The Kurdish Referendum and Cross-Communal Dynamics in Iraq

The passage of the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq in late September has influenced a complicated set of inter-communal dynamics while intensifying intra-communal infighting among some groups. Although a large majority of Kurds supported the referendum, some Kurds, particularly those affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have voiced concerns about the political tactics of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani. Meanwhile, the referendum has temporarily united Iraq’s majority Arabs, both Shia and Sunni, although some of the Shia, led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, are trying to goad the current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi into sending troops to the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk and its surroundings, where Arabs and Turkmen have opposed the incorporation of this area into the KRG. Abadi, however, while denouncing the independence referendum, is reluctant to send troops, as he does not want another fight on his hands so soon after the costly victory over the so-called Islamic State (IS). In fact, he fears that such a deployment could be a political trap by his rival.

The economic squeeze on the KRG by the Iraqi central government, and pressure from Turkey, Iran, and the international community, have compelled the Kurds to refrain from taking their referendum to the next level—that is, actual independence. French President Emmanuel Macron has also offered to mediate between Baghdad and Irbil, the KRG capital. Although the situation may not lead to armed confrontation, outstanding issues related to revenue disbursements from the central government, ownership of oil resources in the KRG, and the disposition of Kirkuk are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. The referendum has thus underscored Iraq’s political as well as communal fragility.

Breakdown of the Arab Shia-Kurdish alliance

Soon after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq’s majority Arab Shia community and the Kurds formed an alliance. Both groups had been persecuted under the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. Their alliance reflected an understanding that they would keep the once dominant but demographically small Sunni Arab population in a subordinate position. Indeed, the Shia and the Kurds were the primary groups that greatly influenced the writing of Iraq’s 2005 Constitution.

The inter-communal violence that followed the invasion helped lead to a weakening of Iraq’s national identity––as political power became based on sectarian interests––and the rise of subnational identities because people sought protection within their own groups. As for the Kurds, their own ethnic identity was predominant for decades prior to 2003; they had always been uncomfortable with Iraq’s emphasis on Arab nationalism, from which they felt excluded, and there were periodic clashes between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government.

Since the early 1990s, the Iraqi Kurds have had their own autonomous region of Iraq, backed by the United States in the aftermath of the first Gulf war in 1991. It has been administered by a loose alliance between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the PUK who, despite their differences and even clashes, created the KRG that was protected militarily by the Kurdish Peshmerga.

The Kurds took leading positions in the new Iraqi government based on a post-invasion consociational arrangement that allocated the presidency of the republic to them (albeit with limited powers) and assured them of other portfolios. The Shia were allocated the prime ministership while the Sunnis got the speakership of Parliament. Nevertheless, the Kurds always seemed to have the alternative of breaking away from the Iraqi state if they believed that the central government was not taking their interests into account. This attitude was more prevalent among members of the KDP than the PUK, especially as the leader of the PUK, Jalal Talabani (who recently passed away), became the new president of Iraq, while the leader of the KDP, Masoud Barzani, held the position of president of the KRG.

Strains in the Shia-Kurdish alliance started to appear in 2014 toward the end of Maliki’s tenure, when he began to refashion himself as an Iraqi nationalist through his State of Law Coalition—instead of as leader of the Shia Dawa Party. Maliki objected to the Kurds signing oil contracts with western oil companies without central government approval and, as a consequence, held up sending the agreed upon 17 percent of government revenues to the KRG as a result. Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, also shared these problems with the Kurds, who also complained that the central government was holding up arms destined to them.

In addition, the disposition of the ethnically mixed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk remained a problem. Under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, the disposition of Kirkuk and its environs, which lay just outside the boundaries of the KRG, was to be determined by a vote of the area’s inhabitants in 2007; but the issue was so fraught with controversy (ethnic Kurds wanted to unite with the KRG, while ethnic Arabs and Turkmens wanted to stay within the jurisdiction of the Iraqi state) that the vote was delayed many times. In addition to oil resources, Kirkuk also has special significance for the Kurds, who sometimes call it their “Jerusalem.” When IS was on the march in the summer of 2014, the Kurds took advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi army and seized Kirkuk and incorporated it into the KRG, an act the Iraqi central government never recognized.

Inter- and Intra-Communal Developments Since the Referendum

Many of these issues were submerged during the fight against IS, as Iraqi regular army units and special forces (who were retrained by the United States), Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and Kurdish Peshmerga all faced a common enemy. But with IS in significant retreat by mid-2017, especially after it lost Mosul, Barzani decided to go ahead with an independence referendum and even vowed to hold it in the disputed Kirkuk area.

What is still the subject of some debate is why Barzani decided to hold the referendum in late September and refused to back down in the face of strong opposition from the Iraqi central government, regional powers like Turkey and Iran, and the United States––which has been the KRG’s main protector since the early 1990s. Some analysts believe Barzani wanted to deflect attention away from the Kurds’ own political foibles. The KRG parliament did not convene for two years because of internal disputes between the KDP and the PUK. Some Kurds have been so fed up by such infighting that they supported a new Kurdish political party, Gorran, which won 24 out of 111 seats in the KRG Parliament when the last elections were held in 2013. Barzani’s own term as president was to have expired in 2015, but he has held on to power since that time. He now claims that he will step down in early November 2017, and so the referendum, which he knew would pass by a large margin because of nationalist sentiments among the Iraqi Kurds (it received 93 percent approval) may have been his way to leave office with a positive legacy, at least in his view. However, when the KRG Parliament reconvened in mid-September 2017 for the sole purpose of voting for the motion tasking the election body with holding the independence referendum, 65 deputies out of 68 deputies present (from the 111-seat body) voted for it—not an overwhelming majority and a reflection of non-KDP members’ dissatisfaction with Barzani’s leadership.

Another reason may be tactical. By holding the referendum, Barzani wanted to use the referendum’s outcome as a bargaining chip with the central government, perhaps to compel it to resume revenue disbursements, drop objections to oil deals that the KRG had signed, and allow the Kurds to hold onto Kirkuk in return for the KRG staying within the Iraqi state.

Whatever the reason, the hostile reaction to the referendum has caused high tensions between Iraq’s majority Arab population (both Shia and Sunni) and the Kurds. Indeed, the Kurdish referendum seems to be the one issue that has united Arab Sunni and Shia, as neither group wants a breakup of the Iraqi state. On the other hand, Iraq’s smaller minority groups seem to be split on the issue. The Turkmens, especially those in the Kirkuk area, do not want to be under Kurdish rule, while many Christians who fled to the KRG areas when IS marched through northern Iraq in 2014 see KRG rule as preferable to that of the Iraqi central state which, in their view, did not protect them against IS and may not protect them in the future against another extremist group.

Iraq’s judiciary has declared the Kurdish referendum as unconstitutional, and Iraq’s parliament has dismissed the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk—a symbolic move since he remains in his position. At the same time, Abadi has not only denounced the referendum as unconstitutional but has tried to squeeze the KRG economically by forbidding international flights out of Irbil, the KRG capital, and has compelled some foreign oil companies to rethink any new investments in the KRG. Low oil prices, corruption, and economic mismanagement had plagued the KRG’s economy before the referendum, and the economic downturn could worsen in the near future.

Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, the Kurdish referendum has exacerbated frictions within Iraq’s dominant Shia community. With parliamentary elections slated for 2018, these factions are using the Kurdish issue to jockey for support. Nouri al-Maliki, who was forced to step aside in favor of Abadi in 2014 and not seek a third term as prime minister, wants his old job back. Back then, he lost the support of the United States, Iran, and Iraq’s Shia religious leader Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani when the Iraqi army collapsed against IS. Maliki still sees his rival, Abadi, as his major impediment. Maliki and his State of Law Coalition followers in parliament have been goading Abadi to send troops to the Kirkuk area to reclaim it for the Iraqi state and pressure the KRG to back down from its independence quest.

Abadi, however, as stated earlier, seems reluctant to take such action. Having just completed a very costly campaign against IS during which many Iraqi civilians and soldiers were killed, he does not want another war on his hands. Moreover, even though Iraqi Special Forces performed well against IS in taking back Mosul, he may not be confident that they would do as well against the Peshmerga fighters who would be defending their homeland, and a defeat of Iraqi troops would be a major embarrassment for him. Hence, Abadi may see Maliki’s push for an offensive against the Kurds as a trap.

Abadi also seems interested in lessening Iran’s role in Iraq and wants the PMF folded into the regular army and not answerable to Iran. Some PMF elements are also urging a tough response against the KRG, with a spokesman for the PMF quoted as saying that the KRG officials who organized the referendum will be “our targets.” Whether they are taking their cues from Iran on this issue is not clear, but Tehran might want another Shia leader to emerge out of the 2018 elections. Although Abadi has cordial relations with Tehran, Iranian leaders are undoubtedly worried about his rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and his efforts at reaching out to the Sunnis.

Role of Outside Powers

The strong opposition by Turkey and Iran, both of which have substantial Kurdish populations and fear that an independence quest by the Iraqi Kurds would galvanize their own Kurdish communities, has been evident in recent weeks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to shut down the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, thus depriving the KRG of substantial revenues. Although Turkey, which benefits from this pipeline in both oil and transit fees, would be hurting its own economy by such a move, its opposition to the independence referendum is so strong that Ankara might actually go through with the threat. On October 4, Erdoğan flew to Tehran to hold talks on the Kurdish issue. During his visit, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei denounced the Iraqi Kurdish referendum as “treason against the whole region.” Meanwhile, Iranian military units have been deployed along Iran’s border with the KRG as a warning to the Iraqi Kurds.

A Way Out of the Crisis, and Implications for US Policy

With such widespread opposition to the independence referendum and the possibility of an economic blockade looming, the KRG seems to have tempered its independence quest. It has not done anything to take the referendum to the next step—that is, a push for actual independence. Abadi, for his part, has also lowered the temperature a bit by meeting with French President Macron, who has offered to mediate the crisis, and has allowed airline flights to resume to Irbil if they connect through Baghdad. US officials should get behind the French effort, especially as President Donald Trump has relatively good relations with Macron.

Mediation between Irbil and Baghdad will not be easy because the disputes over oil, central government revenue disbursements, and Kirkuk are all very complicated and difficult to solve. However, letting this crisis fester could lead to a new conflagration in the region just as the fight against the Islamic State is nearing an end; another military conflict could destabilize not only Iraq but a good part of the region, as the Kurds inhabit four countries. Moreover, while Abadi’s popularity has risen because of his stewardship of the successful anti-IS campaign, his standing could be jeopardized if this Kurdish crisis is not settled soon. Indeed, delaying its resolution could pave the way for another Shia leader to emerge in Iraq who may not be as moderate or inclusive as Abadi has tried to be.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC