Recently Iraq’s potential new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wrote about his manifesto on his Facebook page, broadly introducing his plans to form a government. Among the most important points raised were a reduction in the number of ministries, a reduction in MP’s salaries and a sizeable reduction in ministry budgets.
In the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, these points were seen as positive signs. However the Iraqi Kurdish politicians also noticed what al-Abadi did not mention: many of the unresolved problems causing conflict between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities in Erbil and the federal government in Baghdad.
When the last Iraqi government was formed, Iraqi Kurdish politicians came to the bargaining table with a list of 19 requests. None of these points were implemented as they were drafted. And as a result, during the final days of the last government, led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi Kurdish politicians virtually withdrew from Parliament. Conflicts between Baghdad and Erbil seemed only to worsen, with Baghdad not having paid Erbil its share of the national budget for eight months.
This time, Iraq’s Kurds have formed a committee to oversee negotiations with the newly evolving Iraqi government. However, many of the points up for negotiation have not changed.
The focus is on the Iraqi Kurdish share of the national budget, on legal and political wrangles over oil and revenues from it, as well as the ongoing problems with Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which is supposed to clarify the matter of Iraq’s so-called disputed territories. These are territories that Baghdad says belongs to Iraq but which the Iraqi Kurdish think should be part of their semi-autonomous region.
The Iraqi Kurdish are ready to help make this political process a success, the Iraqi Kurdistan’s President, Massoud Barzani, said in mid-August. But only if there is real change and progress and only if the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Barzani made it clear that Baghdad could not simply expect Iraq’s Kurds to acquiesce to their wishes.
“The Kurds won’t participate in this government unless they are given some kind of guarantee,” Ariz Abdallah, a senior member of one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, told NIQASH. The points raised by the Iraqi Kurdish should be resolved in a timely manner and their resolution could even be supervised by a third party, like the US government, the United Nations or a Shiite Muslim religious authority.
Members of Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, say that there is no longer much need for negotiation of the conditions of Article 140. The only thing left to do is hold a referendum and a census inside the disputed areas, in which residents will decide whether they want to be part of Iraqi Kurdistan or of Iraq proper. The whole issue has been complicated – or perhaps, clarified – because after Sunni Muslim extremists took over the northern city of Mosul in early June, Iraqi Kurdish military forces moved into many of the disputed territories to protect them from the extremists.
That’s why this issue is no longer up for debate, Barzani has said.
Abdallah is not quite so sure. The census and referendum must be conducted legally, he suggests, and in a way that both Erbil and Baghdad can live with.
“Article 140 has not yet been implemented,” Abdallah argues. “All this talk of how Article 140 has been resolved is just in the media and has nothing to do with the actual law.”
Many Iraqi Kurdish politicians have said that the Iraqi Kurdish military will not withdraw from the areas they took over after the extremist group, known as the Islamic State, attacked nearby. This could become extremely problematic as some Iraqi politicians have already said that the Iraqi Kurdish can really only participate in the next government if their forces do withdraw from those areas.
“The most important point which the Kurdish want to negotiate with al-Abadi's government resolves around the national budget,” Ahmed Kani, a senior member of the KDP, told NIQASH. “This involves salaries for government employees in the region, the draft of the oil and gas law and arming the Iraqi Kurdish military forces. That’s why we need guarantees and firm dates. We don’t just want promises on a piece of paper.”
“The Kurdish shouldn’t focus on the smaller issues of salaries and budgets in Baghdad,” suggests Kawa Mohammed, an MP for the third of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest political parties, the Change movement, or Goran. He believes the focus should be on real power and participation within the government.
“The Kurds should bring up the whole budget again as a precondition for their participation in this government. And we should be asking for the right jobs. There’s no point in claiming the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because we already hold the President’s job and this represents Iraq internationally. We would be better off with the oil ministry or the finance ministry as these two ministries are very important for Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Nearly all Iraqi Kurdish analysts think that although the demands of their region haven’t really changed, their representatives have learned some serious lessons from the past. Mostly this means imposing deadlines and guarantees on whatever negotiations bring.
“Although the Kurdish demands haven’t really changed, the political, economic and security conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan have,” says Kamran Mantak, a professor of political science at Erbil's Salahaddin University. “Which means that negotiations are going to be more difficult. There are a lot of old demands and if any of them can be met, then a lot of problems will be solved.”
However Mantak doesn’t hold out much hope that this will happen. Demands made by Iraq’s Sunni Muslims and Iraq’s Kurds may never be met because of the state of mind in the government. Which means that eventually Iraq will be divided, Mantak concludes.