In 1992, about four years after Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds, Barham Salih opened up the first Washington office of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The operation sat in a basement apartment about 10 miles outside the city in a sleepy Virginia suburb.
Roughly 18 years later, Salih is Iraqi Kurdistan’s prime minister and the region’s Washington office is housed in a renovated multimillion-dollar brick building that is decorated with chandeliers and marble floors. It sits in an upscale neighborhood about a mile from the White House.
Qubad Talabani, the U.S. representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, shared this snippet of KRG history during a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat.
And after he mentioned the story, he smiled — perhaps a small recognition of the symbolic step forward his region of Kurdistan and his people have taken in spite of a troubled past and uncertain future.
That future, Talabani said, will in large part be determined by the March 7 parliamentary election — Iraq’s third since the American invasion in 2003. The results will lay the framework for relations between the central government in Baghdad and his regional government in Kurdistan, which together will try to address deep-seeded disagreements that have split Arabs, Kurds and the region’s minorities for decades and resulted in bloody tit-for-tats.
“The new government will come in inheriting a series of problems that have been left unresolved,” Talabani said.
Today’s disagreements? Who decides how oil revenue is spent, who controls the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and how is power shared between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad.
But these are not just pressing issues for the KRG and the central government. They are pressing questions for the United States, which has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost thousands of American lives this decade to create stability in a region fraught with sectarian, ethnic and civil violence.
In other words, this election puts the KRG, Iraq and the United States at a crossroads. At stake are no less than the prospects of a smooth U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, the country’s fledging democracy and the lives of millions.
The Election The big fear heading into the Iraqi election is that the aggressive politicking and sectarian tension that has characterized the campaign season so far will bleed over into everyday life after the ballots are counted.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said those concerns spiked after Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission barred more than 500 candidates from the elections. Many of those barred were secular candidates and Sunnis with alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party — potential rivals, many said, to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ruling bloc.
The decision drove speculation that al-Maliki’s government was trying to marginalize Sunnis before the vote and sparked concern in Washington that the ban could undermine the election and the country’s overall stability.
In early February, an appeals court mitigated some of the perceived damage by overruling the commission, though the majority of candidates remained on the blacklist or had already withdrawn or been replaced by that point. In addition, a popular Sunni political party — whose leader was among the 500 banned candidates — had threatened to boycott the election before flip-flopping and deciding to run. Nevertheless, fears remain that Sunnis will accuse Shiite religious parties of rigging the vote and will avoid the polls as they did in 2005, after which a torrent of sectarian strife erupted.
Even if the election is deemed legitimate, observers worry that its impact will likely not be felt until months after the votes are counted. No single bloc is expected to emerge with a majority of the 325 seats in the legislature. Instead, the group with the largest number of seats will mold the next government, a process that involves on-again, off-again jockeying with minority groups over cabinet positions.
When asked who will win the election, Talabani answered it will be the group that “can build a coalition the best.”
“That is when the fun and games will begin,” the Kurdish representative said. “The elections, I think, will be a walk in the park compared to the government formation process.”
Indeed, many Iraqis — Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites alike — say the U.S. model of democracy has so far only produced political deadlock and squabbling. What’s more, sectarian attacks and violent reprisals have been spiking ahead of the election, only this time, the Americans may not be there front and center to prevent a full-blown civil war from erupting.
O’Hanlon outlined some possible future scenarios: the Sunnis and Shiites could come together and work against the Kurds on issues such as oil revenue, federal power and disputed territories; if tensions between Sunnis and Shiites continue, each of their political arms could try reaching out to the Kurds — although a Sunni-Kurd coalition would still be a minority; or the Shiites and Kurds could reach a compromise that includes some sort of oil deal in exchange for Kurdish support of a Shiite-led coalition government that effectively sidelines the Sunnis.
“We will have to wait and see,” the Brookings fellow said. “But I hope that people do not act too much along sectarian lines and that they also do not try to pursue maximum advantage for their own group because that is the sort of behavior that got us into big trouble in the first place and that is the sort of thing that could restart the sectarian conflict.
“Groups should be looking for a way to compromise with each other on major issues and not be playing for maximum advantage — as frankly the Kurds sometimes had done in the past,” O’Hanlon added. “I think Iraq needs a big dose of statesmanship right now since it’s obviously undergoing some severe strain in one of the most crucial moments that it has had in a long time.”
New Government, Old Beefs Talabani says the KRG is ready to work with the next central government. But, at the same time, he warns that compromises will only be cut if the new coalition shifts away from “an ideology in Baghdad that says I must control everything.”
His take is based on the KRG’s belief that the central government has misinterpreted the constitution and tried to shortchange regional authorities.
For instance, in the current beef over oil, Talabani says the constitution clearly spells out that natural resources are to be shared. But the central government, he says, refuses to agree because it does not want to relinquish the power that goes along with controlling the purse strings of oil revenues.
According to Talabani, the constitution hands the federal government control of developed oil fields and the regional governments control over undeveloped oil fields. He also believes oil revenues should be funneled into the national treasury — not the Iraqi Finance Ministry as they are now — and then distributed on an equitable 17 percent basis across the country.
“We have committed to the principle of revenue sharing,” he said. “The proposal we have submitted is not only good for Kurdistan, it is also good for the non-oil producing parts of the country. What it is not good for is for the power-hungry people in Baghdad who want to control everything themselves and want to use the dispersement of these revenues as a political leverage against this group or that party or this region, this ethnicity or this sect.”
Despite Baghdad’s objections, the KRG has entered into more than 30 agreements with companies to develop oil in the region. As a result, the two sides have tangled, most recently after Baghdad refused to pay for the oil because it considers the contracts inked by the KRG illegal. Talabani says that has discouraged international investors from pouring money into the region.
The Boundaries of Cooperation It’s impossible to talk about Kurdistan’s future without talking about Kirkuk and neighboring Nineveh. The two provinces sit on the fault line of age-old border disputes between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds.
When U.S. troops withdrew from Nineveh province this summer, violence returned in the form of car bombs and suicide bombers. Talabani described it as a “hornet’s nest of Arab nationalism and extreme Islamic organizations” that share their dislike for Kurds. The attacks, according to the U.S. general in Iraq, are part of al-Qaeda’s attempt to exploit the old fissures between the two groups in the hopes of undermining U.S. efforts in the region.
Part of the tension derives from the 2005 provincial elections. That year, Kurds won control of the provincial government after Sunnis boycotted the election. But that changed this year after Sunnis won a majority of council seats. Following the victory, they stripped the Kurds of their positions and patronage.
Tensions were also elevated in 2008 after Prime Minister al-Maliki moved Iraqi forces into the region, putting them into conflict with the Kurdish peshmerga fighters that had returned after the U.S. invasion in 2003. In an attempt to defuse the tension, the U.S. military has joined troops from both sides to police the line of control along a series of checkpoints.
The idea is admittedly a short-term fix. And it does little to address what to do about nearby Kirkuk — a question that has gone unanswered for decades. Kurds have long considered the city — estimated to hold some 40 percent of the country’s oil reserves — historically theirs. In the 1980s and ’90s though, Saddam forcibly evicted many Kurds and brought in Arabs to populate the city. Since 2003, when coalition forces and the Kurdish fighters liberated Kirkuk from Baathist control, many of those Kurds have returned, in turn displacing some Arabs.
In many ways, the city’s status drives to the heart of the Kurdish push for more federalism. Talabani again cited the constitution, this time Article 140, which he says provides a clear roadmap for resolving the issue. He said the three-step process involves: reversing Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” of the city by allowing the Kurds, on a case-by-case basis, to return to their homes through a legal framework; performing a national census that would determine who is eligible to vote in Kirkuk; and holding a referendum to see whether the city’s residents want to remain a part of Iraq or join the district of Iraqi Kurdistan.
A referendum on Kirkuk had been scheduled to take place in 2007, but has been repeatedly postponed.
“Judging by previous elections and judging by the facts on the ground, it is commonly known that the Kurds are the majority in that province,” Talabani said, suggesting that Baghdad knows the city’s voting population is majority Kurds and that’s part of the reason it has failed to complete a census. “For us it’s not about majority and minority. It’s about rectifying an injustice that occurred in that part of the country that amounts to genocide and basically de-legitimizing the genocide that took place in Kurdistan and Kirkuk.”
But many say a census and referendum would only wind up tearing the city apart. As Rod Nordland of the New York Times put it, “There can’t be a referendum until Iraqis figure out who is eligible to vote in Kirkuk, which they can’t do until there’s a census. And any attempt to hold a census in this country may well end up, all by itself, provoking a civil war.”
So far, stasis seems to be the most viable answer because many agree that Arab Shiites and Sunnis would never tolerate a Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk, nor would regional players such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria because of longstanding concerns that the Kurds are angling for an independent state.
Asked about such worries, Talabani simply answered, “There has always been a lot of fear — I think unsubstantiated fears about the Kurds to be honest.”
New Dawn? The Obama administration is changing the name of the mission in Iraq from “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to “Operation New Dawn” to reflect the reduced role that U.S. troops will be playing in the country.
But the situation in Kirkuk and the plethora of disagreements between Baghdad and Kurdistan has left many Kurds worried that regional history will repeat itself and that the election will prove meaningless after U.S. combat troops withdraw in August and the remaining support troops leave by the end of 2011.
“It is sending the insecurity of the Kurds through the roof because in our history with the United States we feel let down over the years,” Talabani said. He gave several examples, including 1974 when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pulled military funding for the Kurds a year after he and the Shah of Iran had encouraged them to challenge the pro-Soviet Union Iraqi government. Talabani recalled Kissinger’s famous line that “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”
Today, the unease stems from the reality that since the fall of Saddam Hussein, U.S. troops have served as a buffer of sorts, helping the Kurds establish what some have described as a relatively peaceful state within a state.
But O’Hanlon of Brookings suggests the United States will push ahead with its scheduled troop withdrawal while at the same time keeping an eye out for instability — and basing the pullout on conditions on the ground.
“I think once a new government is formed, then preserving stability becomes the number-one issue,” he said. “There is a good chance … the August deadline will be respected. I think we will be down to 50,000 troops by then. But I am not at all sure that we will be down to zero by the end of 2011.”
Speaking at Brookings in late January, Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, said he is optimistic that although the U.S. military presence may decrease, America’s attention span won’t.
“The most important question I have raised with President Obama as well was whether what was meant by the withdrawal of the troops in Iraq is the withdrawal of the troops only, or withdrawal of America’s commitment and decision to be engaged in Iraq,” Barzani said through a translator. “It’s not necessary to have a great number of troops on the ground…. What was encouraging — I heard it from President Obama — [is] that America’s attention and America’s engagement will remain.”
About the Author
Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.