For over almost a year the military forces from the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan have been fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State. This has involved the Iraqi Kurdish military gaining territory that wasn't previously theirs – it was part of Iraq proper rather than their partially independent region, which has its own borders, parliament and laws. Some of the terrain that they are now controlling has been part of what are known in Iraq as the disputed territories. Basically this is land that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to them, but that the federal government in Baghdad says belongs to Iraq proper.
As a result of the fighting, Iraqi Kurdistan's President, Massoud Barzani, has made several sweeping statements saying that, because the Iraqi Kurdish had fought for the land, that it was now theirs. Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which is supposed to settle the dispute between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan through things like censuses and referendums, no longer needed to be applied, Barzani stated. Other politicians have made similar statements saying things like, if other ethnic groups believe they should get a stake in the disputed territory like the city of Kirkuk, “then let them come and join the Iraqi Kurdish military in defending it”.
But strangely enough, that confrontational tone now seems to have changed with several leading Iraqi Kurdish politicians saying that once the fighting is done, and the security problems caused by the IS group have been resolved, then they will go back to the negotiating table and work out whom the disputed territories really belong to. More than one local politician told NIQASH that during the last meetings with representatives of the federal government, the issue of the disputed territories had come up and that the Iraqi Kurdish administrators had agreed to discuss them.
All of which would appear to confirm a popular Kurdish saying: “What the Kurdish win in war, the politicians will lose at the negotiating table”. Many of the locals in Iraqi Kurdistan do seem to believe that the disputed areas should belong to their region. But now many seem to be becoming more aware that some of the earlier statements made by their representatives about this issue, could just have been media grandstanding.
“Iraqi Kurdistan hasn't taken any steps regarding the disputed territories,” Nasreddin Saeed, the Minister for Affairs Of the Disputed Territories, told NIQASH. “The regional government is waiting to negotiate with Baghdad about this. While it is true that Iraqi Kurdistan is now dominating in these areas militarily, there are still legal and constitutional problems that need to be addressed. We are waiting for the Committee on Article 140 to be reformed in Parliament.”
“It is true that Kurdish blood was spilled to liberate these areas from the IS group,” Saeed admitted. “But the problem is a legal one and should be resolved legally,” he noted, more or less admitting that the Iraqi Kurdish were not about to hang onto the disputed territories through force.
Even if negotiations are being planned behind the scenes, not everyone agrees that this is the right thing to do. “Most of the areas that are in the Kurdish region have now been liberated from the extremists and there are plans to liberate the remaining areas too,” Jamal Eminki, chief of staff of the Peshmerga forces, told NIQASH. “The Iraqi Kurdish military will not withdraw from those areas because they were liberated by blood. And anyway, there were Iraqi Kurdish military in these areas even before the Islamic State group arrived.”
Many politicians think that the Iraqi Kurdish authorities should do more to push the issue. Local MP Beeston Faeq believes that, “the region's government should begin to administrate matters in the disputed areas, providing these areas with services and developing projects there”.
But this would obviously come at a cost. If the Iraqi Kurdish did decide to annex the disputed areas without asking permission from Baghdad there would be a heavy economic burden for the currently-struggling region to bear. Billions of dinars would be needed to provide for the estimated 2.4 million people living in the disputed areas that would ostensibly become part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Most Iraqi Kurdish officials seem willing to admit that there is no other solution to this problem than one that aligns with legal and constitutional guidelines. However they also say that when it comes to negotiations, the Kurds have the odds in their favour.
“The Iraqi Kurdish military control large parts of these areas now and the balance of power has changed,” says politician Qader Aziz, who heads the Kurdish Future Movement party. “That's why the Kurds should make use of this opportunity to pressure Baghdad to resolve Article 140. The Kurdish have many cards they can play to achieve a good outcome. For example, everyone knows that the city of Mosul cannot be liberated from the extremists without our help.”