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Michael Jansen: No comfort for Kurds
January 01, 2018
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Prospects are poor for the emergence of a peaceful and secure Iraq during 2018. Baghdad continues to exert control over the restive Kurdish region which had gained near-independence until the Kurds voted for secession last September. The Iraqi government has cracked down and the Kurdish region is no longer semi-autonomous, autonomous or nearly independent. The bid for freedom has, for now at least, been crushed without violence.

Last week Baghdad extended the ban on international flights into Kurdish region airports at Irbil and Sulimaniya, denying freedom of movement and commerce to inhabitants of the Kurdish region. The original flight ban was set to expire on December 29th. Military, diplomatic, UN and humanitarian flights are exempt from the measure but must seek approval from the central government. The ban has forced residents of the Kurdish region to travel to Turkish and Iraqi airports elsewhere to travel within Iraq and abroad. Air freight has to be routed through Baghdad and delivered by road.

People seeking to visit the Kurdish area can no longer secure Kurdish issued visas at regional entry points but have to get visas for Iraq, a complicated and expensive business. Kurdish Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has said Irbil, capital of the Kurdish region, will have to reach agreement on joint administration of entry points. However, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has made it clear the Kurds may eventually have joint control but Iraq’s borders will be under the central government. Abadi faces elections in May and cannot afford to give in to the rebellious Kurds. Instead Abadi has adopted a hard-line, punishing the Kurds for their bid for freedom.

The Kurds have offered to suspend the vote for independence and submit to the Iraqi Supreme Court’s rejection of the referendum as “unconstitutional” in exchange for dialogue with Baghdad over relations between the three province Kurdish region. After the vote, the region not only lost its hard-won autonomy but also adjacent territory, including oil-rich Kirkuk, Kurdish forces had seized and claimed for the Kurds in 2014 when the Iraqi army was battling Daesh. The over-confident Kurds never thought Baghdad would send the Iraqi army and allied Shia militias to retake territory held by the Kurds for more than three years.

The individual most Kurds blame is Massoud Barzani, former president of the Kurdish region who gambled on a massive yes vote in the independence referendum but put his people in chains – once again.

Their plight has been deepened by infighting and economic collapse. Barzani’s nephew, Premier Nechirvan Barzani, has been weakened by the desertion of three parties in his coalition. The Sulimaniya-based Talabani clan, longstanding rivals of the Barzanis, has been negotiating separately with both Baghdad and Tehran with the aim of easing pressure on the region.

While the Kurds controlled Kirkuk, they had enjoyed $700 million a month in revenue from the export of its oil as well as oil from fields in the Kurdish region. This has been halved and Irbil has been unable to pay civil servants’ salaries. Already in debt for $20 billion, the government has applied for loans from oil companies and international organisations but they are loath to extend credit for the troubled region which has gone from being the most prosperous and stable area in Iraq to the brink of bankruptcy.

Under the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish region is meant to receive 17 per cent of the Iraqi budget. But since 2014, the Kurds have not transferred oil revenues to Baghdad and the government has refused to pay the allocated sum. For 2018, the central government has said it would provide 12.5 per cent of the state budget for the Kurds until they clean up corruption. This would not cover civil service and teachers’ salaries and could be explosive. Civil war has been predicted.

The Kurds are also facing internal strife. During the dying days of 2017, street protests led by teachers demanding their salaries erupted in the cities of Sulimaniya and Halabja. More than 200 were arrested and five killed in clashes with security men. Demonstrators condemned rampant corruption, notably among members of the ruling Barzani clan, the crackdown on opposition media, and delays in holding presidential and parliamentary elections.

Abadi has more pressing things on his mind than the Kurds. While Daesh has been driven from Mosul and other Iraqi cities and towns under his watch, he has to tackle the reconstruction of the country’s Sunni areas and resettlement of five million mainly Sunni displaced persons. He must draw Sunnis into the post-US war political system. He has also to deal with the tens of thousands of Shia fighters in largely independent, Iran-backed militias which have to be either disbanded or absorbed into the Iraqi security services and armed forces To accomplish these arduous tasks, Abadi will have to become a national rather than a Shia fundamentalist leader.

So far, Abadi – whose roots are in the Shia Dawa movement founded in 1957 to counter the secular Iraqi state – has not risen above this background. Furthermore, in the coming election he will be obliged to rely on the support of Shia parties which have dominated Iraq’s political scene since 2003 when the US conquered Iraq and put Dawa-offshoots in power. When Washington’s former choice Nuri al-Maliki was in charge he discriminated against and persecuted Sunnis and picked quarrels with the Kurds. This led to the destruction of Iraqi unity, the fracturing of Iraq’s society and the reassertion of Kurdish separatism and the rise of al-Qaeda offshoots, including Daesh, which has now infected the entire region with its puritan ideology and brutal practices.

Abadi is currently Washington’s man but the Trump administration is even less likely to come up with a plan to resolve Iraq’s problems than was its more enlightened predecessor under Barack Obama.


The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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