Kurdish leaders, acceding to U.S. demands, are postponing plans for an early referendum on independence and say they instead will devote their efforts to forging a new Iraqi government.
Years of tangling with outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, have left Kurds skeptical about their future in an Iraq of squabbling Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs. Doubts rose dramatically in June after Islamic State extremists, supported by local Sunnis, took over northern Iraq and the Shiite-dominated national army collapsed.
In early July, Massoud Barzani, the leader of the largely autonomous Kurdistan region, ordered his advisers to begin immediate preparations to hold a referendum on independence.
But now the Kurdish government has agreed to hold off. As Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, put it, using an acronym for the Islamic State: “We now have a priority: to clean the area of ISIS. ISIS must not remain our neighbor. When you have this priority, some other priorities will be delayed.”
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Two events help explain the new position: the move by Islamic State extremists to attack villages near Irbil, the Kurdish region’s capital, which led to U.S. airstrikes defending the Kurds starting Aug. 8, and the decision three days later by Shiites, who have the largest bloc of seats in Iraq’s parliament, to nominate Haider al Abadi, a respected politician, to replace Maliki.
Hussein, the principal point of contact with the U.S. government, said he’d explained to U.S. officials that the Kurdish policy was to engage with Shiites and Sunnis to form a new government but at the same time prepare for Kurdistan to leave Iraq if there were no alternative.
U.S. officials said they understood the long-term Kurdish goals, Hussein told McClatchy, but they asked that the Kurds not sacrifice the formation of a new government in pursuing independence. “Please don’t undermine the first policy, the policy of engagement, by putting the second policy before it,” Hussein quoted the U.S. officials as saying.
Kurdistan has enormous oil wealth, but it’s never reached agreement with the government in Baghdad over marketing it independently. In the continuing battle, Maliki has blocked the payment of Kurdish government salaries since the beginning of this year and taken legal steps to prevent Kurdistan from selling its oil on the international market.
He’s also blocked shipments of U.S. military hardware and ammunition earmarked for the Kurdish peshmerga militia.
But with the Kurdish military in direct confrontation with Islamic State forces armed with American equipment looted from Iraqi military bases, the Kurds needed to make moves to ensure that weapons supplies flowed – this time from the CIA. Putting off an independence referendum was one of those.
“We had to defend ourselves, improve our defenses and get money, for we have none,” Hussein said.
Preserving harmony with their American patron isn’t the only reason the Kurds agreed to slow what appeared earlier this summer to be a rush to independence. A second reason was that if Abadi were unsuccessful in creating a new government, Maliki would stay on.
“Without a new government, Maliki will stay,” Hussein said. “You cannot have him any longer as prime minister.”
The same logic may apply to Sunnis, whose bitter disaffection with Maliki is at the root of their support for the Islamic State push and may make them more willing to compromise to ensure that he leaves power.
Hussein made it clear that while Kurdish officials are approaching the formation of a new government in good faith, they consider the latest efforts to be the end of their patience.
“We will participate in the government. We will help the new government. We will give a chance for Baghdad to succeed,” he said. “At the same time, we must think about ourselves if it does not succeed. We are talking about a last chance.”
The Kurds have four major demands, which were set forth in a meeting this week between the representatives of all Kurdish parties in parliament and the Kurdish negotiating team, which is headed by Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s longtime foreign minister. They are:
– Resolving within a year the status of the oil-rich Kirkuk region, which is claimed by Kurds and Arabs. Whether to incorporate it into the Kurdish region was to have been decided in a referendum by 2007, according to Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, but the vote was never held.
– Lifting for three months the moratorium on Kurdish direct sales of oil, during which time the Kurds could export 140,000 barrels a day. At the end of that period, negotiations would begin on a permanent agreement on Kurdish oil sales.
– The government in Baghdad paying the blocked Kurdish government salaries and recognizing the peshmerga militia as a component of the national defense forces, entitled to modern equipment and weapons.
– Granting Kurdish authorities complete control of the region’s airspace, a step intended to prevent the government in Baghdad from blocking cargo and passenger flights to the Kurdish region, something Maliki has done twice.
Negotiations are likely to be tough on each demand. Shiite negotiators already have reacted coolly to the last one, while the others have been subject to stalemated talks for years.
Former Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Salih agreed that the new effort had better succeed.
“We need a government that turns the page,” he said. “It cannot be business as usual. We cannot afford a failure.”