Koert Debeuf Column

Kurdistan: On A Straight Line To Independence. (Column)

R.I.P. Iraq. The country is no more. Iraq has ceased to exist. That is my conclusion after a short, but intensive visit to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is not the declaration of the “Islamic State” on 29 June that marks the turning point. It will rather be the soon-expected declaration of independence by the Iraqi Kurds which will prove irreversible.

Few paid attention two weeks after the parliamentary elections of 30 April 2014 when Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, threatened to boycott a new government led by Iraqi PM Nuri Maliki. Barzani said he had enough of the authoritarian way in which Maliki has governed.

The dispute between Erbil and Baghdad dates back a long time. One elements is that the referendum on disputed areas such as Kirkuk, promised in the constitution of 2005, never came to be. The referendum was to determine if these areas would be part of Kurdish Iraq or not.

Since the end of 2013 the friction between the two capitals has seriously aggravated.

In November 2012, Erbil signed a historic agreement with Ankara to use the Turkish pipeline to the port of Ceyhan. Baghdad claims the Kurds have no right to do it independently. This reaction is comprehensible as one third of Iraq’s oil reserves are located in Kurdistan.

On top of that, new gas resources have been found and might soon be ready for exploitation. The Kurds insist that the constitution gives them the authority to exploit and sell their own hydrocarbons. They already exported crude oil secretly by trucks to Iran and Turkey. But a pipeline is a different matter.

Maliki reacted furiously and to cut the monthly budget transfer to Erbil. The Iraqi constitution stipulates that Baghdad should allocate a share of 17 percent of the budget to the Kurds. Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), told me that Baghdad never allocated more than 11 percent anyway. But in January 2014 Maliki blocked the whole thing.

The consequences have been disastrous. With 70 to 80 percent of Iraqi Kurds working for the regional government in one way or another, all of them stopped getting paid. The KRG had to take loans from Turkey in order to restart paying a part of people’s salaries in March. It only served to deepen the resentment of the Kurds to the central government in Baghdad.

This resentment, together with the sectarian and authoritarian rule of Maliki, prompted Kurdish president Barzani to make his harsh comments in May 2014. “Those who cut the budget of Kurdistan are going to pay the price of that decision,” he said at that time.

Barzani and his fellow Kurds knew there would be no support for their demand for more autonomy, not to speak of independence. But all that changed drastically and suddenly on 10 June 2014, when the exterme jihadists of the Islamiq State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) captured Mosul and a great part of the province of Nineveh.

The Kurds had predicted trouble. They warned Baghdad that Baathists, people linked the former regime of Saddam Hussein, and extremist groups were forming an alliance to organise a Sunni Muslim revolt.

The Shia Muslim Maliki has not only neglected the Kurds, but all the more so the Sunni population of Western Iraq. He also changed the US-trained “inclusive” Iraqi army into a Shia militia loyal to himself. At the time of the ISIS attack, just 5 percent of Iraqi soldiers were Sunni and 2 to 3 percent were Kurdish.

Selected on sectarian grounds instead of merit, these soldiers saw no reason to die to defend a Sunni region against Sunni fighters. Small wonder the Iraqi army let the ISIS-led alliance capture Western Iraq without resistance.

The events have transformed the mood in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, captured Kirkuk, cheered on by every Kurdish person. Kurds everywhere declared their readiness to join the force and to fight for Kurdish territory and independence.

A Kurdish journalist told me that being a soldier in the Peshmerga is now considered the most prestigious job in Kurdistan. He said that for people who haven’t been paid for months by Baghdad “it is more honourable to be a fighter, than a doctor or an engineer”.

The KRG believes it has a window of opportunity.

Rudaw, a media centre funded by Kurdish PM Barzani, is feeding the independence movement. It recently interviewed constitutional experts from Quebec, a separatist province in Canada, who advised Kurds to break away immediately.

Barzani also formed a new coalition government on 19 June. All the Kurdish parties agreed to put aside their differences to work together for the same goal.

It should have caused little surprise when he told CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour on 23 June that: “The time is here for the people of Kurdistan to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.”

His biography gives an insight into the developments.

He was born in 1946 in the Republic of Mahabad, or the Republic of Kurdistan. It was the only independent country the Kurds ever had and it lasted one year. Barzani’s father, Mustafa, was its military chief. But when Iran crushed the republic, the Barzanis fled to Erbil. Asked by Amanpour if he felt his “life’s work is about to be accomplished”, he answered: “I really hope that is the case”.

All the Kurds I spoken to on my visit, from artists and journalists, to diplomats and KRG ministers, gave the same message: this is our moment and we will not let it pass.

Everything seems to be in place.

With the oil up and running, they have stable revenue. With Kirkuk, they have their disputed territory back. All the parties are united in one government. The Peshmerga is highly motivated and unchallenged by Iraqi forces.

The one question that remains is what will be Barzani’s strategy?

Government sources told me a decision has not been made yet. One of the main reasons is the question of international support. But now that Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and officials in the Turkey’s ruling AKP party have endorsed Kurdish independence, there is little to stop the Kurds from going ahead.

While the world talks about what to do with the Islamic State, we might well see a Kurdish State emerge sooner than we thought.

by Koert Debeuf, 3/6/2014

FLI Koert Debeuf PortretKoert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his columns are a window on events in the Arab world. Koert Debeuf is also author of ‘Inside the Arab Revolution’.

For more columns of Koert Debeuf, click here.

You can follow @koertdebeuf on Twitter

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