Thursday, 20th July 2017

Iraqi Kurdistan: Doubts about referendum

The dispatch of a high-level Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) delegation to Tehran on 16 July was another sign of the swelling domestic and foreign unease at Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani’s almost indecent haste in pushing for an independence referendum in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI). The signs are that Kurds will vote for independence from Baghdad on 25 September, which will severely complicate relations with Shia-dominated Iraq and the wider region (GSN 1,039/14).

Iran is a longstanding ally of Iraq’s Kurds, but historically it has been closer to the PUK than to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Tehran requested the 16 July meeting, which was framed as a broader discussion on bilateral relations. But there is no disguising the fact that Tehran’s attention is fixed firmly on Barzani’s referendum. At a time when it is consolidating its footprint across the Levant, Tehran is deeply anxious about the potential ripple effects of Barzani’s gambit, both in terms of Iran’s own substantial Kurdish population and the move’s likely destabilising effect in Iraq, a zone of substantial and growing Iranian influence cemented through the hard work of its allied militias.

Having a pro-independence vote could formally fracture Iraq’s unity and coherence – the stuff of nightmares for Iranian foreign policy-makers. KRG representative in Tehran (and senior PUK member) Nazim Dabagh has acknowledged that Iran remains a strong supporter of Iraq’s territorial integrity; it would only support a project “within the framework of the Iraqi constitution”, the Kurdish daily Rudaw reported on 15 July.

Under the leadership of veteran ‘Mam’ (uncle) Jalal Talabani, the PUK has been strongly oriented towards Iran, whereas the Barzani clan’s KDP has taken a more independent line (most shockingly in the mid-1990s when it formed an alliance of convenience with Saddam Hussein’s Baathist leadership). The PUK is acting as a conduit for Iranian views on the Kurdish independence referendum. On its own account the Talabani party is suspicious that Barzani’s ‘indyref’ is a vehicle for the veteran KDP leader to reinforce his power by exploiting Iraqi Kurds’ desire for independence. The PUK’s problem is that its base is considerably weaker than the KDP’s. It has seen much of its support eaten into by the Gorran (Change) movement, the insurgent party set up by reform-minded Kurds which is now part of the formal party constellation. Even if it wanted to, the PUK is unlikely to be able to tilt the result against independence, given the KDP’s entrenched power base in Erbil and Dohuk provinces; the PUK’s strength is in Sulemaniyah, in a region running to the Iranian border. It is hard to see anything other than a vote for severing ties with Baghdad were a poll to be staged in the KRG’s three provinces.

Adding, as so often, to the complexity of the problem is Kirkuk. The disputed territory is now in Kurdish hands as a result of victories by Peshmerga forces in their battles against Islamic State and it has been included by the KRG in the referendum. That turns the vote into something even more substantial than a poll on whether to cut ties with prime minister Haider Al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad. Kirkuk’s inclusion in Barzani’s referendum play amounts to a potentially substantial land grab for the KRG, which Baghdad is unlikely to countenance without a fight.

Kirkuk is a most attractive prize for the Kurds, but it nevertheless threatens to complicate the KRI’s internal politics. According to Kurdish business consultant Shwan Zulal, if the PUK – which is the dominant Kurdish party in Kirkuk – is not on board with Barzani’s move, things could quickly unravel. “If there is a boycott of the poll in Kirkuk by PUK supporters, then there is a chance that the higher turnout of Turkmens and Arabs would leave a vote in the balance,” Zulal told GSN.

Losing the Kirkuk vote would be a major blow to Barzani’s leadership, eating into his legitimacy given the hallowed status of the city as a Kurdish ‘Jerusalem’. He therefore needs the PUK to ensure ‘yes’ votes are lined up in the oil-rich city. On the other hand the PUK’s Iranian backers want its ally to do all it can to halt the poll.

The PUK is feeling a certain amount of heat from its own Kurdish supporters. Most are not happy about the referendum and feel it does not address the key issues of corruption and the abuse of power perceived to have taken root in the KRG. That is an agenda Gorran is pushing with some success. Zulal says the PUK has belatedly realised a large group of its supporters have not bought into the idea of an independent Kurdistan.

With such unlikely allies as Iran, Turkey and the United States lining up as staunch anti-referendum forces, Barzani faces a tough few months keeping the show on the road. Given the region’s internal politics, few are happy about the ballot’s timing and conduct. Barzani would be loathe to depart from his plan but, given the KRI and regional balance of power, insiders believe there remains a small chance the referendum may not happen as planned – or at all.

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