Iraqi Kurds ramp up calls for independence

Alia Soliman , Sunday 27 Apr 2014

Ahead of Iraqi elections, and amid renewed sectarian violence, Iraq's Kurds are amplifying calls for formal independence from Baghdad, which some see as risking civil war

File Photo: A Kurdish Iraqi resident casts his vote at a polling station in Sulaimaniya, in 2009. (Photo: Reuters)

As sectarian violence increases in pre-elections Iraq some Kurdish leaders speak of an inevitable “divorce” from Iraq to establish an independent Kurdish state. Others speak of a civil war that might ravage the already war torn country

It is alleged that the current crisis is being manipulated for electoral purposes, and many of the problems may be resolved after the elections.

However this poses a question: Will the increasing violence and the sectarian divide lead to an independent Kurdish state? And: Is Iraq on the verge of civil war?

Kurdish calls for independence

As Iraqi elections near, Kurdish calls for independence grow louder and many believe that the efforts taken to reach across the sectarian divide by the Iraqi government are weak, which may lead to Kurdish independence from Iraq.

However, many believe that Kurds cannot afford independence at the moment due to oil policy reasons and also due to the disapproval of regional powers.

Zaid Al-Ali, senior advisor on constitution building at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, told Ahram Online that Kurdish calls for independence have not changed significantly since 2003.

“Under current circumstances no serious attempt will be made to achieve independence today, there are many reasons for that including that all regional powers would be opposed to Kurdish independence,” Al-Ali explained.

Kurdish independence from Iraq is considered a dilemma for regional powers as the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will certainly encourage the three other Kurdish regions distributed in Turkey, Iran and Syria to seek not only independence but unification as well as a unified single country called “Kurdistan.”

Kurdistan would then rise as a regional power creating a new order in the Middle East — one unpredictable for existing powers.

Meanwhile, the current crisis between Baghdad and Irbil in relation to oil contracts that Irbil signed is being used as a campaign issue on both sides.

As Reuters reported, Iraqi Kurdistan has agreed to export crude via the country's main oil marketing body, potentially removing a major sticking point in a resource row with the central government.

The autonomous region's prime minister and top energy official had travelled to Baghdad earlier this month in order to settle the long-running dispute over exports of oil from Kurdistan via a new independent pipeline to Turkey.

Turkey crucially needs Kurdish oil for its growing economy yet does not want to affect its relations with Iraq and therefore said it would only store the oil until an accord was reached between Baghdad and Irbil.

Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk analyst and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, says that the larger battle over oil policy is having a big impact, but it is mostly the election impacting the policy: the Shia parties have all become more hard-line on Kurdish oil exports and this is the main reason for the budget impasse.

Al-Ali, author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, published this year, said that Irbil has been using the oil matter to stir up nationalist sentiment against Baghdad in an effort to draw votes towards the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), while Nour Al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister and secretary-general of the Islamic Daawa Party, has been using the crisis to burnish his Arab nationalist credentials.

How may calls for independence affect elections in Iraq?

Turhan Ketene, an independent Iraqi Turkmen politician and founder of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, told Ahram Online that Kurdish calls for independence will have not any effect as Arabs and Turkmens will never allow the Kurds to annex the oil rich province Kirkuk or any other parts of Iraq.

“Yet, I think these calls will affect the northern region (the Iraqi Kurdistan region); we all know that more than 85 percent of the Kurds are pro an independent state,” Ketene adds.

Sectarian violence may lead to civil war

Iraq’s parliamentary elections come at a time when the country is struggling with a revived Sunni insurgency, with sectarian divisions as strong as they have been for years, which some claim may lead to civil war.

Al-Ali says that there is certainly the potential for increased violence in many areas, but Iraq is still very far from the levels of violence that the country witnessed in 2006-2007.

In 2006-2007, Iraq experienced widespread sectarian violence, with some scholars and newspapers deeming that the country was experiencing civil war.

As Foreign Affairs reported in 2006, the "civil war" subsided between the diverse competing factions, mainly Arab Shias and Sunnis. The attempts of the US to control this violence by supporting Al-Sahwa Movement contributed substantially to a decline of the insurgency in Anbar Province as well as other Sunni regions.

Al-Ali explains why this time things will be different in Iraq, mainly because the Iraqi army still controls the streets of the vast majority of Iraq’s main cities, along with main roads and highways. 

“Back in 2006-07, the army controlled almost no territory, and the country was essentially under the control of militias, terrorists, local mafias and other armed groups.  It is very unlikely that we will be heading back to a similar situation under current circumstances,” Al-Ali adds.

“There is almost no potential for a civil war or a major conflict erupting between Kurds and Arabs given that there is no political desire by either side to engage in a conflict, and because the Kurds monopolise the use of force completely on their side of the border,” Al-Ali states.

Ketene voiced a different viewpoint where he said that the people know that some political blocs, both Sunni and Shia, made their way to parliament and the government through the division.

“Those blocs are trying to involve the Iraqis in another civil war,” Ketene concluded.

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