Iraqi Kurds are mounting a campaign in Washington this week to rally U.S. government support for an independence bid before a referendum in September. But Baghdad opposes talk of secession, and with the United States committed to a one-Iraq policy, it’s going to be an uphill fight.
Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Department of Foreign Relations, told Foreign Policy during a visit to Washington that the message he hoped to convey to his American counterparts was that “an independent Kurdistan is a solution and not a problem.”
“The United States can play a very important role,” Bakir told FP. “It has leverage, and it has tools, in order to be the broker … in bringing Erbil and Baghdad to this process of negotiation.”
Iraqi Kurds, who are concentrated in the country’s autonomous northern region, have long chafed under centralized rule. In the 1990s under Saddam Hussein, they were the targets of a genocidal campaign that forced hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee into the mountains for safety.
The 2005 Iraqi Constitution established the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, which gained international acclaim for the role of its Peshmerga militias in the fight against the Islamic State.
But many Kurds believe Baghdad has failed to respect their rights. Under the constitution, the Kurdish region is guaranteed a 17 percent cut of the national budget. But in 2014, following a dispute over oil sales, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to send the requisite payment, sparking a financial crisis.
In June, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani announced that the region would hold a referendum on Sept. 25 in which Iraqi Kurdistan’s approximately 5 million residents would answer “yes” or “no” to the question, “Do you want an independent Kurdistan?”
It’s not the first time that Barzani has called for a referendum, but this time is different. The Kurds are now well-known and well-liked stateside. And unlike the informal referendum held in January 2005, in which Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence, this referendum is officially sponsored by the regional government.
“Whoever sits in Baghdad wants to grab all the power and control everything,” said Bakir, adding that the Kurds were never treated like genuine partners. But the United States has developed what to Erbil feels like an equitable relationship, and Bakir hopes to draw on that relationship during his visit this week.
“The United States has found out that Kurds are their best friends and allies — in building democracy, in fighting terrorism, in caring for the displaced communities and standing for the minorities,” he said.
So far, Bakir has met with National Security Council Middle East director Derek Harvey; Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; Brett McGurk, the special U.S. envoy for the coalition to defeat the Islamic State; and members of House Foreign Affairs Committee, among others.
— KRG-USA (@KRG_USA) July 17, 2017
Still, the United States is unlikely to take the KRG’s side. U.S. officials often argue that a strong, stable, unified Iraq is the region’s best bet to fight terrorism and prevent the return of the Islamic State or similar extremists. And Washington also worries about the reaction of neighboring countries such as Turkey and Iran, which view the creation of a Kurdish state as an existential threat.
“The Americans do not want this additional source of pressure,” said Randa Slim, the director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at the nonpartisan Middle East Institute, adding that even a strong “yes” outcome is unlikely to change minds in Washington.
“After the referendum, the position of the Americans is going to be what you see now — it’s not good, it’s not the right time, it’s better for the region to be whole, to be not divided,” Slim told FP.
Barzani isn’t necessarily hoping to make an immediate declaration of independence, however, and his willingness to play the long game increases his options. The 2005 referendum, even though it carried no legal weight, nevertheless increased the Kurds’ bargaining power during the debate over Iraq’s new constitution, which enshrined Iraqi Kurdistan’s status as the country’s only autonomous region.
A “yes” vote for the 2017 referendum could do much the same, both for direct negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad and in the run-up to the Iraqi national elections in April 2018.
Barzani wants to “slow walk” toward independence, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Barzani can use a resounding ‘yes’ on the referendum. This will give him political leverage.”
For the time being, the potential powder keg of Kurdish independence remains unlit, and cooler heads are prevailing. “All sides are coming at it from a nonconfrontational approach,” Slim said. “They are both, and especially the Kurds, calling on the Americans to a trilateral dialogue process on the terms of the divorce between Baghdad and Kurdistan.”
Foreign Minister Bakir believes that the close partnership that Erbil and Washington have developed over the past several years, and their shared values, means that that partnership should continue as Iraqi Kurdistan pursues independence.
“The people of Kurdistan do hope that the United States would stand by the values, the principles, and also the friendship that we have developed,” Bakir said.
Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images