- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Just hours after the Islamic State hit multiple sites in Shiite neighborhoods across Baghdad, killing over 90 civilians, the governor of Kirkuk province in the Kurdish north said that it was time for his region to split from the country.
“Kirkuk needs to get away from Baghdad,” Dr. Najmaldin Karim told a handful of reporters at the office of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. He blasted the political turmoil roiling Baghdad under the leadership of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, which saw the government shut down Kirkuk’s oil production earlier this year, plunging the province into an economic tailspin.
Baghdad’s decision to shut off the oil supply to a pipeline stretching through Iraqi Kurdistan and on to Turkey without consulting Kurdish officials has renewed calls to split off from the Iraqi state. The pipeline had been pumping about 150,000 barrels a day before Iraq’s state-run North Oil Company halted sales without warning or explanation in March, cutting off the region’s primary source of revenue. Iraqi Kurdistan produces another 450,000 barrels of oil a day, but has had trouble exporting it to global markets because it is not an independent country.
The oil freeze infuriated the Kurds, who have been locked in a struggle to keep Islamic State fighters out of Kirkuk. The Kurds took over control of the fields after the Iraqi army fell to pieces in the summer of 2014 as the Islamic State overran much of the country’s west and north, including the city of Mosul.
While the terrorist group has been pushed out of the cities of Ramadi, Tikrit, and Baiji, it is still active in parts of Kirkuk province, and through much of the north. Kurdish peshmerga fighters have emerged as the most reliable force to confront the group as the Iraqi army continues to be slowly retrained by the Americans, but the Kurdish fighters need more weapons, vehicles, and ammunition to take on the group, Kurdish officials have said. And they also want to be supplied directly by the Americans, instead of having Washington hand equipment to the government in Baghdad, which then decides how to supply the Kurds.
As for U.S. forces, American “young men are losing their lives to keep a country together that doesn’t want to be together,” Karim said.
Talk of splitting Iraq along sectarian lines has been in the air for years, since the country was cobbled together from disparate provinces of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Iraq partition was bandied about at the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion, and then-Senator Joe Biden discussed partition as a way to defuse Iraq’s internal tensions.
While he has worked to maintain Iraq as a viable state since assuming the vice presidency, Biden alluded to his previous statements last month while speaking to U.S. embassy staff on a visit to Baghdad. “Think of all the places we are today trying to keep the peace,” he said. “All the places we’ve sent you guys and women. They’re places where, because of history, we’ve drawn artificial lines, creating artificial states made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious, cultural groups, and said: ‘Have at it. Live together.’”
Ever since the onslaught of the Islamic State, Kurdish leaders have become increasingly bold in their desire to achieve independence from Baghdad.
Masoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, “has no faith left in Baghdad at all,” Karim said. One huge source of tension between Baghdad and Erbil is oil money: Under the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish region is meant to get a portion of revenues from all Iraqi oil sales. But for years, Kurdish officials say, Baghdad has shortchanged the region. That’s why it started trying to export its oil directly, but Erbil is still wracked by financial shortfalls that make it hard to pay civil servants, foreign oil companies, or help maintain thousands of refugees and internally-displaced people.
Kurdistan’s own struggles are complicated by the turmoil in Baghdad. Abadi is struggling to remake his cabinet and root out corruption. Protesters have become increasingly vocal in their demands for reform and accountability, even storming the Green Zone and briefly late last month and occupying Parliament. But the standard bearer of the protests is Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric who a decade ago fought against U.S. troops and who continues to enjoy backing from Iran.
That means that Washington and Tehran have limited political options in Baghdad. With no obvious successor to replace the faltering Abadi, “the U.S. has no choice” but to continue to back him, Karim said. He added he doesn’t feel that the prime minister enjoys the support he once had from Iran, either, but until a qualified — or palatable — successor can be found, it will be business as usual in the Green Zone, as chaotic as that may be.
The country’s Shiite-led leadership in Baghdad has shown no desire to hack away ethnically-distinct bits of the country, especially in places — like Kurdistan — with so much oil waiting to be pumped out to refill the country’s increasingly empty coffers. While the Kurds may want to carve out their own territory, powerful friends in Washington, Tehran, and Ankara have no desire to spawn an independent Kurdish state.
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