Kurds in Iraq or Iraqi Kurds?

28.2.2013 – Burak Bilgehan Özpek  – Analist Journal – The novel political set-up established after 2003 in Iraq did not simply offer the Kurds enhanced autonomy. It also prepared basis for the creation of a more democratic structure compared to the past which would make it possible for all ethnic and religious identities to be represented in Baghdad.

The fight of the Iraqi Kurds to become an independent state dates back to the aftermath of World War I, i.e. the period when British rule began in Iraq. The first stirrings of the Kurdish political movement for independence began under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmoud Barzani in 1919, but it was blocked by the British.

In 1926, after the frontier between Turkey and Iraq had been finally decided, the Kurds were obliged to live in different countries and governments. But though they were now living in different countries, they remained in close contact with each other and, more than that, this interaction became an factor directly affecting other players both inside and outside the region.

Consequently it is worth examining the history of the Kurdish people to understand the process by which modern nation-states in the Middle East came into being as well as the relations between the previously existing states.

The countries which are home to Kurdish populations always regarded all the other Kurds beyond their frontiers which they themselves controlled as a source of anxiety. This was because if the Kurdish population of another country gained recognized status and political rights, it might give rise to similar demands among the Kurds on their own territory. It also had the potential to erode their own national and state structures. Consequently one of the foremost realities of Middle Eastern history was that the Kurds of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey carried on with their struggles for existence and politics in a constant state of communication with each other.

One of the most striking examples of the trans-national quality of Kurdish nationalism was the Mahabad Republic which proclaimed its independence from Iran, which the Soviet Union was then trying to weaken, in March 1946.

The state was set up in Iran by Kadi Mohammad, but Barzani, who was leader of the Iraqi Kurds, and other Kurdish tribes, gave it their support.

Another instance of the trans-national character of the Kurdish national movement can be seen in the establishment in Iraq and then Syria and Turkey of parties named after the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which had been initially set up by the Iranian Kurds. It is worth noting that these organizations bearing the name ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party’ cooperated with the KDP set up in Mullah Mustafa Barzani in Iraq.

The creation of the Kurds in Iraq

The status of the Kurds within Iraq has always been a problem and the Kurdish revolts which took place at periodic intervals constantly created problems as far as Baghdad was concerned. After 1958 as the strength of the Baathist regime established by General Qasim’s coup grew, the Kurds’ struggle for autonomy intensified, continuing until 1975.

The relations between the Kurds and the Baghdad government continued to be an awkward factor during the Iran-Iraq War. The Kurdish groups led by Barzani and Talabani periodically took part in alliances against either Teheran or Baghdad. Closer examination reveals that their policies were as much the result of political fragmentation within these Kurdish groups as they were a reflection of any Kurdish desire to profit from the political confusion and gain autonomy.

In contrast to this pattern, several subsequent eventsmay be considered to have opened a new period for the Iraqi Kurds. The first was the al-Anfal operation with its wholesale massacres aimed at ethnic cleansing, like Hallepcha, which the Kurds endured between 1986 and 1989. Then in 1991 after the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein launched full scale military operation against the Kurds in northern Iraq.

The 1991 military operations attracted widespread attention in the international media and a UN Resolution was passed declaring that the airspace to the north of the 36th parallel was a no-fly zone. This decision paved the way for the creation of a de facto state in Northern Iraq. Though a regional parliament was created by elections held in 1992, no stable government could be established. As a result the civil war that started in 1994 between the forces of Mustafa Barzani and Djelal Talabani created serious instability in the region. Around this time, Turkey’s regional influence was on the increase and a Turkish ‘peace monitoring force’ was stationed in the region in order to inspect the ceasefire between the various conflicting groups.

The two trends discussed so far – the divisions between the different Kurdish groups and the formation of a state in Northern Iraq—entered a new phase with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But even before the US invasion an important new stage had been reached when Kurdish groups agreed between themselves to support the operation and to go to war against Saddam.

In the period after the US invasion, circumstances were much more favorable for the Kurds to increasingly dominate the running of ethnic and religious groups in the country. Within this process, the Kurdish groups led by the KDP and the Kurdistan Patriotic Union each gained key roles as players because of the support they gave to the coalition forces in the politics of post-Saddam Iraq.

This was the period when the word ‘Federation’ was added to the Iraqi Constitution and immediately afterwards a federation was established by the KDP and KYB.

A new period and new balances

In the general elections held following the adoption of the permanent form of the new Iraqi constitution on 15 October 2005, Kurdish groups scored a success which set the seal on the official political existence of their new structure in northern Iraq. Drawing on the extensive powers which Article 121 of the new Iraqi constitution gave to regional authorities, the Kurds were now able to become the ultimate authority in the north which was in practical terms already under their control. They also seized the opportunity to take key roles in the cabinet in the central government in Baghdad. The outcome showed that the Kurds of Iraq were able to benefit from their experiences during their struggle which they had by now been waging for nearly a century.

The autonomy deal which Baghdad had proposed to the Kurds in 1970 had quickly ceased to function and the Kurds had understood that unless there was democracy in Baghdad, it would not be possible to win and preserve autonomy for the Kurdish region. The political system which was created in Iraq after 2003 offered the Kurds greatly enhanced autonomy and prepared the grounds for a more democratic system to come into being which, unlike the past, would enable all the ethnic and religious communities to be represented in Baghdad. A further point to be noted is that at this time there were various movements inside the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government which aimed at democratizing it.

Today the monopoly of power shared since 1975 between the KDP under the leadership of the Barzani family and the KPU under the leadership of the late Djelal Talabani has been broken. Criticisms coming from the Goran (Change) Movement which has emerged with a liberal agenda and the Islamist parties have obtained considerable popular support. The parliamentary elections held the Kurdish Region in 2009 produced a parliament which is much more colorful and vociferous than its predecessors. This development threatens the dominant position of the Barzani and Talabani families but the steps the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government is taking to democratize itself, slow and awkward though they may be, continue to win plaudits from the international community.

However Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution is obscurely worded on the status of Kirkuk and matters like the allocation of incomes from petrol and natural gas and these issues have emerged as the ones most urgently needing to be solved in the period since 2003. Furthermore the pro-centralisation policies followed by Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, since the complete withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq at the end of 2011 threatens the enhanced autonomy established in the country’s Kurdish region after 200, or as some would put it, the de facto state there. During this period Arbil, the Kurdish Regional Government’s capital, and Baghdad, have swung into different orbits, not just as regards domestic policy, but also on foreign policy. After 2011, the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government began to develop its own close commercial and political relations. The government in Baghdad began to perceive these close relations as a threat to its own dominance and began to adopt a position closer to the Tehran-Baghdad axis.

To conclude: a point has now been reached in which growing divergences on both internal matters and foreign policy have ratcheted up the tension between Arbil and Baghdad.

By Burak Bilgehan Özpek – *This piece was originally published in Analist Journal issed for February 2013 in Turkish. It was translated by David Barchard.