James Denselow
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on : Tuesday, 26 Mar, 2013
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The Stateless Statesmen

Iraq’s Kurds Preparing to Challenge history

Ten years after the Iraq War, is this the moment for Iraqi Kurdistan to emerge from the shadows of its bloody past?

A birds-eye view of the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, on 19 March 2013

A birds-eye view of the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, on 19 March 2013

The vast majority of global debate over the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has focused on the rights and wrongs of the decision to go to war and questions over whether the beleaguered Iraqis are now better off than they were under Saddam. While war fatigue and the Arab Spring have meant that Iraq has been much underreported in recent years, anniversaries are always opportune moments to take stock of where things are. This is especially true of Iraq, since it continues to sit at a crossroads, facing existential questions over its future identity.

Tragically fitting of the new type of insecurity faced by Iraqis, on the March 19 eve of the invasion anniversary a series of coordinated bomb blasts targeted Shi’a areas across Baghdad, killing over sixty people. Despite taking huge strides forward since the end of the 2006–2008 civil war, the new Iraq currently has the Sunni west of the country in open revolt, inspired by both the revolution in Syria and anger at the policies of Prime Minister Maliki. Maliki himself is a man whose growing authoritarian tendencies are increasingly of concern to outside observers, with Professor Toby Dodge describing him as consolidating his power by bringing the paramilitary and intelligence services under his direct control.

While the elites bicker, the country continues to suffer from chronic insecurity combined with struggling infrastructure, intermittent electricity and a poverty of effective state institutions. For example, instead of acting as a democratic beckon for the region, the Iraqi Parliament is a testimony to gridlock, inertia and incompetence, struggling to even find the numbers for the decisions it rarely makes. Indeed, the Parliament finally passed the country’s budget this March, despite it having been approved by the Iraqi cabinet the previous October.

The power in the north

Meanwhile, in the north of the country, the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan marked a very different set of anniversaries in March, against a very different backdrop. It has been twenty-five years since the horrific chemical attacks in Halabcheh and Saddam’s murderous Anfal campaign that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) says killed some 182,000 Kurds. Hundreds of internationals arrived in Erbil to mark these anniversaries; Europeans, Africans, Americans and Asians were all present to remember a tragedy that their absence surely contributed towards. As the internationals joined President Barzani in an impressive new conference center, it was clear that the organizers wanted to highlight the symbolism of this global audience standing side by side with the rising Kurdish power in the north, united in saying, ‘Never again.’

Yet it is one thing to say never again, and it is another to be actually able to mean it. The Kurds, perhaps the world’s largest stateless people, traditionally say that they have ‘no friends but the mountains.’ In Iraq, they are landlocked and trapped between countries that have oscillated between policies of co-option and brutal violence. Relations between Baghdad and Erbil have steadily soured following a period of effective cooperation after the 2003 invasion. The widely endorsed new Iraqi constitution is being challenged in practice and the narrative of the debate has shifted again to whether Iraqi Kurdistan could move from exceptionalism to independence. Indeed, writing in the March edition of the journal International Affairs, Professor Gareth Stansfield explained that “the Kurdistan Region has matured into an institutionalized reality in territorial, political and economic terms, and is now transforming the patterns of international relations in the Middle East.” The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn has described the Kurd’s situation as improving: “Self-determination is close, but not quite there yet.”

The Middle East’s new Singapore

If the integrity of Iraq is under pressure, it is due to both the failures of Baghdad and the successes of Erbil. Speaking at a Chatham House conference in London, Professor Stansfield said, “Five years ago, it was ridiculous to talk about the independence of Kurdistan; now, it is ridiculous not to talk about it.” Erbil, despite claims to being one of the oldest inhabited cities on the planet, is increasingly a booming modern town with large-scale construction dominating the skyline. New five-star hotels jostle with the biggest shopping center in Iraq and billboards displaying the plans for an array of business centers. When the first commercial plane flew into Erbil after the 2003 invasion, the authorities struggled to find the right size of steps for the aircraft; today, the new airport provides direct access to European cities, the Gulf, and even on the odd occasion an internal flight to Basra.

Regular travelers between Iraqi Kurdistan and Europe speak of the good value cigars that can be secured in the duty-free shop at the airport, and posh Erbil eateries serve up fish buffet nights with lobster and crab on ice. Dave Anderson, member of the British parliament, told The Majalla that when he first went to the area in 2006, “you could smell the petrol in the air and there was intermittent power. Today, there are modern petrol stations and the electricity is on all the time.” Members of the region’s workers’ union explained that the 2003 invasion was the moment when “we opened up to the world and the world became open to us.”

A crucial part of Iraqi Kurdistan’s success has been that its local sovereignty and security, when combined with a blossoming trade relationship with Turkey, gives the territory increasing and lucrative independence. A recent feature in the Financial Times explained that many oil companies “have shifted their attention from the south to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, angering Baghdad.” According to the KRG, the GDP of the region grew by 7% in 2011 alone, and it forecasts a growth rate of 8% every year until 2016. The KRG is pursuing its own economic version of the model that has transformed Dubai and much of the Gulf into serious global players. It has combined the lure of being in control of a fifth of Iraq’s oil reserves with a package of incentives for foreign investors, including years of tax-free status, the ability to repatriate profits, ease of access to foreign workers, and even going so far as to allocate land for free. The Kurdish Workers’ Union reported to The Majalla that over four thousand foreign companies are now working in the area and ambitious Kurdish officials have set out a strategy to raise oil production from about 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) now to 1 million bpd by 2015. Yet if tensions over disputed territory spill over into violence, then all bets might be off.

A very different concern is the danger of Iraqi Kurdistan falling victim to a ‘resource curse,’ where oil promotes an unbalanced economy overseen by unaccountable elites. Rumors of nepotism and corruption simmer at the edges of the KRG’s glittering success. Patrick Cockburn interviewed a resident who called the region “Corruptistan.” Ahmad Azziz, a twenty-seven-year-old resident of Halabcheh and member of the Goran (Change) opposition party, spoke to The Majalla of his frustrations with the slow development of services and over the high rates of unemployment for younger Kurds: “Nothing has changed since the 1980s. Even the poisoned farmland hasn’t been cleared; the only new houses the government builds are for their own people.”

Meanwhile, the KRG is developing an increasingly slick PR machine to promote both its past tragedy and present achievements. The Anfal anniversary has a white tulip as its symbol and the slogan ‘From tears to hope.’ There is also an Anfal minister and an international campaign to have the attacks recognized as genocide across global capitals, with recent success secured in the British parliament. With the remains of only three thousand of the reported 182,000 killed discovered so far, combined with fears over future security, it is no wonder that the KRG is looking to expose its past to secure its future. However, considering how toxic the Iraqi brand is, with its association to bloody occupation, sanctions and civil war, you can understand the logic of those Kurds pushing for a full break from the country.

The Baghdad–Erbil standoff

President Barzani, who is from a tribe that lost as many as eight thousand members during Anfal, has spoken of how “as long as we are alive, we will seek the remains of our fellow Kurds in the southern deserts of Iraq.” Yet Barzani’s relationship with Baghdad remains a key litmus test of which direction Iraqi Kurdistan will head in. Speaking at the Anfal conference this March, the Kurdish president reaffirmed his commitment to a “peaceful coexistence” with Baghdad, but warned of the implications of the political crisis that continues to wrack the country. Barzani’s language left little doubt as to his red lines, ending his address saying that “what is happening today is not a partnership and we will not accept subordination. We are tired of undelivered promises and we know there are other roads that could be taken.” The Kurds boycotted the budget that was passed in March, with Kurdish MP Rawaz Khoshnaw telling Reuters, “None of our demands were included in the budget. This is a very dangerous and alarming sign of what’s coming in Iraq.

Khoshnaw’s warnings are part of a clearly increasing standoff between Baghdad and Erbil. Maliki and Barzani are reported to hate each other, and the moderating influence of Jalal Talabani has been absent following his stroke last December. In 2012, Peshmerga and Iraqi troops were reported to have experienced a number of face-offs over the internal border that includes the disputed cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. What could be seen as the de facto border between Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan is made up of a physical trench; numerous check points and internal visas are required for Arabs wanting to travel into the Kurdish area. Last December, Baghdad blocked a Turkish government plane from entering Iraqi airspace, despite the plane reportedly already having been given all necessary flight permits. The willingness of Baghdad to exert aerial sovereignty over Iraqi Kurdistan is perhaps all the more worrying for Erbil against the backdrop of the deal with the US to provide the nascent Iraqi air force with eighteen F-16 fighter jets worth a total of about USD 3 billion. Osman, a Kurdish doctor from Suleymaniyah, warned The Majalla that “we fear that Maliki could be even worse than Saddam.”

A world apart

Twenty-five years ago, the Kurds of Iraq faced a battle over their very existence as they were slaughtered in the tens of thousands. Today, although Erbil is only 300km away from Baghdad, it increasingly feels like a world apart where the only loud bangs come from incessant building, rather than bombing. However, Iraqi Kurdistan still faces twin challenges emerging from its own success: a growing rich–poor divide within its own territory, with questions over the structure of its economy, and the more important strategic issues concerning the growing divide between Erbil and Baghdad.

The potential flashpoints between the two capitals revolve around the perennial Middle East themes of sovereignty and resources. The inability of the Iraqi Parliament to pass an oil law with agreed revenue-sharing has pushed companies into the arms of the KRG, but with ‘their’ fields crossing the borders imagined by Baghdad but controlled by Erbil there is obvious tension. Majid Jafar of Crescent Petroleum succinctly explained to the Financial Times in March that “far from being a source of unity, oil has become a central point of dispute between Iraq’s quarrelling leaders.” Kirkuk, the ‘Kurdish Jerusalem,’ and Mosul remain contested cities with no obvious mechanism to resolve the current disagreements and the legacy over the population movements created by Saddam’s policies of Arabization and the Kurdish flight against the onslaught of Anfal.

As Syria continues its descent into chaos, the contrast between Maliki’s largely supportive position to Assad and Barzani’s cautious condemnation is indicative of the different trajectories between Kurdish separatist tendencies and Baghdad’s attempts to recentralize power. There is no coincidence in the rise of the Sunni west of the country and their push for greater federal power against the backdrop of the Syrian uprising. The unraveling of the Syrian state will give greater impetus to the Kurdish model of decentralized rule and may unnerve an increasingly well-armed central government in Iraq with a host of unforeseen consequences.

Yet in contrast to bad news from the south, to the north the recent call for a truce after years of war from the jailed leader of Kurdish rebels fighting Turkey, Abdullah Öcalan, could pave the way for a deeper entrenchment of the Ankara–Erbil relationship. A blossoming relationship with a NATO power and increasing foreign direct investment from the West could allow the KRG to insulate itself from being drawn into an increasingly chaotic region. Huge challenges remain, but for the first time in their modern history, the future for the Kurds of Iraq is genuinely bright.

James Denselow

James Denselow

James Denselow is director of the New Diplomacy Platform and a Middle East Security Analyst based at King's College London.

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