baghdad vs erbil, round two: locals don’t care, iran and turkey care too much

The war of words between the Iraqi PM and the Kurdish region’s President continues. Voters, who see it as a personal feud, don’t seem to care. But neighbouring countries, which see it as an opportunity for regional power plays, do. 


The political crisis between al-Maliki and al-Barzani is on the rise.  This is not a new issue in Kurdistan but the difference in this new crisis between the two leaders is the indifference shown by internal parties and the clear presence of external parties who are trying to utilize the crisis as a mean to put pressure on other parties.


Harsh words and conflicts between Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Massoud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, are hardly a new thing. The latest mudslinging has seen Barzani describe al-Maliki as a power hungry, dictatorial failure and al-Maliki threatening to come after the Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who is currently seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan after an arrest warrant was issued for him. 


But in terms of the latest angry exchange, there are two big differences worth noting. Political analysts say that, firstly, the Kurdish electorate don’t seem to care about the conflict. But, secondly, external powers do and they seem to have been using the conflict to their own advantage.  


“Barzani appears to be fighting this battle by himself and without any real support from political parties,” local political analyst, Rashid Farouq, observed. “And there is a lack of interest from among the Kurdish constituency – people in [Iraqi] Kurdistan seem to believe that the two men are driven by their own personal and economic interests rather than any devotion to the national interest or the welfare of the people.”


This may well be because a lot of the problems between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan currently stem from disagreements over oil and economics, such as the regional budget. There is also the ongoing issue of the fugitive al-Hashimi.


“At the moment the relationship between the two men is built on such grounds, that they’re almost obligated to fight over any statement, no matter how insignificant,” Farouq said.


And while neither other Kurdish politicians nor the Kurdish electorate seemed particularly phased by the verbal exchange, there’s no doubt that regional players found the spat interesting. Even though Turkey has been considered an antagonist when it comes to the Kurdish nationalistic dream of establishing their own state, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came out on Barzani’s side, after a meeting with him in April. Among other things, the Turkish politician called al-Maliki “self centred”.


Analysts say that part of the reason for the new friendship between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan could be because of shifts in regional power as a result of events in Syria. Turkey has been taking an increasingly hard line toward the Syrian regime, as protests there have become more and more violent. This has also resulted in a cooling of relations between Iran and Turkey. Some would argue that Iraqi Kurdistan is one of Turkey’s only friends in the area.  


Prime Minister al-Maliki returned the compliment saying that Turkey was becoming a "hostile state" with a sectarian agenda.


The April meeting between Erdogan and Barzani happened when Barzani was on his way to make an official visit to the US. According to Khabat, a Kurdish daily closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which Barzani heads and which is one of the two major political parties running the state, Prime Minister al-Maliki asked the US not to host Barzani. Apparently this wish was ignored and Barzani eventually met with US President Barack Obama.


And the latest shots have been fired by Barzani. At a meeting to commemorate the launch of the first Kurdish newspaper on Sunday, Barzani let Kurdish media know that he had asked the US administration not to go ahead with the planned sale of F-16 warplanes to Iraq. “The U.S. has agreed to sell 36 F-16 jets to Baghdad in a multi-billion-dollar deal aimed at increasing the capabilities of Iraq's fledgling air force, a weak point in its national defences,” the Wall Street Journal explained.


Meanwhile Iran seems to be using the enmity to show their support for al-Maliki. The Iraqi Prime Minister is on an official visit to Tehran at the moment and upon his arrival, Sahar TV, an official channel belonging to the national broadcasting network in Iran, reported that Saudi Arabia was behind the Kurdish President’s support for Vice President al-Hashimi, who is seeking refuge from a Baghdad arrest warrant in Iraqi Kurdistan. 


A spokesman for the Kurdish presidency pointed out that this was only a media report and had nothing concrete to do with al-Maliki. But analysts believe it reflects official Iranian opinions, which are opposed to Turkey’s.


Journalists attending the meeting at which Barzani revealed his thoughts on the F-16s said they felt the rift between Barzani and al-Maliki was looking deeper and colder all the time. And, Jaza Mohammed, the head of independent broadcaster, Radio Dank, said, “[Barzani] has made it clear that the support of the Turkish and of the US are encouraging him to prolong this crisis between himself and al-Maliki.”


And as Mohammed then concluded, the involvement of external players isn’t going to help heal this rift. In fact, he surmised, it may well make things worse.