October 16th marks the anniversary of the brutal Iraqi invasion of Kurdistan and the humiliating annexation of Kirkuk that ripped up the Iraqi constitution. The Kurdish people were betrayed, and one year later they still feel bruised and angry. They had fought against the Islamic State alongside the US trained Iraqi army. The Kurdish Peshmerga warriors had bravely given their all to save Kirkuk back in 2014 when ISIS had crushed the Iraqi army, and to win it back.
Kurdistan was unhappy at that time with the way that the region was being treated by the central government in Baghdad, particularly over budgetary issues relating to medical support and aid for the 1.5 million refugees in Kurdistan displaced by the fighting in Syria and with ISIS.
So in September 2017 they tried to force the issue on their administrative differences by calling for a referendum on the region’s future in order to bring Baghdad to the negotiating table and secure the political capital they believed they had earned from years of fighting alongside the Americans against extremist and terrorist groups.
The gambit backfired when Iranian backed militia who had been engaged in defeating ISIS handed over Kirkuk to the Iraqi army without putting up a fight. The finger of blame was pointed by Kurdistan at Washington and the former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The Kurdish people were significantly weakened economically and politically by this invasion of their territory, and the 150 000 refugees fleeing the brutal occupation caused a huge humanitarian cost to the region.
One year later, the situation has now changed dramatically. The new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is making new efforts to support Iraq’s formation of a moderate, nationalist Iraqi government. In the May 2018 elections in Iraq, the former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who had previously received strong US backing, suffered a severe defeat. Abadi only won 42 seats in the Parliament, while the Kurdish parties secured around 50 seats.
This meant that the Kurdish region and its parties, came to hold the keys to forming the next government in Iraq and that the Kurdish region had become the key to forming a pro-Western government in Baghdad.
Regional elections were held in Kurdistan on 30 September, with a resounding victory for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan (KDP).
The President of Iraq was then subsequently chosen as Barham Salih, as part of the new government in Baghdad. Mr. Salih is a moderate Kurd and a British-educated engineer who is an avid supporter of higher education for young people, which is essential for getting the country’s economy back on track.
All eyes are now on the negotiations to choose the next Prime Minister for Iraq.
For the USA and the EU the autonomy of Kurdistan within a strong unified and sovereign Iraq is important both for international security and to contain the strategic threat of Iran in the region as a renegade power. Kurdistan is vital to this equation because of its strategic location at the nexus of Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
Whoever is chosen as Iraq’s next Prime Minister, the central government in Baghdad will need to move quickly to rebuild trust with Erbil (the capital of Kurdistan). They will need to reassure foreign investors that they are needed to rebuild Kurdistan.
The only way for that to happen is for Erbil and Baghdad to renegotiate Kurdish oil policy and revenue sharing in terms of the Iraqi national budget. To achieve this there must be the rebuilding of trust between Erbil and Baghdad, a revenue sharing formula to manage the country’s oil assets and a pragmatic and transparent budget system to ensure that Kurdistan receives a fair distribution of the national revenues from Baghdad to rebuild the country that has not only been ripped to shreds by ISIS but which still bears the scars of the Iran-Iraq war.
The return of Kirkuk to the administration of the regional government of Kurdistan must be part of this deal.