Iraqi Kurds Expand Autonomy As ISIS Reorders the Landscape

By Helene Cooper & Michael R. Gordon – New York Times – Posted 2014-08-30  – WASHINGTON — The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has thrown Iraq into crisis, precipitated the ouster of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister and brought the American military back to the country it left more than two years ago.But now Obama administration officials are quietly acknowledging another important consequence: a far more autonomous Kurdistan.The United States still officially opposes Kurdish independence, a decades-old policy that seeks to avoid further inflaming the region and provoking Turkey, Iraq and Iran, three countries with large and restive Kurdish minorities.

But the ISIS invasion has fundamentally changed the political geography of Iraq, senior American and Kurdish officials said, physically cutting off most of Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of Shiite-dominated Iraq and encouraging the Iraqi Kurds in their drive for expanded autonomy.

Masrour Barzani, the chief of intelligence for the Kurdish region of Iraq, said that the Obama administration, which carried out airstrikes to protect the regional capital, Erbil, against ISIS attacks, had made clear its “expectation” that the Kurds would participate in the process of forming a new government in Iraq. But the Kurds’ demands for joining the Iraqi government are extensive and include the right to sell their own oil, buy their own arms and conduct referendums on whether disputed areas should join the Kurdish region, as well as the establishment of a new mechanism to prevent any “abuses of power” by the new leadership in Baghdad, Mr. Barzani said. “Deep down every Kurd wants to have an independent state,” he said last week in a telephone interview. “For as long as we stay inside this country, of course we are going to be a constructive element in terms of participating in the formation of the government. But the government has to be inclusive, and it has to be responsive to the demands of the Kurds.”

So extensive are the Kurdish demands that some American officials believe they come close to full autonomy and may even lay the basis for eventual independence.

“The Kurds — I don’t think they are coming back,” a senior Defense Department official said. A senior White House official, asked whether the Obama administration viewed the independence of Kurdistan as inevitable, said: “I think that’s premature. Whatever one thinks of that prospect, now is not the time for another destabilizing event.”

But he added: “The way we’re thinking about it is, we’ve got to put out the fires first. Then we can think about the future of Iraq.”Within the administration, Secretary of State John Kerry and his senior aides have spearheaded an effort to keep the Kurds inside a united Iraq.And in an op-ed article last week in The Washington Post, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. suggested that Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites form a new government on the basis of a “functioning federalism.” Iraq’s territorial integrity would be maintained, Mr. Biden wrote, but there would be an equitable sharing of revenue with Iraq’s provinces, and Iraqi communities would be allowed to maintain “locally rooted security structures.”

Such arrangements may address some of the Kurdish demands for autonomy, though some are so far-reaching that some American officials say they cannot be settled in the next few weeks and may need to be negotiated with Iraqi officials in Baghdad over a period of months, if not years. The Kurds also have many supporters in Congress and among former officials, such as Gen. James L. Jones, a former national security adviser who is now the chief executive of the United States-Kurdistan Business Council. Last month, he was the host in Washington for two top Kurdish officials: Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional government president, and Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the Kurdish foreign relations department. Masrour Barzani, the intelligence chief, who is the son of Massoud Barzani, said that the Obama administration had never formally signaled that it was prepared to support an independent Kurdish state. And some American officials emphasize that the Kurds would face formidable economic and security obstacles if they were to seek formal independence.

According to estimates circulating within the American government, the Kurds would be billions of dollars short of the revenue they need to sustain their annual budget if they relied entirely on the oil they produce and received no money from the Iraqi government.

And while the Kurds seemed confident that they could take care of their security after ISIS took Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, in June and Iraqi forces fractured, the threat that the militant Sunni group posed to Erbil in August caught the Kurds by surprise and made it clear that the Kurdish government needs outside help. In addition to its airstrikes, the United States has helped coordinate the shipment of ammunition and small arms to the Kurds from Eastern Europe, Kurdish officials say. (So far, to the consternation of the Kurds, the United States has not provided the artillery, armored vehicles and other heavy weapons they have requested.) And about 200 commandos from the Iraqi government’s counterterrorism service played a critical role in retaking Mosul Dam, the first time that Iraqi government forces and Kurdish pesh merga troops have fought together, American officials said. Iran and Arab communities in Iraq have also opposed Kurdish independence, and any drive for statehood would depend on support from Turkey. “There’s been a romantic notion about the ability to carve out this independent Kurdish state, which is now becoming increasingly the backup plan to a unified Iraq,” said Samuel J. Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Anyone who knows the history of the Kurdish people will tell you that’s a great way to set yourself off for a decade of conflict.” Still, for all the obstacles, the Kurds have made it clear that they are pushing relentlessly for greater autonomy and perhaps eventual independence.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, the president of the Middle East Research Institute in Erbil, acknowledged that for now the Kurds were still dependent on financial and military support from Baghdad. But even as the Kurds participate in the government formation process in Baghdad, Kurdish leaders have kept alive the dream of a Kurdish state by calling for a referendum on independence, he noted.

“They are going on both tracks in parallel,” he said. “The Kurds have not given up working on the independence.” Echoing a common refrain from Kurdish leaders in recent weeks, Mr. Barzani insisted that the ISIS rampage in Iraq had fundamentally altered the military and political dynamics in the country. “There is a new reality,” he said. “Now we have an unfunctioning government in Baghdad. We have a terrorist state in the Sunni areas, and we have a relatively peaceful and prosperous region in Kurdistan.”

After ISIS’ seizure of Mosul, the Kurdish pesh merga security forces moved quickly to consolidate power in Kurdish border regions, and they took control of the nearby Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk, assuming command over the lucrative oil fields there.

The Kurds have made it clear that they do not plan to return Kirkuk and other disputed territories to Iraqi government control and would hold referendums in these areas on whether they should remain a part of Kurdistan. “We believe that process should be expedited and a referendum under the auspices of the international community and observers should happen quickly,” Mr. Barzani said. Tim Arango contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Mark Landler from Washington.