Iraqi Kurds Suffer Major Setback

A political miscalculation by Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani – staging an independence referendum that prompted fierce retaliation by Baghdad – has set back hopes for a Kurdish state by decades, writes Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria

Masoud Barzani was born in 1946 in the Mahabad Republic, the only modern Kurdish state that has ever existed. It lasted one year in northern Iran, declared under Soviet military occupation at the end of the Second World War. Months after the Soviets withdrew Iran crushed the nascent republic and executed its leaders in early 1947.

Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. (U.S. government photo)

Though there has been no Kurdish state since, either in Iran, Iraq, Turkey or Syria, the dream of an independent Kurdistan was handed down to Barzani by his father, Mustafa Barzani, a leader of the influential tribe from the town of Barzan in the mountains of the Kurdish north of Iraq.

After the first Gulf War in 1991, President George H.W. Bush called on the Iraqi Kurds and the Shia in the south to rise up against Saddam Hussein. But he provided no support and the Kurds and Shia were slaughtered. In response the U.S. got a U.N. Security Council-approved “no fly zone” set up over the north and south of the country.

Under the protection of U.S. air cover, the Kurds forged a large measure of autonomy from Baghdad. But Barzani’s tribe, centered in Erbil, had competition for Kurdish leadership from the Talabani tribe, in the second largest Kurdish Iraqi city, Sulemaniyah. Over three years, the two tribes fought a bitter civil war for control of the Kurdish region, with thousands killed until the Clinton White House brokered a ceasefire in 1998.

Barzani was made president of the entire Iraqi Kurdish region in a power-sharing agreement. The Clinton peace agreement however left each side with control over their own peshmerga military force and intelligence apparatus. These were never integrated even after Kurdish autonomy became formalized with Baghdad’s recognition following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Jalal Talabani served as president of Iraq from 2005 to 2014, although primary governing authority rested with the prime minister who came from the Shiite majority).

Throughout their long history of yearning for sovereignty and subsequent suppression first by the British and then Baghdad, the Kurds have never achieved as much independence and stability as they’ve had in the post-invasion Kurdish Regional Government, with its capital in Erbil. Amid continued tension with Sulemaniyah, Barzani ruled the entire Kurdish region, marked by nepotism and widespread corruption, but also substantial foreign investment.

With his increased power, Barzani orchestrated a non-binding referendum for independence from Iraq in 2005 that received 98 percent support, but it was essentially ignored by Baghdad, as well as by Turkey and Iran, both with their own restive Kurdish populations. The referendum went nowhere and was seen as largely symbolic.

With extraordinary bravado, Barzani claimed that Erbil would be turned into a new Dubai. And his people bought it. Like Dubai, the shining new Erbil would be constructed on oil money, not just from the considerable oil within his territory, but eventually from the environs of the disputed city of Kirkuk.

Disputed Kirkuk

Kirkuk has never been a majority Kurdish city, undermining Barzani’s claim to it. The city has a complicated demographic history. The al-Tikriti family was the main Arab family in Kirkuk in the Seventeenth Century. A Kurdish tribe made it their capital in the Eighteenth Century. Turkmen have been present since the Eleventh Century, and became the majority as the Ottomans moved in more Turkmen in the early Twentieth Century.

Map of Iraq. Kurdish territory is in the northeast.

By the Treaty of Ankara, registered with the League of Nations in 1926, Kirkuk became a part of the Kingdom of Iraq. Until the 1930s, Kirkuk was still largely a Turkmen town, but after oil was discovered there was an influx of Arab and Kurdish workers. According to the 1957 census, the last one taken, Kirkuk city was 37.6 percent Iraqi Turkmen, 33.2 percent Kurdish, with Arabs and Assyrians making up less than 23 percent.

A short-lived 1970 autonomy agreement with the Kurds was ended in 1974 when a new law excluded Kurdish enclaves from oil-rich areas and the city’s boundaries were redrawn to create an Arab majority. From 1991 – the time of the first Gulf War – to the 2003 U.S. invasion, Saddam expelled about 500,000 Kurds from Kirkuk and surrounding towns, according to Human Rights Watch. Arab families were settled in their place. But after the 2003 invasion, thousands of displaced Kurds moved back into Kirkuk.

The new Iraqi constitution following Saddam’s downfall called for a referendum for the city to determine whether it wanted to belong to Baghdad or Erbil. Though scheduled for 2007, it was never held. Baghdad did not want the Kurdish refugees who had come to the city to vote.

In 2014 when ISIS attacked Kirkuk, the Iraqi army, as it had in Mosul, retreated. Peshmerga forces fought off ISIS and took the city, an Iraqi army base and nearby oil installations as their prize.

Erbil Attacked

ISIS also attacked Erbil in the summer of 2014. It was repelled by the peshmerga with the help of Iranian money and soldiers, as well as U.S. air strikes. It was that air campaign that launched President Barack Obama’s war on ISIS.

The long fight against the terrorist group helped drive down world oil prices and depleted Erbil’s coffers — what was left of it after corrupt officials took their cut. Foreign nationals fled the city as it was under ISIS siege. The dream of the new Dubai ended in a city with at least a third of its buildings skeletons of uncompleted construction lining the thoroughfares. Government workers went months without pay.

Without a successful referendum to run on and under pressure from ISIS, Barzani called off 2015 presidential elections. When his elected term then expired, he stayed on as president anyway. This led to a boycott of Parliament by the opposition, which shut down the legislative body for two years.

With ISIS repelled from Erbil and Kirkuk under his control, Barzani called for an independence referendum in January 2016, hoping to shore up his legitimacy. Realizing that the defeat of ISIS in Mosul was a priority, he wisely postponed the vote after foolishly calling for it.

The defeat of ISIS in Mosul this summer allowed Barzani to revive his independence referendum. He brazenly extended it to disputed areas, especially to Kirkuk. Every country in the world that mattered, including the United States, opposed the vote and pressured Barzani to call it off.

Factions of the Talabani clan in Sulemaniyah also were opposed. Only Israel supported it for its own interests of breaking up an Arab country and getting a foothold to launch operations over the border in Iran. Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran coordinated their response, threatening military action and an economic blockade of landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan, totally dependent on Turkish imports and illegal oil sales, not under control of Baghdad, to Turkey.

The Price of Barzani’s Defiance

Despite the pressure Barzani sought to fulfill his father’s and his dream of independence and held the vote on Sept. 25. As expected, it won in a landslide with 93 percent support. But there was another reason for Barzani to hold the vote. As he had clearly planned to do in January 2016 when he first called for the referendum to bolster his legitimacy, Barzani attempted to use the overwhelming referendum support to get himself elected on Nov. 1 in the Kurdish presidential and parliamentary elections and end his two-year illegitimate hold on the presidency.

A young Kurdish supporter for independence from Iraq, Erbil,
Iraq, Sept. 22, 2017. {Photo credit: Joe Lauria)

Barzani made it clear that he would not declare independence after the binding referendum but instead sought one to two years of negotiations with Baghdad leading to independence. While Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran ignored the 2007 referendum this time they seemed to overreact to it. While rejecting negotiations, and with no country but Israel supporting it, Baghdad and its allies could have just ignored the referendum as it would go nowhere. It was symbolic and intended to give Barzani an electoral boost.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is also facing elections next year. A weak response to the referendum could have cost him. A strong response was also an opportunity for Abadi to crush Barzani’s electoral hopes. Instead of bolstering his position, Barzani handed Abadi another crucial opportunity, a gift on a gilded platter: the chance to use the referendum as a pretext to settle the Kirkuk issue in Baghdad’s favor.

The city was occupied by 6,000 peshmerga fighters. However, as the Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Shia militia moved on Kirkuk on the night of Oct. 15, thousands of Kurds fled the city fearing a bloodbath.

But Baghdad took back its army base, its oil installations and control of the city with hardly a shot fired. It emerged that Abadi had forged a deal with the peshmerga to stand down. But not Barzani’s peshmerga. Instead, the peshmerga of Talabani’s Sulemaniyah, which had never been integrated with Barzani’s forces. Arabs and Turkmen celebrated wildly in the city as they tore down the Kurdish flag.

Barzani suffered the greatest humiliation of his long career. He lost Kirkuk and most importantly its oil fields, which represented 30 percent of his oil revenue. The border with Iran was closed. All international flights into and out of Erbil were banned. He vowed that his peshmerga would fight the Iraqis. But he was faced not only with a civil war that he would be hard-pressed to win against superior Iraqi and Shia forces, but a possible renewal of civil conflict with the Talabani faction (although there was a split within the Talabani Kurdish Patriotic Union because its founder Jalal Talabani died on Oct. 3 in the midst of these historic events.)

Faced with this outcome, Barzani first called off the Nov. 1 elections, which he could now not count on to win. And on Wednesday he went a step further, completing his humiliation of losing Kirkuk, and perhaps ending his reign: he gave in to Baghdad’s demands to cancel the referendum, offering to “freeze” the results while pleading for new negotiations with Baghdad, setting back his hopes of independence for at least a generation.

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist. He has written for the Boston Globe, the Sunday Times of London and the Wall Street Journal among other newspapers. He is the author of How I Lost By Hillary Clinton published by OR Books. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.


20 comments for “Iraqi Kurds Suffer Major Setback

  1. hermanmarph
    October 26, 2017 at 19:13

    Undeniably it’s a double whammy approach by Abadi government to pursue a bloody militia led war against the Kurds in Iraq under the premise of the ‘constitution’. While other parts of Iraq have consistently breached constitution rule, but without any reaction from Abadi. The other spooky part is that Abadi, instead of using Iraqi army, he is actually given the lead to the Iranian backed militias to occupy Kurdish territories. Only in the town of Tuz Khurmatu near Kirkuk, Kurds have fled in thousands, their homes were burnt down and many were killed by the militias. It is true though, that the Kurdish region in Iraq is driven by two clan families, Barzani and Talabani, while corruption and nepotism is rife, the Kurdish economy suffers from $20b debits, mainly missing oil funds. The two powerful clans run the region without any accountability or monitoring, even the local parliament has been suspended by Barzani over two years ago, when lawmakers raised his lapsed presidential terms. What is vital now is that the two clan rulers must resign, and let the ball rolling for the resumption of the Kurdish Parliament and forming a transitional government, mainly from technocrats and planners, to negotiate terms with Baghdad, based on the constitution.

  2. Paul Rivera
    October 26, 2017 at 13:47

    How come the UN will force European countries to break up but not Muslim?

  3. Zachary Smith
    October 26, 2017 at 13:30

    Alhurra Interview: LTG H.R. McMaster on Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Kurdish Issue

    This might be a supplement to Mr. Lauria’s fine essay, and it might not. Except for detecting that Iran is evil at every level and in every action, my eyes tended to glaze over with the bafflegab. Sample:

    Question: Let’s start from the recent developments; recently, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Iraqis to disband the Iran-backed militias. The Iraqi prime minister rejected that. Do you intend to pursue this matter and how?

    McMaster: Well, we have to support the government of Iraq, we have to support Prime Minister [Haider al-] Abadi, who’s done, I think, a tremendous job under very difficult conditions. But, as everybody knows, the Iranians have done a very good job, also, of infiltrating and subverting Iraqi state institutions and functions, as well as creating these militias that lay outside of the Iraqi government’s control. And, I think, what they intend to do is use them opportunistically to advance Iranian interests. You see that in reaction to the Kurdish referendum, for example, and, so, what really needs to happen is all of the drivers of this terrible fitna, this terrible sectarian violence, have to be addressed and that has to be removing all causes of that kind of violence.

  4. October 26, 2017 at 12:56

    I appreciate Joe Lauria’s reporting on Kurdistan. I don’t understand why he isn’t reporting the Russian government’s longstanding advocacy of Kurdish national rights in the form of urging that the countries with large Kurdish populations adopt federal, constitutional forms which grant autonomous rights for Kurds and other national minorities. Russia’s proposal for Syria is being widely discused there and it has no doubt positively influenced the actions of the Syrian government in the military campaign against right-wing jihadi forces.

  5. Zachary Smith
    October 25, 2017 at 23:41

    But Baghdad took back its army base, its oil installations and control of the city with hardly a shot fired. It emerged that Abadi had forged a deal with the peshmerga to stand down.

    It would be interesting to learn whether the “Talabani” Kurds are brighter, were bought off, or both. Baghdad (or Iran) may have learned from the way somebody bribed key Iraqi officers and officials to disappear when ISIS moved in their direction. Naturally this left the men on the ground without either leadership or supplies.

    ISIS also attacked Erbil in the summer of 2014. It was repelled by the peshmerga with the help of Iranian money and soldiers, as well as U.S. air strikes. It was that air campaign that launched President Barack Obama’s war on ISIS.

    Obama’s war on ISIS? NONSENSE! ISIS was a very useful tool for Obama and his neocons, and it got a hell of a lot more help from the US than it did unfriendly bullets or bombs. Notice that Erbil/Arbil got actual US assistance. Mosul didn’t, and neither did Baghdad. That was the pattern – ISIS got lightly spanked only when it went off script.

    ISIS surrounds Baghdad By Joe Tacopino October 13, 2014

    In my opinion Israel and the US hoped Baghdad would fall to ISIS. This would have drastically crimped the slight recovery Iraq had been making since the Invasion For Israel Bush the Dumber made on that nation. The US made very sure the Iraqis had no effective way of fighting ISIS – besides the sabotage of the military probably financed by Saudi Arabia, the Iraqis had no air force worth mentioning.

    First batch of US F-16 jets delivered to Iraq [AFP] July 13, 2015(!)

    Only when Baghdad did manage to survive were the first 4 severely limited F-16s permitted to go to Iraq. Probably this was to forestall even more more support from Iran and Russia. Even now Iraq has only 13 F-16 aircraft. By way of contrast the Netherlands has 61 of the planes, and Jordan 46 of them. Oh yes, Obama was after Iraq’s continued demolition, just like his predecessor, the Codpiece Commander. Probably Israel will build a statue to the both of them someday.

    Speaking of the cesspool nation, Israel is really desperate with its Kurdish project, enough to request permission from the Russians for an air corridor to the place.

    Israel Asks For Air Corridor To Provide Assistance To Iraqi Kurdistan In Its Standoff Against Federal Government – Reports

    Assistance? Maybe, but just as likely they want to evacuate important Israelis without risking the increasingly risky overland routes. Nobody is exactly great buddies of the Kurds these days, and piles of bribes just might not be enough.

    The mil-bloggers I read have been suggesting for 3-4 years that the Kurds were being downright stupid in their cozying up to Israel and the US, apparently unaware that they were as disposable as toilet wipe products to both nations.

    • Sam F
      October 26, 2017 at 11:11

      That would be an interesting debate, the extent to which the US and Israel supported Isis and AlQ to destabilize Iraq, having accidentally created a Shiite-majority state allied with Iran.

  6. Sam F
    October 25, 2017 at 22:51

    It is very sad that Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the US did not predict and dissuade Barzani from the referendum, which has weakened Iraq and could greatly protract the residual Isis insurgency. Clearly the Kurds of Iraq must accept autonomy within a federation, and Iraq must grant the same autonomy to the Sunni regions to avoid more uprisings there.

    A major problem of democracy is the failure of ethnic/religious groups to grant equal rights to the others, largely the result of historic injustices causing fears and militancy. The problem spans all cultures, such as Ukraine, and the US before the Civil War. But the US is even less diplomatic and democratic now than when it failed to resolve its own far simpler regional differences.

    A major problem is the Israeli troublemaking, arming the Kurds to destabilize Iraq and Iran, threatening to move 200,000 Jewish Kurds there, and motivating Barzani and others to seek far more autonomy than practical.

    The US should adamantly oppose Israeli troublemaking, but has been corrupted to support it. Without restoration of democracy in the US, we cannot be a positive influence on developing nations, but instead cause enormous suffering.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 25, 2017 at 23:26

      I’m on the page where, as I attempt to catch up on what the Kurds are all about, I keep hearing these rumblings of Israeli interest in a independent Kurd State. Then the next question in my mind, is what is in it for the Israeli supportive diplomacy in favor of the Kurds? Then a possible answer to my inquiry becomes potentially clearer as I gaze upon a map of that region in the Middle East.

      • Brad Owen
        October 26, 2017 at 07:21

        I don’t see Israel as a free and independent agent in charge of its own destiny, but as a fellow Province (along with a potential Kurdistan and the K of SA) of a Synarchist-inspired Empire; a new, neofeudal, Roman Empire (Synarchists are the creators/sponsors of previous fascist and NAZI regimes and can rightfully be called the Boardroom NAZIs that escaped the Post-War Nuremberg Trials). Its meaning is to forestall the rise of another Muslim Empire by keeping the region divided, at each others throats, and CONQUERED by the Synarchists (1%er Oligarchs) of the Trans-Atlantic West. If there is any region that needs to learn how the Swiss Confederation works, with its Italian, French, German, and Romansh Cantons, it is this M.E. region. A Babylonian Confederation with a couple of Kurdish Cantons, a Turkman, an Arab, a Shiite and a Sunni Canton, modeled on Switzerland. Then again, Switzerland guards the Synarchist piggybank, so they are just probably allowed to exist by the Synarchists, in exchange for this useful service. The M.E. region cannot escape their historical threat to Europe and PanEuropa. All of this Old World, geopolitical maneuvering just makes my American ass tired, as I’ve regained my pre-WWII sensibilities. I’m more concerned with Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, California fires, NYC’s Summer of Hell in trying to repair hurricane Sandy’s damages, inability to get serious Water-Management infrastructure off the drawing boards and onto the parched/flooded ground, how to defeat our Synarchist 1%ers, etc…

        • Joe Tedesky
          October 26, 2017 at 10:43

          Brad your concern shows to me that you are a compassionate, and caring person. I know words like these are all to often used, but with the way you ended your comment it shows you have the right priorities in place. Timely is your comment for me, because when I woke up this morning I thought to myself how Puerto Rico is falling out of the news cycle, and with that those unfortunate fellow Americans of ours are fading out of the news, which will mean they are losing out ‘bigly’.

          America was never a perfect place, but today it is apparent that it is a spoiled nation who’s rhetoric does not match its performance. With better than 800 military bases stretched around the globe, and yet the homelands biggest threat is it’s constant movement towards it’s estsblishing a permanent police state to squeeze it’s citizens civil rights to death.

          Brad you have it right. Joe

      • Sam F
        October 26, 2017 at 10:55

        Thanks, that article is worthwhile. Israel has done as much damage to the Mideast in assisting the Kurds to demand autonomy, as in its bribery of the US to conduct genocides to support its land thefts in Palestine.

    • Herman
      October 26, 2017 at 09:34

      Sam F, . “Without restoration of democracy in the US, we cannot be a positive influence on developing nations, but instead cause enormous suffering.” The basic problem from which all others flow.

  7. Herman
    October 25, 2017 at 21:32

    The countries in the region and the Kurds need to come to an understanding that assure the rights of the Kurds in their respective countries. It is a bad idea with the existing cultural and religious differences to create a Kurdish state, or a Sunni or a Shiite state. Foreign powers have exploited these differences up to now and the countries in the region should do everything possible to prevent the creation of a new state for the Kurds or any other religious or cultural group.

    • October 26, 2017 at 00:18

      “the countries in the region should do everything possible to prevent the creation of a new state for the Kurds or any other religious or cultural group.” No, Herman. the countries in the region have no right to interfere with the aspirations of an ethnic group to form their own nation. Religious sects i.e. the Sunnis and the Shias are quite different as their division is based on a feudal concept. However, I believe it would be wise for the Kurds to curb their independence aspirations for the time being. The Sunnis need to divest themselves of radical elements in order to achieve any integration into Iraq. Otherwise a three state solution can only be a temporary solution to what is in fact an artificial state created by colonial powers.

      • Zachary Smith
        October 26, 2017 at 01:08

        No, Herman. the countries in the region have no right to interfere with the aspirations of an ethnic group to form their own nation.

        The countries involved all see it differently, and so do I. The Kurds are not exactly a close-knit group, and both in language and religion they can vary wildly. About the best they can hope for is a respectable amount of self rule within the larger nation to which they belong.

        • October 26, 2017 at 12:51

          “The countries involved all see it differently, and so do I.”…Yes, of course they see it differently and each one is a separate case. Have you seen pictures of the Kurdish city of Cizra in Turkey? It was no less destroyed than Mosul or Aleppo. This after the Kurdish party in Turkey aligned itself with liberals opposed to Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism. So much for the democratic process in Turkey( the most censored press according to Reporters Without Borders)…and this barely mentioned in the MSM.

          As far as the opinions of you or I, these are value judgements. I believe in cultural pluralism and I assume you do also, Zachary, but how can we talk about Palestinian rights and dismiss Kurdish rights?
          “About the best they can hope for is a respectable amount of self rule within the larger nation to which they belong.?”
          How can any cultural minority whether Kurdish,Catalonian or Palestinian accept being treated as second hand citizens that must assimilate or die? How can they “belong” to a larger country that doesn’t respect diversity?

    • October 26, 2017 at 13:09

      I support self determination. Especially in nations created by colonial powers, especially when they are oppressed. Kurdistan needs to exist as a refuge for Kurds. Catalonia should have self determination as also any region in any nation.

      • Sam F
        October 26, 2017 at 18:18

        It is true that self-determination is always defensible for individuals, and that substantial minority rights must be respected, including the defense of all cultural/religious/ethnic traditions that do not interfere with rights of others. Secession is the natural desire of those who are not so respected.

        Also true that the states defined randomly by colonial powers or by treaties can be offensive, and often do not have the political development to respect those rights.

        But secession is not always practical or desirable. Where East Ukraine and Crimea have strong cultural ties to Russia and are militarily persecuted by the coup regime of West Ukraine, it is difficult to see how a federation would work. Where the Sunnis of Iraq were disenfranchised and denied the autonomy of Iraqi Kurds, it is not surprising that insurgencies arose among them; they should be given regional autonomy in Anbar similar to that of the Kurds. But the Kurds have autonomy and representation in government, and are completely landlocked geographically, unable to trade except by cooperation with those from whom they seek secession.

Comments are closed.