The Kurds tend to get lost in discussions about the tilt of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki toward Iran, the increasingly arbitrary nature of his rule, and the growing tension between the Shiites and the Sunnis with their demands for “federal region” status. But the deteriorating relationship between the semiautonomous Kurdish minority in the north and the central government in Baghdad is perhaps the most incendiary of Iraq’s potential crises. This conflict—which is only superficially about revenue sharing of oil wealth but more deeply about what a New York Times article earlier this year characterized as “historical grievances and Kurdish aspirations for independence”—casts the largest shadow over the future of a unified Iraq.
The status of the Kurds is particularly daunting because it is caught up in a web of historical complexity stretching back to the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia in 637, when the Kurds fought against other empires or each other to achieve some form of self-rule.
The victors of World War I drew a new world map that spread the Kurds through the newly formed states of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, and Syria instead of giving them a state, largely because of a lack of strong political institutions. Ignoring the fact that the Kurds stubbornly identified themselves on a tribal basis, these architects of the new order tried to deal with the problem they represented by prescribing harsh assimilation.
The Kurds formed political parties in reaction to this threat against their identity. Often the states that were home to the Kurds supported one group against another. Kurdish parties also became accustomed to fighting each other, although all of them believed passionately that they were fighting for a unified Kurdish state.
In Iraq, the Kurds had to operate in a political climate that was increasingly pan-Arab after the 1950s. This left little room for their own national aspirations and resulted in a constant challenge to Baghdad’s rule in armed struggle from 1961 to 1991 by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and later the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as well.
The KDP was formed in 1946, but was divided internally by conflict between tribal factions led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani and urban-oriented factions led by the left-wing Jalal Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmad. Baghdad adroitly played the different groupings against each other, which led to several Kurdish civil wars and the creation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 1975 after the failure of the Kurdish rebellion (1974–1975) and the death of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who was succeeded by his son, Massoud Barzani, as head of the KDP.
Saddam Hussein and the Baathists who assumed control of Iraq in a military coup in the 1960s were ruthless in response to this Kurdish challenge. They were responsible for the deportation and killings of Fayli Kurds in the 1970s and 1980s, the murder of eight thousand male Barzanis in 1983, the use of chemical weapons by Ali Hassan al-Majid (“Chemical Ali”) in the late 1980s, and the Anfal campaign of 1987 and 1988, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and villages destroyed.
When Hussein brutally crushed a Kurdish revolt in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, the Kurdish political parties used the no-fly zone imposed by the West to gain full control over the three Kurdish areas of Erbil, Suleimaniyah, and Duhok. Elections were held and a Kurdish government was established in May 1992 after the withdrawal of the Iraqi army.
In the following years, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) engaged in civil conflict instead of uniting against Baghdad. This situation changed drastically after the US-led invasion of 2003, which forced the KDP and PUK, with its Peshmerga fighters, to work together. During the elections of January 2005, the Iraqi Kurds became the second-largest parliamentary group and functioned as kingmakers as a result of the Sunni boycott of Iraqi politics. The Kurds managed to insert Article 140 into the Iraqi Constitution in 2005. It contained three major provisions about their status: normalization (basically, paying Arabs who had been brought to the area by Saddam Hussein to ensure an Arab majority to return to their native regions), a national census, and a referendum among the population of the area to determine its future.
Despite claims by conspiracy theorists that the US was contemplating a division of Iraq, the US and the rest of the international community actually opposed the Kurdish annexation of Kirkuk and other disputed areas to the Kurdistan region, and did not force Baghdad to implement Article 140, with the result that its deadlines came and went in 2007 and 2008.
But as the Maliki government consolidated its control, tensions between Baghdad and Erbil, now the capital of the Kurdistan region, grew more serious. The most prominent points of contention were budgetary support for the Kurds’ armed Peshmerga forces, Kurdistan’s share of the Iraqi public budget (now seventeen percent), the drafting of a law distributing oil and gas receipts and the signing of oil contracts between the Kurdish Regional Government and foreign companies, and of course the question of disputed areas where the existence of parallel Kurdish and Iraqi security institutions raised fears of potential civil war after the US withdrawal.
Although the Kurdish and Shiite Islamic parties had been allied against Hussein, the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad opposed Kurdistan’s annexation of the oil-rich Kirkuk. Iraqi public opinion agreed. Ninety-eight percent of the Kurds in a January 2005 referendum might have voted for Kurdish independence, but surveys between 2005 and 2010 consistently showed that the majority of non-Kurdish Iraqis preferred that the central government control the disputed areas.
Many Iraqis believed that the Kurds already received too much from the Iraqi state, and feared that they were slowly building up institutions (military, oil extraction infrastructure, etc.) and strengthening their economy with an eye toward breaking away from the Iraqi state. Kurdish officials responded that they have no need to secede if Iraq acts as a federal democratic state. But the issue has remained volatile and most Iraqis are increasingly envious of the stability, services, and security within the Kurdistan region, a contrast to the instability and violence endured by the rest of the country. Iraqi Arabs who travel to the Kurdistan region are deeply hostile to the idea that they need to register themselves with the security services or submit to checks like other foreigners at Kurdish checkpoints, and that English is preferred over Arabic by Kurds.
All of these antagonisms were amplified when the Kurds decided to come up with their own version of oil and gas laws in 2006 and 2007, and bypassed the central government in signing contracts with international oil companies. Since then, relations between Baghdad and the Kurds have continued to deteriorate. But relations between Massoud Barzani, elected president of the Kurdistan Region in 2005, and Turkey have grown warmer. Barzani uses his close ties with the Turks as part of a strategy to balance against what he regards as an authoritarian Baghdad dominated by the party of Maliki. Like the Kurds, Turkey also supported Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president whom Maliki accused of terrorist activities in 2011 and who was given protection in Kurdistan after he fled Baghdad to escape arrest. Barzani has taken advantage of the Turks’ desire to trade for Kurdish energy exports and get the Iraqi Kurds’ cooperation in its war against the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (also known as the PKK). According to Turkish sources, annual trade between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Turkey is close to $9 billion.
Maliki replaced Ibrahim al-Jaafari as Iraqi prime minister in 2006 as part of a compromise. At that time, rivals of Jaafari—Sunni and Shia as well as Kurds—feared he was too strong, and thought that the relatively unknown Maliki would be more easily controlled. They were wrong. Starting in 2008, Maliki began to consolidate his power by asserting himself against the Sadr movement and the militias of other Shiite factions and even more strenuously against the Kurds’ control of Diyala and Kirkuk. Disputes between Maliki and the Kurds did not result in a major armed conflict only because of joint Iraqi-Kurdish commissions set up by the US to resolve tensions.
During the March 2010 elections, the two main Iraqi Shiite alliances, Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA) and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), received significant support from within Iraq, while the Iraqiya ticket, led by the secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, was supported by Sunni Arab states and Turkey. Allawi’s list won the majority of the seats (ninety-one seats, two more than the SLA), but the constitutional court ruled that election lists could merge after the elections, and the largest list would form the government. Both Allawi and Maliki looked for allies.
The Kurdish parties initially remained neutral and published nineteen demands, of which the most important were from Article 150—a budget for the Peshmerga and an oil and gas law allowing them autonomy—as a condition for their support. Maliki made a show of accepting these demands, but after the Kurds helped make him prime minister he refused to implement any of them. Disputes between Erbil and Baghdad over oil contracts increased after the Kurds signed an exploration deal in November 2011 with the oil giant Exxon Mobil.
As Kurdish discontent simmered, Maliki slowly increased his control over the intelligence service, army, police, the Supreme Court, and the central bank, and attempted to control the electoral commission by arresting its head. His efforts to increase his dominance became more apparent after the US withdrew its forces in December 2011, when Iraqi security forces tried to arrest Sunni Deputy Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on charges of coup plotting. (After being given sanctuary in the Kurdistan region, Hashimi settled in Turkey and was recently sentenced to death in absentia by the Iraqi court.)
During a visit to Washington on April 4, 2012, Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani asked the US to stop the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Iraq. He claimed Maliki had told the Iraqi army the planes would be used in the future to chase the Kurds out of Erbil. When Washington said the sale would go forward, Barzani stated that his deal with Exxon Mobil was a security guarantee, and was equal to ten American military divisions in terms of the protection the big oil company provides the Kurds against Baghdad.
Barzani has also increasingly sought allies within Allawi’s Iraqi opposition Iraqiya party to push a no-confidence vote against Maliki. In April, the Kurdish Regional Government stopped oil exports worth more than $1.5 billion to foreign companies in the region, when Baghdad threatened to cut Kurdistan’s budget. Barzani has also played the Turkish card, announcing in May that the Kurdish government would build pipelines to send oil and gas to Turkey beginning in 2014.
The plot thickened when Atheel al-Nujaifi, governor of Nineveh Province and brother of Parliament speaker and Maliki opponent Osama al-Nujaifi, announced in April 2012 that he would cooperate with Barzani in oil production in his province. The Nujaifi brothers were both previously considered “anti-Kurdish,” but are now moving closer toward the Kurdish Democratic Party. Even longtime Shiite troublemaker Moqtada al-Sadr visited Kurdistan and promised to support a no-confidence vote against Maliki because he too was worried that Iraq’s leader was becoming too powerful.
As a counter move against the Kurds and what he regards as their intrigues, Maliki asked President Obama to stop Exxon Mobil activities in Iraq, and held Cabinet sessions in Kirkuk and Mosul to raise anti-Kurdish sentiments among the Arab population there and neutralize support there for the opposition Iraqiya’s new alliance with the Kurdish parties. Furthermore, Maliki promised to reinstate Iraqi army officers in Mosul who were fired under the US occupation, and stated that Kirkuk is an Iraqi city and that the presence of Kurdish security forces in the province is illegal.
Barzani and the other Kurds fear that Maliki is like Hussein: promising concessions while slowly building up power within the local security and political establishment with a eye toward taking over. In fact, recent news reports indicate that Maliki will establish four tribal councils in Kirkuk, and will establish a new operation command for Diyala, Kirkuk, and Saladin provinces. Furthermore, there are rumors that Maliki plans to sack Kurdish officers and is making plans to move the Iraqi army into Kirkuk city, which is presently controlled by Kurds.
Maliki might believe that he is dealing from a position of strength in challenging the Kurds. According to a recent RAND Corporation report, the Iraqi army will be able to defeat the Kurdish Peshmerga forces by 2015. Moreover, he appears to have succeeded in dividing the Kurdish house by reviving the old rivalry between the PUK and KDP (their civil war of the 1990s is a living memory among partisans), while also targeting Barzani in the Iraqi and Kurdish media by claiming that the Kurdish Regional Government has been smuggling oil.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 seemed to herald a brave new era of autonomy and influence for the Kurds of Iraq. The strategy of the Kurdish political parties to keep the central government weak as a way of achieving concessions on questions such as control of oil and share of the federal budget seemed to be paying off for several years. While there was a US presence in Iraq, Kurdish fortunes seemed assured. But observers of the situation now believe that with his strategy of divide and conquer, Maliki has gained the upper hand in his cold war with the Kurds, and especially with the KDP, largely because the US has stayed on the sidelines. Particularly in the last year, Maliki’s power and that of his party have been growing. With open conflict a growing possibility and their autonomy at stake, the Kurds have been forced to look toward Turkey and even Iran, engaging in high-stakes diplomacy whose outcome is far from certain.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst specializing in issues concerning Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, with a particular focus on Kurdish politics.