THE FUTURE OF UNITED IRAQ AND INDEPENDENT KURDISTAN
Kurdistan still faces a long, fraught road to sustainable independence. As other newly independent states such as Kosovo and South Sudan have found to their cost, creating and defending internal security and internationally recognised borders, growing a self-sufficient economy, overcoming corruption, and ensuring political unity present formidable challenges.Iraq inched closer to partition on Thursday as the president of the country's autonomous Kurdish region asked MPs to start making plans for an independence referendum.Speaking in the Kurdish parliament in Irbil, Massoud Barzani said he no longer felt bound by the Iraqi constitution, which enshrines the unity of the state, and asked MPs to start preparations for a vote on the right of self-determination, which would represent the Kurds' boldest move towards statehood in 94 years.
Hopes of Kurdish independence are one of the Middle East's worst-kept secrets. Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003 brought the Kurdish region in northern Iraq a significant measure of self-rule, building on its precarious post-1991 autonomy. The Kurdish regional government (KRG) has steadily expanded its political and economic clout over the past decade. Now the apparent collapse of central authority in Iraq has given the biggest boost yet to the independence movement.But the Kurds, who comprise about 20% of Iraq's population and are commonly described as the world's most populous stateless nation, must tread carefully. The territory they control, enlarged by last month's opportunistic seizure of Kirkuk, is landlocked and economically fragile. Its infrastructure remains rudimentary. And its independence has traditionally been opposed by powerful neighbours such as Turkey, Iran and Syria (which also have large Kurdish minorities) and by the US, which favours a unified Iraq and fears the possible consequences of secession.
All the same, habitual Kurdish caution is giving way to greater self-assertiveness as Baghdad's divided political elite quails before the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (Isis). Massoud Barzani, the KRG president, set a cat among the diplomatic pigeons this week when he declared bluntly that Kurdistan's moment had finally arrived.
"Everything that's happened recently shows that it's the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence. From now on, we won't hide that that's our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now … We'll hold a referendum and it's a matter of months," Barzani said. On Thursday, Barzani asked the Irbil parliament to prepare a vote.
Kurdish leaders maintain that, far from undermining Iraq's unity, the KRG has become an island of stability in a sea of troubles. Baghdad's warring Shia and Sunni factions, who failed again this week to agree on a new government, have brought the crisis down on their own heads, said Barham Salih, a former KRG prime minister.
"The time has come to determine our fate and we should not wait for other people to determine it for us," Barzani said. The Kurds' historic ambition for a nation state has been given new momentum by the lightning advance of Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) – and Iraqi politicians' inability to act decisively in the face of the insurgent threat.Iraq's national flag is now rarely seen in northern Iraq, and the Kurdish colours have been raised above all government buildings in Kirkuk, which Kurdish forces seized when the Iraqi army fled in the face of the Isis advance two weeks ago.Government forces clashed again on Thursday with Isis militants near Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, which the army has been trying to retake for more than a week.Kurdish fighters have engaged with Isis largely to defend Kurdish interests. In his speech Barzani said: "We will try to help our Shia and Sunni brothers … to get out of this crisis, but to be truthful we will [be responsible for] a new people [Kurds] who believe in coexistence, democracy and constitution. We will not deal with those who sabotaged the country."Earlier this week, Barzani suggested that an independence referendum could be held within two months, a move that would redraw Iraq's current borders and in all likelihood spread deep instability in what remained of the country.
The fallout would be unlikely to stop there: Turkey, Iran and Syria are all skittish about Kurdish claims to sovereignty. Turkey, in particular, has fought a decades-long and bloody insurgency against Kurdish separatists in its south-east, who would be keenly watching developments.Barzani insisted that years of Kurdish self-government had proved that they posed no threat to neighbouring countries. "We have many friends and supporters. There may be risk in this, but it is the right moment for us to tell the world what we want."Iraqi Arab officials in Baghdad attempted to play down Barzani's comments, claiming he was simply attempting to gain leverage in the formation of a national government, in which Kurdish MPs comprise a significant minority.
Barzani and the Iraqi prime minister, Nour al-Maliki, have been at odds for much of the past three years and the Kurdish leader has insisted that Kurds will not join another Maliki-led administration.Earlier this week, Sunni and Kurdish parties withdrew their MPs from Iraq's national parliament, when Shia politicians refused to name their candidate to replace Maliki as prime minister before the Sunni and Kurdish MPs revealed their own nominations for speaker. The standoff underscored the deep divisions that run through the fragile state's political class.But in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani's remarks were seen by officials as significantly more than brinkmanship. Kurdish MP Haji Karwan Najmadin said: "What came out of the president's speech is that we don't accept orders from any countries. We support the declaration of Kurdistan statehood. It should not be delayed – this is the right time, but we just need a preparation and that is for people to vote on this issue."
Barzani said Iraq should look to the precedent of Czechoslovakia, which peacefully separated into two countries following the end of communism. "Czechoslovakia was comprised of two peoples and they were forced together to establish a state. Because it was forced upon them, they separated again," he said. "There is a lesson here: they cannot oppress the people of Kurdistan and then say we must remain united."
Another MP in the Kurdistan regional government warned that there was still a gulf between Kurdish ambitions and reality. Mahmoud Haji Omar said Iran and Arab countries would oppose independence, not least because Israel has expressed support for Kurdish sovereignty. Earlier this week, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, endorsed Kurdish ambitions for statehood.But Omar said Turkey, which had long been vehemently opposed to Kurdish statehood because of potential implications for its borders, had softened its stance in recent years. "They have expressed flexibility on this issue maybe because of the oil," he said.Over the past year, the Kurdish regional government has been directly selling oil to Turkey despite an agreement with the central government that all oil should be marketed and exported nationally.