Kurds Opt for Federation on their terms rather than separation

By Roy Gutman, AINA

IRBIL, IRAQ — Kurdish leaders are postponing plans for a referendum on independence and say they instead will devote their efforts to forging a new Iraqi government.

Years of tangling with outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, made Kurds skeptical about their future in an Iraq of squabbling Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs. Doubts rose in June after Islamic State extremists, supported by local Sunnis, took over northern Iraq, and the Shiite-dominated national army collapsed.

In early July, Massoud Barzani, leader of the largely autonomous Kurdistan region, ordered his advisers to begin preparations to hold a referendum on independence.

But now the Kurdish government has agreed to hold off. As Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, put it, using an acronym for the Islamic State: “We now have a priority: to clean the area of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). ISIS must not remain our neighbour. When you have this priority, some other priorities will be delayed.”

Two events help explain the new position: the move by Islamic State extremists to attack villages near Irbil, the Kurdish region’s capital, which led to U.S. airstrikes defending the Kurds starting Aug. 8, and the decision three days later by Shiites, who have the largest bloc of seats in Iraq’s parliament, to nominate Haider al Abadi, a respected politician, to replace Maliki.

Hussein, the principal point of contact with the U.S. government, said he explained to U.S. officials that the Kurdish policy was to engage with Shiites and Sunnis to form a new government, but at the same time prepare for Kurdistan to leave Iraq if there were no alternative.

U.S. officials said they understood the long-term Kurdish goals, Hussein said, but they asked that the Kurds not sacrifice the formation of a new government in pursuing independence. “Please don’t undermine the first policy, the policy of engagement, by putting the second policy before it,” Hussein quoted the U.S. officials as saying.

Kurdistan has enormous oil wealth, but it’s never agreed with the government in Baghdad to market it independently. In the continuing battle, Maliki blocked the payment of Kurdish government salaries since the beginning of this year and taken legal steps to prevent Kurdistan from selling its oil on the international market.

He also blocked shipments of U.S. military hardware and ammunition earmarked for the Kurdish peshmerga militia.

But with the Kurdish military in direct confrontation with Islamic State forces armed with American equipment looted from Iraqi military bases, the Kurds needed to make moves to ensure that weapons supplies flowed –this time from the CIA. Putting off an independence referendum was one of those.

“We had to defend ourselves, improve our defenses and get money, for we have none,” Hussein said.

Preserving harmony with their American patron isn’t the only reason the Kurds agreed to slow what appeared earlier this summer to be a rush to independence. A second reason was that if Abadi were unsuccessful in creating a new government, Maliki would stay on.

“Without a new government, Maliki will stay,” Hussein said. “You cannot have him any longer as prime minister.”

The Kurds have four major demands, which were set forth in a meeting this week between representatives of all Kurdish parties in parliament and the Kurdish negotiating team, which is headed by Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s longtime foreign minister. They are:

  • Resolving within a year the status of the oil-rich Kirkuk region, which is claimed by Kurds and Arabs. Whether to incorporate it into the Kurdish region was to have been decided in a referendum by 2007, according to the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, but the vote was never held.
  • Lifting for three months the moratorium on Kurdish direct sales of oil, during which time the Kurds could export 140,000 barrels a day. At the end of that period, negotiations would begin on a permanent agreement on Kurdish oil sales.
  • The government in Baghdad paying the blocked Kurdish government salaries and recognizing the peshmerga militia as a component of the national defense forces, entitled to modern equipment and weapons.
  • Granting Kurdish authorities complete control of the region’s airspace.
September 7, 2014 | 1 Comment »

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