World

Kurdistan rises from Iraq's ashes

Luke Harding, Fazel Hawramy

While Baghdad flounders, oil is helping to fuel the dream of Kurdish independence becoming reality.

The big picture: A portrait of Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani in Iraq's Kurdish regional parliament. (AFP)

Inside the lobby of Kurdistan’s Parliament, flanked by guards in traditional baggy trousers, is a giant portrait of Mustafa Barzani. The Barzanis have been fighting for Kurdish independence since the 1880s. They battled the Ottomans, the British and Baghdad.

Barzani, who was in exile in Iran and the Soviet Union, tried to establish a Kurdish state. He died in 1979, in the United States. Now, it seems, his moment has finally arrived.

On one floor of the Parliament, technocrats are discussing how to manage Kurdistan’s enormous oil wealth. On another, the discussion is about the referendum announced last week by Barzani’s son, Massoud, the current president of Iraqi Kurdistan, who asked the Parliament to set up a new election commission.

The vote – to be held later this year or early next – will determine whether disputed regions taken last month by Kurdish troops should join Kurdistan, and sets the stage for Kurdistan’s exit from a crumbling federal Iraq. “A greater Kurdistan is the dream of every Kurd,” said Farsat Sofi, an MP from Barzani’s dynastic Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). “We never wanted to be in Iraq in the first place. It’s been forced upon us.”

Sofi said the door was closing on an agreement with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister in Baghdad, and his Shia-dominated government.

Since 2003, Kurdistan’s regional government in Irbil, the KRG, has been locked in a bitter dispute with Iraq’s federal leaders in Baghdad. The row encompasses revenue sharing, the implementation of the 2005 Constitution, which is supposed to determine what happens to ­contested territories outside the autonomous Kurdish region, and al-Maliki’s alleged dictatorial tendencies.

Lightning offensive
This row has dramatically worsened with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Sunni insurgent group that now calls itself the Islamic State (IS) and controls a swath of northern Iraq after a lightning offensive last month. The Iraqi army vanished in the face of the jihadi advance but Kurdish fighters moved into the predominantly Kurdish city of Kirkuk, and other disputed areas, saying they were defending them from the IS. The KRG says it had repeatedly warned al-Maliki of the IS menace to Mosul, Iraq’s second city – only to be ignored.

But the dispute is as much about money as Kurdish demands for statehood – specifically who gets Iraq’s oil. “For the past 80 years, the Iraqi state has been stealing Kurdish oil,” Hemin Hawrami, head of the KDP’s foreign relations committee, said bluntly. “They [Baghdad] used it to buy weapons to bomb the Kurds.”

Hawrami said Kurdistan has the ninth largest oil reserves in the world. Under the Constitution, Kurdistan is meant to get a 17.5% share of Iraq’s oil revenues but the KRG accuses the central government of underpaying.

Baghdad’s oil ministry, on the other hand, says the Kurds are illegally stealing the nation’s oil. In February, al-Maliki refused to hand over any money for Kurdistan’s budget. The Kurds say they are legally entitled to sell oil, and need it to pay public salaries. They have exported it, on and off, since 2009.

Last Friday, the KRG took another significant step in its feud with Baghdad, seizing two major oilfields near Kirkuk: Bai Hassan and Makhmour. The regional government says it was forced to act after Baghdad instructed staff at the oil fields to sabotage production. Iraq’s main oil pipeline to Turkey, which crosses territory held by the IS, has not worked since early March, when an armed group bombed it.

Baghdad has also lost control of its Baiji refinery. The central government is furious with Irbil. But with the Iraqi army in disarray, it is powerless to act. The Kurds say they have tried repeatedly – but unsuccessfully – to reach a deal over oil revenues with al-Maliki.

Hawrami said the Kurds were pursuing a “two-track” political process and were trying hard “to help our Sunni and Shia brothers put an end to the fighting in Iraq”.

But for this to have any chance of success there had to be a new government in Baghdad, he said, adding: “Maliki must go. He is part of the problem, not the solution.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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