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where do iraq’s kurds really stand
with one foot in Baghdad and an eye on independence?

Hiwa Barznjy
Ever since Sunni Muslim extremists took over the northern city of Mosul and other Iraqi territory, there has been talk of the country falling apart. Iraq’s Kurds are talking about splitting from the country…
17.07.2014  |  Erbil
Time for independence? The Kurdish flag next to the Iraqi one.
Time for independence? The Kurdish flag next to the Iraqi one.

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In a speech given to the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament on July 3, the President of the semi-autonomous region, Massoud Barzani, called on local politicians to create an independent electoral commission so that a referendum could be held on the future of the region. The speech gave the rest of the country yet another message about the potential for the Iraqi Kurdish to secede from the rest of the country and form their own state.

The Kurdish people are one the largest ethnic groups in the world without an actual homeland and Kurdish living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey share a language, culture and ethnicity. For many, the idea of a nation of their own, a greater Kurdistan, is something to strive for.

And this is not the first time that Barzani has threatened to hold such a referendum around the issue of splitting from the rest of Iraq. Every time there are serious conflicts between himself and the Iraqi government in Baghdad – and in particular, between himself and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – he repeats this call for a referendum. However every time any such conflict is resolved and relations between the two parties improve, Barzani usually retreats.

Some analysts have criticised this to-and-fro and “crying wolf” about secession for the Iraqi Kurds. And perhaps this is hardly surprising. Because there are other things going on that indicate that Iraq’s Kurds have little intention to secede. After all, Barzani’s statements in early July came just two days after the first session of Iraq’s Parliament after recent general elections, held at the end of April. There were over 60 Iraqi Kurdish MPs present at the first session and during the session they, like all the other MPs, swore an oath to preserve Iraq’s unity.

Additionally the Iraqi Kurdish representatives in Parliament are also fighting hard for their share of the top positions in Iraq’s government. Over the past few years, the president of Iraq has been senior Iraqi Kurdish politician, Jalal Talabani. And Iraq’s Kurds are in line to get this seat once again. Those who argue that the Iraqi Kurdish are not serious about splitting from Iraq ask why Iraqi Kurdish politicians are fighting so hard – both with Arab politicians and among themselves - for this position, and others, if they are not planning to stick around. There are suspicions that the Iraqi Kurdish are just using threats of secession to gain more power and more position in Baghdad.

On the other hand, some say that playing both sides – working hard to get power in the Iraqi state while preparing for potential independence - is the best thing the Iraqi Kurdish can do right now.

“What we are doing is not about confusion nor ambivalence,” Ali Awni, a senior member of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, told NIQASH. “We are pursuing the wisest policy in order to achieve gains for the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. Everybody is talking about the possibility of Iraq disintegrating. Everyone agrees that things cannot go back to the way they were before Mosul was taken over [by Sunni Muslim extremists]. That’s why we should be prepared for all eventualities,” Awni argues.

Asked what Iraqi Kurdish MPs were up to in Baghdad, Awni explained that, “we don’t have a lot of hope left in Iraq. But if there is a chance to participate in the political process than we will do so – but only on the condition that we can keep what we have achieved so far and that we won’t go back to the way things were in the past. Whatever happens though,” he adds, “we will announce independence before the end of 2016. Iraq cannot last much longer the way things are now.”

“We went to Baghdad because we were told to do so by the Iraqi Kurdish leadership,” Ariz Abdallah, a senior member of another of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, told NIQASH. “Our leadership decides if we stay there or if we return to Iraqi Kurdistan. I believe we should deal with Baghdad on one hand and also work for the potential post-Iraq phase on the other.”

Abdallah also said that there had been no agreement made to establish an independent Kurdish state. “We don’t want to separate completely from Baghdad but we won’t compromise our independence just to gain political positions,” he added.

The Iraqi Kurdish MPs will stay in Baghdad “until the last moment, to defend the rights of the Kurdish people, before any referendum is held,” says Aram Sheikh Mohammed, a leading member of Iraqi Kurdistan’s third large party, the Change movement or Goran; Mohammed has just been elected Deputy Speaker of Parliament in Baghdad.

The Iraqi Kurdish MPs apparent plan to play both sides, so to speak, has received mixed reviews back home.

Analyst and leading Iraqi Kurdish journalist Arif Qurbani calls participation in the Iraqi government while organizing a referendum on independence “a smart political move”.

Another local journalist and political commentator, Mam Burhan Qanea, says that the performance that Iraqi Kurdish MPs put on in Baghdad was just that: A performance. And it shows that Iran and the US can still put plenty of pressure on the country’s Kurdish. “Iraqi Kurdish politicians can’t avoid that pressure,” he says. “The political will to work toward independence is not strong enough. This demand for independence is nothing but a big lie and a show.”

This is not the right time to hold a referendum on independence, Kurdish commentator Massoud Abdul Khaliq tells NIQASH. “We shouldn’t even be thinking about it. Because we are not prepared to do so with any legal basis – we need to prepare this properly, with the United Nations. If we do hold a referendum, anyone – the United Nations, the US, the Arab states – can question our legality. When that happens, Iraqi Kurdish unity will begin to crack and we will lose all our opportunities.”