photo: Eddy van Wessel


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Iraqi Kurds play the blame game

Ignoring all warnings, the Kurds of Iraq in September held a referendum on independence and consequently lost most of the territory they controlled outside their autonomous region when the Iraqi army was sent in to punish them. A development that has increased the divide between their two main power bases--as well as the calls for unity.

(published in Arabic on October 29, 2017 in Huffington Post Arabic)

Erbil, by Judit Neurink

After the Iraqi army and Shiite militias mid-October took control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk back from the Kurds, the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, was not seen in public for many days. The referendum over independence from Iraq for the Kurdish region, held on September 25, had backfired badly, but Barzani offered no comfort and remained silent.

This added to the fury of many Kurds, and to the grief of as many others, because the fall-out from the referendum had destroyed even the last shreds of unity the president had hoped it would create. As Iraqi troops and Shiite volunteers rolled in to take back control of most of the areas that Baghdad and the Kurds have been disputing since 2003, Kurdish politicians and civilians started blaming both each other and the outside world.

The blame game is being played along geographical lines: in the western half of the Kurdistan Region under the control of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the blame is mostly placed on the competition: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) based in the eastern part of the Region, near the Iranian border. The PUK’s leaders blame the KDP, as they tried to convince Barzani to give in to pressure from most of the world--and most importantly Baghdad, the neighbors Iran and Turkey, and the Americans--to postpone the referendum. And when the Iraqi army, in retaliation for the vote, stood poised to take over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the PUK ordered their peshmerga troops to retreat—in order to prevent bloodshed and the destruction of the city, they claim. 

Demonstration outside the UN compound in Erbil (Picture Judit Neurink)

The Barzani front are calling this treason. Of the activists present at a small peace demonstration outside the United Nations compound in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil, most agree with that notion. Like Chiman Khaled, whose father was a peshmerga fighter killed by the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. She blames part of the PUK for the loss of Kirkuk: “A wing of the party accepted help from outside, which led to betrayal,” she says, choosing her words carefully.

She is so precise in putting the blame on just part of the party, because one PUK leader, Kosrat Rasul, took the KDP side, promising to defend Kirkuk. But when the other PUK battalions pulled back, he too was eventually forced to quit. The retreat of the peshmerga led to thousands of Kurds fleeing the city, fearing abuse by the Iranian-led Hashed al-Shabi militias, which have earned quite a reputation for brutality in the fight against the Islamic group ISIS. Weeks later, many have still not returned home, while many more Kurds have fled other towns and villages that have come under fire.

The part of the already badly-divided PUK that didn’t fight was led by the sons and nephews of the recently-deceased PUK leader, Jalal Talabani. His eldest son, Bafel, took the lead there, after opposing the referendum, even though he only holds a minor position in the party. The day before it was due to be held, he called on the KDP to postpone it; Barzani replied that it was too late for that. In PUK-majority towns, many stayed home, and the turnout was barely fifty percent.

Bafel Talabani (front left) and his brother Qubad (back left) with their cousins (picture Twitter)

 Jalal Talabani’s funeral, which took place just days after the referendum, would normally have been an opportunity to smooth over conflicts. However, no solutions were forthcoming. Soon after, when it became clear what measures Baghdad was preparing in response to a referendum it deemed illegal, Jalal’s son Bafel called for a meeting with other Kurdish parties in the lakeside town of Dukan--a symbolic venue, as his father’s guest house there had welcomed many fugitives from the wrath of previous Iraqi leaders. He presented a plan to pressure the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, into much-needed talks; the plan included a freeze on the referendum outcome and the peaceful handing over of Kirkuk, which was to be placed under joint Kurdish-Iraqi control. 

Barzani is said to have left the meeting in a rage—perhaps because it was clearly arranged following stiff pressure from neighboring Iran, which has traditionally been a major influence on the PUK and other Kurdish parties. Iran’s Republican Guards’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani had traveled back and forth between the different Kurdish cities and Baghdad, first to warn against holding the referendum, and later to threaten death and destruction if the outcome was not annulled and Kirkuk was not handed over. 

“Rather than face thousands of dead and fighting in Kirkuk, we decided to make a tactical retreat,” Bafal Talabani told France24 when confronted with the accusations of treason. He called for an investigation into what had happened, as fighting had still led to the death of dozens of peshmerga fighters. He also indicated that Abadi had been willing to reach agreements when the Kurdish leaders met in Dukan “to stop the trouble in Kirkuk,” but that the leaders—he didn’t blame Barzani by name--had not been able to decide fast enough.

Both Iran and Region’s other neighbor, Turkey, are worried about the impact the referendum--and a subsequent process leading to an independent Kurdish state in Iraq—could have for their own Kurdish minorities. They therefore sided with Baghdad to punish the Iraqi Kurds as a clear message to their own citizens: do not even consider anything like this! 

Tehran closed its border to maximize pressure on the PUK, as oil exports to Iran and petrol imports from that country account for much of the income of both the party and the Talabani family. In this respect, too, there is a clear split between the PUK/Talabani family on the one hand and the the Barzanis and the KDP-dominated government, which has been working closely with Turkey over the past decade, with major Turkish investment feeding into an economic boom and the transportation of Kurdish oil through Turkey, and Turkish loans, helping out during the recent recession.

But given the Kurdish leaders’ failure to show unity, and Barzani’s refusal to agree to Abadi’s demand to annul the vote, the Iraqi military take-over did not stop at Kirkuk. The army has since taken back most of the disputed areas, while fighting has broken out between the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi and Hashed troops at some strategic locations. This was probably partly because the KDP had been ready for a fight, as an advisor to the Kurdish Prime Minister, who wants to remain anonymous, admitted just after the referendum was held.

The adviser indicated that the vote had not been postponed, partly because elements within the KDP, mostly led by Barzani’s son Masrour, who heads the security forces, had decided that only now would they receive enough international support to counter any measures taken by Baghdad and the Region’s neighbors militarily. They argued that the Americans and Europeans would stop supporting them just as soon as the Kurds were no longer needed in the battle against ISIS--“And then Baghdad will use chemical weapons against us again, just as Saddam’s Baath party did before them,” the advisor said, promising mistakenly that the Peshmerga would fight for Kirkuk and win, because they were considered the stronger force.

This is another clear break with the PUK, which predicted such a battle would be lost: the Kurds had mainly been successful in the fight against ISIS, PUK analysts argued, because of the daily air support they received from the coalition. Meaning they stood no chance against the Iraqis and their mostly American-supplied weapons. These analysts included Bafel Talabani, who had set up the PUK special forces now led by his cousin, Lahur.

But in the KDP, the view was that the battle would come sooner or later anyway, as Baghdad has been unwilling to reach agreements over the disputed areas since the constitution was accepted in 2005, and according to which, the process for deciding who took control there, which included a census and a referendum, should have been completed by late 2007. Since that never happened, Baghdad would someday send the army in to take back the territories the Kurds had been able to take over. When they did, any excuse would do. 

This view has been echoed on social media by KDP supporters, as well as during demonstrations held recently in Erbil. “What happened has nothing to do with the referendum. Abadi and the militias were already planning this,” says Mohammed Jamal, holding a number of small Kurdish flags and expressing “sadness and grief” over the loss of territory. University professor Fatima Sinda points out that the Iraqi constitution, the legal justification claimed by Baghdad for its actions, has been abused by all parties. “The Iraqi government has been undermining it for years, ignoring it in its actions against minorities and now attacking us with American weapons.” 

Demonstration outside the UN compound in Erbil (Picture: Judit Neurink)

At the Erbil protests, many blamed the Americans for not helping the Kurds, and for allowing the Iraqi army and Shiite militias controlled by Iran to take over the disputed territories. Many simply had not believed the Americans when they warned the Kurds that, if the referendum went ahead, they would be unable to shield them from the consequences. By carrying Israeli flags and portraits of the Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanjahu, next to those of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, some revealed where they had now placed their trust. 

The aforementioned advisor declared to be disappointed in the Europeans, who had talked about human rights and democracy but were now taking Baghdad’s side. This same attitude showed in the press releases Masrour Barzani’s Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) put out about the clashes with the Iraqi army—or, in his view, primarily with the Iranian-led Shiite militias whose leaders he mentioned by name. “The US-led Global Coalition and US Government in particular has signaled tacit approval by dangerously--and incorrectly--referencing the need to implement the law. That position sanctions forces reporting to Hadi Ameri and Abu Mahdi Mohandes to launch unprovoked attacks against the people of the Kurdistan Region. It also gives Iran an opening to expand its influence and destabilize the Kurdistan Region.”

Many within KDP feel that the battle will have to be fought in order to get Baghdad to the negotiation table. This view is clearly expressed in this tweet from a Kurd calling himself 4K: “Baghdad don't want peace, we can see this through its aggression and demands, only force can stop Baghdad it's aggression and sit to listen”.

At the other side of the Kurdish spectrum, deceased PUK leader Jalal Talabani had declared in the past that he could not keep his people “from dreaming about their own Kurdish state, but that secession from Iraq is not realistic.” This view is shared by his sons, who call for Kurdish unity in order to get the best deal possible to stay within the Iraqi federation.

As deputy Prime Minister, Talabani’s younger son Qubad is, interestingly enough, working closely with Massoud’s nephew and Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani. The latter stayed out of the limelight during the referendum campaign, but has now resurfaced as a strong supporter of unity. He is the main candidate for taking over part of his uncle’s job after he steps down.

Calls for Barzani’s resignation have come from all sides of the divide, although more loudly from his opponents. “That went well, Mr Barzani. You lost everything the Kurdish people have fought for over so many years, and for what? Time to resign & step down,” tweeted Kurdish Solidarity @Hevallo. The leader of KDP’s former coalition partner, Gorran [Change], is openly calling on Barzani to resign. (which he has since done, JN)

A coalition of three opposition parties has come up with a road map for addressing the crisis, which calls for the abolishment of the office of president and the transfer of his authorities to government institutions. It also promotes the formation of a provisional government to negotiate with Baghdad and prepare for new parliamentary elections to be held in Kurdistan, leading to a new parliament and the formation of a new government.

Barzani’s decision not to give in to pressure to delay the referendum is seen by many as a grave mistake that led to the Kurds losing most of what they had achieved since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. The deal offered by American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, which was leaked, has even convinced members of the KDP, showing as it does that had Barzani delayed, the Americans and the United Nations would have worked with the Kurds and Baghdad to solve the points of conflict between the two. If after two years that did not work out, the deal stipulated, the option of holding the independence referendum would be on the table.

Prominent PUK politician Mahmoud Othman, while supporting the proposal, warned that Abadi’s demand to nullify the results of the referendum could not be met. “(The) proposal could create a platform for dialogue. Request to cancel referendum results not feasible, all sides should be flexible”, he tweeted. 

Cancelling the referendum outcome completely is not popular, even among those who were not in favor of holding it, like the poet and lecturer, Choman Hardi, who wrote on Facebook: “Many tried to warn the KRG that the referendum was ill-timed, that internally and externally the preconditions for statehood were not met. But the referendum went ahead anyway, raising high hopes only to rapidly smash them when the federal government forcibly seized many Kurdish-controlled territories. And after all of that to freeze the vote? Even though I did not vote, I feel grieved by this news.”

Even so, many will not budge in their support for their president, and keep on blaming others for the crisis. Like Kurdish activist Nergiz on Twitter: “There are no regrets in having voted yes in the referendum. Given the chance, would vote yes again. Thank you President @masoud barzani”. And even stronger, Mêrdîn Dilêmine, who lives in Toronto and defends Barzani blindly for having put Kurdistan on the international map: “He is not loser, he was brave& let the world know d will of people of Kurdistan. In that sense he is a true winner in the hearts and minds”.

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