Iraq's future: Will country break apart? Why Kurds may hold the key

Iraq is dead. Long live a smaller Iraq – and Kurdistan.

That was the threat delivered in Washington and in Erbil this week by the leader and two senior officials of Iraq’s Kurdish region. Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, two key advisers to Kurdish Regional President Masoud Barzani declared their insistence on substantially greater economic and political rights for Iraq’s 8 million Kurds as the price for joining a new government in Baghdad.

Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, and Falah Mustafa Bakir, who heads the Kurds’ equivalent of a foreign ministry, said that while the Kurds were prepared to join a new Iraqi government to fight the Islamic extremists who have seized a large swath of Iraqi territory, they would not tolerate Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s leader or a government that refuses to recognize the Kurds’ demand for greater autonomy.


In effect, the Kurds declared that their price for joining a new Iraqi government is Baghdad’s recognition of their de facto separation from a now largely theoretical country.

“Iraq is not one Iraq anymore,” said Fuad Hussein. “We now have three states in one.”

As of June 9, when the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the Iraq that the U.S. invaded in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein and withdrew from in 2011 ceased to exist. Iraq has been divided into three regions, two of which are hostile to or suspicious of American wishes and interests. West of Baghdad is “Sunnistan,” the newly declared “Islamic State” seized by ISIS, which though few in number also controls parts of neighboring, war-torn Syria. The pro-Iranian, Shiite-dominated southern part of Iraq and Baghdad constitutes “Shiastan.” To the north is Kurdistan, which has enjoyed substantial autonomy and prosperity since the early 1990s.

Hussein and Bakir spoke a day before Barzani told the Kurdish parliament in closed session that he intends to hold a referendum on independence. Earlier, he told the BBC that such a vote would be held “within months.”

Experts dispute whether the Kurds are determined to break away from Iraq or are using the threat to extract more concessions and even greater autonomy from a new government in Baghdad. David Pollock and Robert Satloff, who hosted Wednesday’s session in Washington, suspect the Kurds are bargaining. But one of their longest-serving advisers – Peter Galbraith, a state senator in Vermont who has advocated for Kurdish rights for over two decades – said earlier this week that Iraq has effectively splintered, giving Barzani a true separation option.

“Kurdistan is headed for independence,” said Galbraith, who had a small stake in a Kurdish oil company, encouraged several oil companies to invest in Kurdistan and recently visited the region.

The Kurds’ statements highlight the challenge President Obama faces in trying to encourage the formation of a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad to stop the expansion of ISIS, which is vehemently anti-American and has never recognized the 20th century borders fashioned by British and other colonial powers.

ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now calls himself the “caliph” of his newly declared Islamic State, has vowed to replace such “artificial” countries with an Islamic caliphate of Sunni Muslims ruled by his group’s extreme interpretation of Shariah, or Islamic law. In a broadcast at the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of prayer and fasting, Baghdadi declared that Muslims should "Fear Allah as He should be feared,” and “Terrify the enemies of Allah and seek death.”

Obama is sending soldiers to Iraq to protect Americans at the U.S. Embassy and to advise Iraqi forces. But the Kurdish officials suggested that the gesture was futile.

“Eighty percent of the Iraqi army has collapsed,” Hussein said. In response, he said, the Pesh Merga, the Kurdish armed forces, seized Kirkuk, which Iraqi Arabs and Kurds have long contested, after six Iraqi army divisions stationed in Mosul collapsed and ISIS seized their American-supplied weapons. He said the residents of Kirkuk and other disputed territories would be able to vote in the Kurdish referendum.

The officials said Kurdistan no longer shares a border with Iraq and its “failing government in Baghdad,” but with territory controlled by ISIS. “This is the new reality,” Hussein said.

Both denounced al-Maliki, whom they accused of failing to abide by the Iraqi Constitution’s pledge of substantial political autonomy for the Kurds. Baghdad hasn’t paid Kurdish government salaries, as the constitution requires, since January, and the Kurdish government in Erbil has exported its own oil – which the constitution also bars – to raise funds to protect the 8 million people living in areas it now controls, Bakir said. He, too, called Iraq an “artificial state” that has never treated the Kurds as equal “partners.”

“We will not be guests in Baghdad,” he said. “That’s over.”

The Kurds stressed both their gratitude to the U.S. for ousting Saddam Hussein, who gassed over 5,000 Kurds and destroyed 4,500 Kurdish villages in the 1980s, and their commitment to fighting ISIS. But they said their first priority is to protect their own area. They confirmed that they have been seeking “defensive” weapons from Washington and support for greater Kurdish autonomy – neither of which is likely, given Obama’s support for a unified Iraqi state and his decision to send American forces back to the region to shore up the demoralized Iraqi army and protect Iraq.

Meanwhile, al-Maliki, a Shiite who won a plurality of votes in Iraq’s national election in April and is seeking a third term in office, has been unable to form a government. On Tuesday, he failed to convene parliament to set a timetable for choosing a new president and prime minister.

The Kurdish denunciation further endangers his political prospects, say several Middle East experts. Les Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who with Joe Biden wrote a controversial article in 2006 endorsing federalism for Iraq’s three major regions, said Obama lacks a coherent strategy for stopping ISIS, ousting al-Maliki or encouraging him to form a more inclusive government.

Air strikes on Sunni areas to push back ISIS, which Obama is said to be contemplating, risk alienating the very Iraqis needed to oust ISIS, Gelb said. He doubted that Obama would be able to hold Iraq together, given Sunni and Kurdish hostility to al-Maliki or a likely substitute.

“Maybe you can put Humpty Dumpty together again,” he said, “but it won’t look like Humpty Dumpty.”