s deputy prime minister, Qubad Talabani (son of Jalal), made a proposal that was utterly pragmatic yet startled many in the audience. He suggested that the Kurdish government forget about controlling oil fields, and that they opt instead to negotiate a revenue-sharing law with Baghdad for all of Iraq, including the Kurdish region. In floating this idea, he seemed to diverge from the regional government’s longstanding interpretation of the 2005 Iraqi constitution, whose provisions on oil fields the Kurdish leadership’s foreign advisers had drafted specifically to advance the region’s independence ambitions. Talabani publicly denied the revisionist (or revolutionary) nature of his suggestion, but he acknowledged that it might not represent the consensus inside the Kurdish government. 

In fact, this idea, which has been around since the Kurdish region began producing oil fifteen years ago, exposes the deep divide between the Malalis and Jalalis (to the extent these are coherent blocs), not just over the division of the spoils but over the future of Iraqi Kurdistan. The former want to take steps that will culminate in the foundation of a Kurdish state, while the latter are content to keep living in a federal Iraq that would give the Kurdish region a fair share of the overall pie, which is far more substantial than what it can produce. As such, Talabani’s notion evokes the bitter disputes that led to the two parties’ fratricidal conflict in the 1990s. Talk of civil war is again ubiquitous.

The Barzani government is in negotiations with the federal government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Sudani to come to a new arrangement. The Kurds want to sell their oil, and Baghdad wants to send its oil from the Kirkuk field through the Kurdish pipeline to Türkiye for lack of an alternative. (ISIS destroyed the Iraqi pipeline from Kirkuk to Türkiye in 2014.) In early April, they reached a temporary deal to resume oil exports, which remains to be fulfilled. The oil deposits in its region give the Kurdish government leverage over Baghdad, as does its control of the northern pipeline. But the Kurds cannot circumvent the capital’s economic diktat, which channels all foreign oil sales through the federal export agency.

So, where does Iraqi Kurdistan stand? The leadership that descended from the mountains and took control when the U.S. and its allies removed the Iraqi regime, first from the region in 1991, then from the rest of Iraq twelve years later, is ageing and losing legitimacy. Iraqi Kurdistan’s sclerotic political system, moreover, has made it difficult for a crop of leaders untainted by clan-based corruption to emerge. The region is home to a predominantly young population that is restless and potentially volatile. In a perfect world, they would shove aside the old leadership in regional elections, clean up the Kurdish house and use the Kurds’ clout in Baghdad to work toward maximum autonomy inside Iraq – independence except in name. But, given the unlikelihood of political renewal – a Kurdish spring – many young Kurds are voting with their feet, setting off on the dangerous, expensive journey through Türkiye and across the Mediterranean to countries where they believe the grass is greener.

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