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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.