Erstwhile kings of the mountains, Iraq’s Kurdish parties have become kingmakers in Baghdad. No federal government can be established without them—and they know it.

This new role suits the Kurdish parties just fine, as it allows them to advance their agenda: to use a once wide but now narrowing window of opportunity to expand the territory and natural resources (oil, gas and water) under their control, as well as the powers they exercise within that territory. They hope thereby to build the foundations of an independent Kurdish state, an ambition that once and for all would allow them to trade in their barren mountain hideouts for a stable home in the fertile plains. How did the Kurds accomplish this remarkable makeover from hardened maquisards to polished politicians and administrators? What are its implications today for Iraq as well as the Kurdistan region? And what challenges lie ahead?

Perhaps no one was more surprised than the Kurds themselves by the speed with which former peshmerga (guerrilla) leaders, whom many Iraqis had branded “saboteurs” for their decades-long insurgency against central rule and “traitors” for their alliance with Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, were propelled into the seat of power in Baghdad. Here they gained the most senior positions: president of the republic, deputy prime minister, foreign minister and deputy army chief of staff, as well as a myriad of pivotal, if less visible, positions throughout institutions, agencies and committees of the new Iraq, the security and intelligence services not least among them. They consider the accession to the presidency by Jalal Talabani, this one-time “collaborator” with the “Persian” enemy, as a vindication of their, and his, life-long struggle.

And yet for all their newfound power, both gratifying and remunerative, the Kurds do not aspire to run non-Kurdish Iraq, the area south of the Hamrin mountain chain, a low ridge they consider the border of their hoped-for state. Their struggle has been one of national liberation, not capture of the Iraqi state. But now, sitting in Baghdad, they find themselves presented with an unprecedented opportunity to press forward with their bid for statehood. Their objective is to use the levers of state for a twofold purpose: to prevent a powerful central state from deploying its security forces against the Kurdish population, as happened so often during the past century, and to maximize Kurdistan’s chances to secede. These twin goals are closely intertwined; jointly, they define the Kurdish past, present and future.

Thanks to this strategy, the Kurds have made serious headway in strengthening their regional autonomy and deepening a de facto separation between them and the rest of Iraq. Moreover, they have found an important ally in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a Shi‘i Islamist party created in Iran in 1982, in their effort to hollow out the central state. [1] But this gambit is dangerous: Weakening the state is feeding centrifugal forces that could destroy the country and thus create new threats to the security of all the region’s people, Kurds as well as Arabs. The Kurds face other self-inflicted threats as well. In their bid to gain control over Kirkuk and other areas they claim as Kurdish from time immemorial, they have started to overreach, exasperating even their friends and allies.

Conspiracies of History

The tension between the Kurds’ short- and long-term goals—between enhanced autonomy and independence—has been a leitmotif of their history. Uncertain how to solve this strategic dilemma, the Kurdish leaders—Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—to this very day retain their party headquarters not in Erbil and Suleimaniya, de facto capitals of the two mini-regions they control, but in Sari Rash and Qulat Chwalan, fortified places high on the mountains or deep inside them.

Time and again the Kurds have faced the same set of questions: To accommodate or to rebel? To fight for minority rights or for secession? To participate in Baghdad politics or to retreat to mountain strongholds? To protect or to project? Tempted by the arrival of a new and apparently less hostile regime in Baghdad, they would probe and absorb, dispatch emissaries and receive the government’s in turn, exchange ideas and negotiate outright. Invariably, they would find their quest for self-determination tempered by the bitter fact that, once again, historical and geographical circumstances conspired to thwart their aspirations.

After the monarchy’s demise in the 1958 revolution, Mullah Mustafa, Masoud’s father and founder of the modern Kurdish national movement, returned to Iraq from Soviet exile to reach out to the country’s new military leaders. He found a receptive ear at first, but before long competing agendas emerged, hitched to dueling narratives that reflected rival nationalisms. Soon the Kurds found themselves the targets of an air campaign, their villages subject to destruction. To listen to uprooted villagers in their desolate resettlement camps, as I did for Human Rights Watch in 1992–1993, was to encounter a common trope of suffering, an unending litany of bombardments, rocketing, ruination, torture and violent death, the counter-insurgency’s organizing principle being to eradicate Kurdish nationalism by crushing the Kurds.

Another shakeup in Baghdad brought another opportunity for the Kurds. When the Baath Party put itself in the saddle in a 1968 coup, its rule was initially shaky. Sensing weakness, Mullah Mustafa hastened down to the capital. He successfully negotiated an autonomy agreement of considerable breadth, but alas for the Kurds, the 1973 oil crisis erupted before it could be fully implemented. Oil revenues filled Iraqi coffers and strengthened the regime, which realized it no longer needed the Kurds to survive. It reneged on its commitments and abrogated the agreement; in turn, the Kurds went back to the mountains and resumed their insurgency. When the Shah of Iran, who had lent the rebels a hand, suddenly signed a treaty with Baghdad settling the Shatt al-‘Arab border dispute and withdrew his support, the revolt collapsed. Mullah Mustafa was forced back into exile, this time in Iran.

The Iran-Iraq war, which broke out when Saddam Hussein sent his forces into the ethnically Arab, oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan in September 1980, gave the Kurdish rebellion a dangerous twist. In a fateful decision, first Barzani’s KDP and then Talabani’s PUK (which had split from the KDP in 1976) allied themselves with Iran, although Talabani flirted with the regime for a couple of years in search of advantage against his KDP rivals. In the eyes of the regime, this decision turned the two men into betrayers of the Iraqi cause and their movement into a fifth column. The response was ferocious. In an escalating counter-insurgency campaign, the regime began destroying Kurdish villages on a massive scale in 1987, using chemical weapons to kill insurgents and scare the population. The next year saw the culmination of this strategy with the gas attack on the town of Halabja that killed thousands, followed by the Anfal campaign in which the regime used gas to flush villagers out of the countryside. [2] This tactic enabled the Iraqi army to gather up tens of thousands of civilians and systematically murder them. [3] Demoralized, the rebels fled to Iran. This time, the Kurdish movement appeared to have been vanquished.

If it returned from the dead, it was by deus ex machina, with the United States playing the role of the deity. Saddam’s foolish decision to invade Kuwait triggered a broad international military campaign to drive his forces out; this, in turn, created space for the Iraqi population to rise up, Shi‘a in the south, Kurds in the north. The Kurdish rebel parties returned triumphantly from exile and established themselves in the cities in the plains: Erbil, Suleimaniya, Dohuk and even Kirkuk. The administration of Bush the Elder did not help them, however; soon the regime recovered and lashed back, crushing the twin rebellions and sending hundreds of thousands of Kurds into Iran and the mountains lining the border with Turkey. In response, and to help its Turkish ally keep Kurdish refugees from entering its territory, the US established a “safe haven” and a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. For a while the Kurdish parties and the regime negotiated, and even organized joint army-peshmerga patrols in the Kurdish cities, but in October 1991 Iraqi forces unilaterally withdrew to a line, the so-called Green Line, that marked off a territory roughly equivalent to what the regime had granted the Kurds in the 1970 autonomy agreement. [4] Within six months, the Kurdish parties held elections and created a regional government. This was the beginning of effective self-government, a period of growing self-confidence and relative prosperity and peace that was, however, bloodily punctured by several years of internecine KDP-PUK conflict in the mid-1990s.

Throughout the post-1991 period, a second great tension emerged. While the Kurds began to enjoy unprecedented freedoms within their newfound autonomy, protected from the regime by the US and even Turkey (as part of “Operation Provide Comfort”), they were constrained by an economic straitjacket that derived from being landlocked and utterly dependent on those very same states for their access to the outside world. Turkey and the US allowed a certain degree of reconstruction but not true economic development, which could have set the Kurdish region on a path toward independence. To the Kurds it was vital to escape from this vise. Their frustration fueled an irredentism that had always been there and that centered on the city and governorate of Kirkuk.

In each of the above historical episodes—in the early 1960s, in 1974, in 1984 and again in 1991—negotiations between the Kurds and the regime broke down over the Kurds’ quest to incorporate Kirkuk into their autonomous region. The stakes were high. The Kirkuk oilfield, the bulk of which lies on the city’s northwestern outskirts, contains 13 percent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves and while abused and requiring rehabilitation is guaranteed to yield significant revenues for several decades. The Kurds claim a continuous Kurdish presence in Kirkuk and assert that the city once served as the capital of Shahrazour, a predominantly Kurdish region that existed during a period of the Ottoman Empire. They refer to Kirkuk as their Jerusalem (a somewhat unhelpful metaphor that appears to equate God with oil). With the other communities in Kirkuk—Arabs and Turkmen, as well as a small group of Chaldo-Assyrian Christians—this argument never sat well; it threatened to reduce them to minorities in a Kurdish region that aspired to independence. But the Kurds see Kirkuk as vital in providing, at a minimum, enhanced economic leverage vis-à-vis the central government and, more ambitiously, an economic base supporting their bid for statehood.

“Kurdifying” Iraq

The regime’s removal by the US in April 2003 unchained the Kurdish parties’ potential. Their alliance with the US, aided by Turkey’s refusal to grant the US transit rights during the war, proved greatly rewarding. They lost no time in establishing themselves in three areas: They solidified their control over the Kurdistan region and, under US pressure, started to merge their two parallel administrations in Erbil (KDP) and Suleimaniya (PUK), a legacy of their mid-1990s civil war; they pushed forward into what became known as the “disputed territories,” a broad swath of land with a historically mixed population that stretches from the Syrian to the Iranian border, in the middle of which lies the supreme trophy, Kirkuk; and they permeated the government and institutions of the new federal Iraq.

In effect, the Kurds succeeded in “Kurdifying” Iraqi politics to the extent that no decision can be taken without Kurdish input or, more, without the threat of a Kurdish veto. This power was most visibly evident in the country’s interim constitution, the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law, which held that the country’s permanent constitution needed an absolute majority to succeed in a popular referendum and could be voted down by a two-thirds majority in a minimum of three governorates—code for the three Kurdish governorates. [5] In other words, no constitution could be passed without the Kurds’ approval. The result was a constitution that reflected the interests of the parties that had won the January 2005 elections: the Kurds and ISCI (which headed the United Iraqi Alliance, a loose coalition of mostly Shi‘i parties and individuals). Because so much of Iraq’s parliamentary politics since 2005 has concerned constitutionally mandated legislation, the Kurds have left their imprint repeatedly and decisively. They have been helped by their internal discipline and meticulous preparation (especially compared to everybody else), as well as the unity of their strategic vision.

Their crowning achievement was Article 140 of the constitution, a clause that, though dangerously vague and open to interpretation, appeared to point the way toward the Kurds’ acquisition (they would say retrieval) of Kirkuk within two years. Article 140 set out an itinerary (“normalization,” census, then referendum) and a deadline (December 31, 2007) that favored the Kurds by mandating a mechanism—a plebiscite—that could only yield victory, given the Kurds’ expected demographic majority in Kirkuk following completion of the process known as normalization. The term refers to removal of Arabs settled in Kirkuk and return of Kurds expelled from the region by former regimes as part of their Arabization policy.

But while Article 140 evinces the Kurds’ strength in the new Iraq, it has also proved their fundamental and enduring weakness as a minority, a third leitmotif. While the Kurds are able to veto legislation that runs counter to their interests, they cannot force implementation of laws that serve them and that they drafted, such as Article 140. The December 2007 deadline passed without a referendum, or a census, or indeed without meaningful progress toward “normalization.” A number of Arab “newcomers” (wafidin) left Kirkuk already in 2003, ahead of the Kurds’ arrival, but no significant numbers have followed them since, despite the Kurds’ unremitting pressure and inducements in the form of promises of state-provided compensation for those who agree to pull up stakes. Worse, from a public relations point of view, is the painful reality that few Kirkuki Kurds have come back. While expressing a desire to return one day, they decry the absence of security, jobs and essential services; many have steady jobs in Erbil and Suleimaniya, where their children can go to school safely and the situation is stable. [6] Instead, the parties have played up the sorry predicament of a collection of impoverished, displaced and homeless Kurds living in slum-like conditions in the Kirkuk football stadium and on the grounds of the Iraqi army’s first corps—props used to underline the injustice of Arabization and the snail’s pace at which it is being reversed.

Control over governance in Kirkuk, where the Kurds won a majority of provincial council seats in 2005 and have arrogated most senior administrative positions (governor, heads of directorates and security chiefs) since 2003, has allowed them to advance their dominance in all areas, but not to change Kirkuk’s status. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) pays—extra-territorially—the salaries of Kurdish civil servants in Kirkuk (many of whom arrived from Erbil and Suleimaniya in April 2003), but provides no reconstruction aid, which it sees, with some justification, as the federal government’s responsibility. The Baghdad government, however, has excelled in dithering; its record of governance is so poor that ministry officials often only meet their counterparts in the governorates thanks to US “helicopter diplomacy” ferrying them to and from the Green Zone. Funds remain stuck in the federal treasury; reconstruction occurs mostly by the grace of US military commanders, who are empowered to spend emergency funds directly or via provincial reconstruction teams attached to military units. In Kirkuk, the US has encouraged the equitable allocation of reconstruction funds by the provincial council, but a boycott by its Arab and Turkmen members has given rise to discrimination, or at least the perception thereof. [7] Rather than convincing Arabs and Turkmen of their good will and potential as fair rulers if and when Kirkuk joins the Kurdistan region, the Kurdish parties have succeeded instead in persuading them of the opposite and in hardening their opposition to any change in Kirkuk’s status. Economically backward despite its great oil wealth, the place is profoundly unhappy and divided, its disposition in limbo with the referendum deadline’s lapse. Meanwhile, Kurdish leaders have precious little to show for their immersion in Baghdad politics, as their critics in Kurdistan are quick to point out. Ironically, after having whipped up elite support for Kirkuk’s incorporation into the Kurdistan region, the KRG faces intense criticism now that it has failed to accomplish its goal by the deadline. It is also coming under growing scrutiny for oil deals it signed in secret with international companies, and for corrupt practices more generally. Kurds do not understand why they have less electricity today than in the years of hardship in the early 1990s, and tend to blame political party nepotism and kickbacks rather than other factors.

First Through the Gate

Nevertheless, the Kurds have left an indelible mark on the architecture of post-2003 Iraqi politics. The regime’s removal led not to its replacement by a more democratic administration but to a fundamental overhaul of the state system: from a highly centralized state that a ruthless leader was able to turn into a vicious dictatorship to a state that threatens to be so completely decentralized as to become utterly ungovernable. While this transformation is not solely the Kurds’ doing, they have played a leading role in bringing it about. It was they who introduced the notion of ethnically based federalism, inspired by their unique experience of oppression, to an Iraq so weakened by the wholesale uprooting of the state by the US that it could not resist the application of its underlying ethno-sectarian logic not only to Kurdistan but also to the entire country. (It is interesting to note that the Kurdish parties have made no corresponding push to take decentralization a step further and apply it within the Kurdistan region; their support of federalism strictly concerns the status of their region vis-à-vis the rest of Iraq.)

Federalism to the Kurds originally meant confederation—a mutual choice by Kurdish Iraq and Arab Iraq to continue to live together but in a very loose arrangement that would afford the Kurds maximum autonomy over their own affairs. This idea they sold to Iraq’s fragmented Arab opposition parties in the years of exile, especially after 1991. These parties were too divided, however, to agree on anything but the lowest common denominator—the principle of federalism, yes, but not its definition, the bare outline with no details filled in. When these exile parties were hoisted to power on the shoulders of the US rampage into Iraq, they embraced identity politics to gain the support of a population that suspected their motives and resented their skills obtained in years of freedom that Iraqis themselves had never been given the chance to enjoy. What better way to comfort (and mobilize) people in a situation of chaos and uncertainty than to offer them the protection of their nominal communities—Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shi‘a, and sundry ethnic and confessional minorities—and their affiliated militias?

Neither knowing its roots nor grasping its inherent dangers, L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provincial Authority enshrined this new brand of politics in the country’s new governing institutions, from the 2003 Iraqi Governing Council to the 2004 interim government and on to the successive governments produced by the brace of parliamentary elections in 2005. This politics created the fertile ground on which could be sown the seeds of federalism defined by ethnic or sectarian identity. These seeds in turn were watered by the proposal, peddled as a panacea by some in the US, proactively to partition the country, which gave every sign of falling apart, among Kurds, Sunnis and Shi‘a. The rationale was that “these people,” the Iraqis, could not live with each other, and did not want to, and that the better solution would be for them to live “together apart” in a loose federal arrangement with strong regional governments and a weak center—the latter to prevent another megalomaniacal leader from turning the state into his personal fiefdom and repressing his subjects.

The Iraqi people, apart from the Kurds, do not appear to have bought this notion of their country’s tripartite division. The parties that have pressed for it, especially the Kurdistan Alliance (the coalition of Kurdish parties in the Iraqi Council of Representatives) and ISCI, have made little headway, except in Kurdistan. The 2005 constitution prescribes a federal system with two exceptional characteristics: It guts the powers of the federal state through extreme devolution to federal regions, and it provides scope to governorates to form regions, either standing alone or in conjunction with other governorates, that would replicate the Kurdistan region in their powers. Being the first through the gate, as it were, the Kurdistan region has been the principal and so far sole beneficiary of this arrangement.

Whether others will follow will depend on the ability of a party such as ISCI, which has advocated a nine-governorate Shi‘i “super-region” south of Baghdad, to mobilize sufficient support in each concerned governorate to win a local referendum, which is a key building block of forming a region. ISCI’s overt sectarianism and lack of popularity militate against its success, but it has deep pockets and considerable institutional power, accumulated since its strong showing in the 2005 provincial council elections, when its main rivals, the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, mostly stayed away from the polls. The Sadrists, as well as other Shi‘i parties and, of course, Sunni Arab parties (who would be left without their own oil resources in a region of their own [8]), have adamantly opposed Iraq’s federalization along these lines, and much parliamentary wrangling in the past few months has centered on precisely the question of how much power the regions really have. The issue has come up, for example, in debates over the right to manage oilfields and over provincial powers, including the federal government’s right to dismiss governors. [9]

The question now is whether the Kurdish parties have an inherent interest in the formation of additional regions in the rest of Iraq or whether they could live with an Arab-Kurdish confederation that would be asymmetrical: Kurdistan living side by side with an Arab Iraq decentralized along governorate boundaries. Historically, the Kurds never envisioned anything but such an arrangement. Post-2003 developments, however, may have pushed them to embrace the new formula. In the January 2005 elections, in particular, the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish parties gained disproportionate power, owing to a massive boycott by Sunni Arabs, as well as, formally, the Sadrist movement; this, in turn, gave them control over the constituent assembly. Matching opportunity with a dawning realization of necessity—the fear of a resurgent powerful central state controlled by groups inherently inimical to Kurdish aspirations—the Kurds may have thought that the safest way forward would be to eviscerate the state by encouraging additional regions to emerge and devolving as much power as possible to them. Moreover, Kurdistan’s existence and powers would find helpful justification in a quest by other Iraqi actors, such as ISCI, to attain regional status as well. The upshot has been an increasingly polarized debate about the degree of decentralization necessary to keep together a country that is coming apart at the seams.

It may be difficult to undo the damage, although a new, but very loose, coalition of Iraqi parties is trying. Spanning the ethno-sectarian divide, these parties have a nationalist undercurrent in common. They include the Sadrists, who have no interest in playing second fiddle to ISCI in a Shi‘i super-region in the oil-rich south when their main strength lies in Baghdad, an area with little oil; the Fadhila Party, a Shi‘i Islamist group strong in Basra; Iyad Allawi’s secular National Iraqi List; and the two main Sunni Arab lists, the religious Iraqi Consensus Front [10] and secular Iraqi National Dialogue Front. Although these groups do not all wholeheartedly embrace federalism as a concept, they all have indicated they can live with some form of decentralization, disagreeing mostly about the degree. They share an intense distaste for the extreme decentralization advocated by ISCI and the Kurds, however, and they have started to push back against the latter’s drive to implement their vision of a decentralized Iraq via constitution-based legislation, including a law that sets out a mechanism for creating regions. This law squeaked through a vote in the Council of Representatives in October 2006 following a last-minute compromise that delayed its entry into force for 18 months.

That period has just passed but, tellingly, Baghdad has remained silent: There is no apparent movement to launch local initiatives in southern governorates, as ISCI has advocated. Instead, Iraqis appear preoccupied with provincial council elections that are supposed to take place by October 1 and whose outcome could transform politics. Nor have ISCI and the Kurds found any support among neighboring states, or in the world, for their particular brand of federalism. To the contrary, Iraq’s neighbors may prefer a relatively weak state but not one so incapacitated that it would fall to pieces, threatening the region. In sum, Iraq’s federalism remains in an unsteady holding pattern based on local and regional power balances in which neither domestic side can impose its own preferred scheme.

Searching for Security

Saddam’s Kuwait gambit opened a window of opportunity for the Kurds. President George W. Bush widened it with his madcap adventure to transform the Middle East by using the US military as a vehicle for installing democracy in Iraq. Today it has started to close again. This is a result of the surge, Bush’s “hail Mary” bid to salvage both his undertaking and his legacy. To diffuse the centrifugal forces that are tearing the country apart, his administration has sought to recalibrate power in Iraq, curbing the ruling parties’ latitude and luring disaffected Sunni Arabs into the new order, all the while fighting “irreconcilable” extremists, such as fighters associated with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as well as “Special Groups” loosely affiliated with the Sadr movement that are allegedly sponsored by Iran. In Baghdad and Anbar, this effort has taken the form of a struggle to absorb as many insurgents-turned-“concerned citizens” as possible into the state’s institutions and security forces, and find employment for the rest. In the so-called disputed territories, however, the move by Sunni tribal elements to establish anti-AQI Awakening councils (sahwat) is being resisted by the Kurdish parties, who see the councils as a direct challenge to their influence in these areas, which they seek to annex to Kurdistan.

In a telling development, after members of the Jabour tribe set up a sahwa in Hawija, a predominantly Arab district in Kirkuk governorate, in November 2007, local US officials of the provincial reconstruction team promptly mediated a power-sharing agreement between Arab and Kurdish political leaders in Kirkuk, an apparent quid pro quo for the Jabours’ readiness to restore calm in Kirkuk. While there is no ground for optimism that this agreement will be implemented any time soon, or at all, the fact that it could come to be is significant, given the unremitting animosity between the camps. It certainly was recognized as pivotal by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who alighted in Kirkuk on December 18 during a whirlwind tour of the region. She used her visit to congratulate the signatories on having achieved a local accord when the politicians in Baghdad had yet to make meaningful progress on reconciliation. [11]

If the US role in negotiating the Kirkuk agreement was a message to the Kurds that the extended honeymoon they have enjoyed with the US was drawing to a close, a second, somewhat earlier event was even more alarming to them. On December 16, the Turkish air force carried out its first of a series of attacks on suspected holdouts of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq (joined by a brief ground incursion in February 2008). Iraqi Kurds saw the Turkish pilots, and the politicians behind them, as having not only the PKK but also the KRG in their sights, and they responded with great anger, including over the realization that the US had publicly signed off on the attacks and apparently had supported them with actionable intelligence. To the Kurds, all this pointed toward a US reaffirmation of Iraq’s territorial integrity and a reminder that US support of the Kurds was contingent on their willingness to subscribe to the US agenda in Iraq. [12]

Of course, the Kurds do not claim to be preparing for secession, even as they assert at every turn that independence is in their hearts. They remain caught in their principal dilemmas: Should they push to incorporate Kirkuk by hook or by crook and thus risk alienating, angering and incurring reprisals from neighboring states such as Turkey, on whom they are economically dependent, and allies such as the US, who have protected them, because of the perception that what they really are doing is making a veiled bid for statehood? Or should they press for greater rights, powers and access to resources within current boundaries and political constraints and thereby risk facing another powerful central Iraqi state sometime in the future that could undo all that they have accomplished over the past two decades, and worse?

How can they escape geography? Some Kurdish maps may show a Kurdistan that reaches the Mediterranean, but no Iraqi Kurdish politician I know has fooled himself into believing that this is a realistic ambition. Even if the Kurdistan region wins the Kirkuk oilfields and/or develops the ones located inside its own territory, it will still need to pump the stuff out and sell it, and for the moment the only viable route leads through Turkey. If it wishes to diversify, it would have to make a deal with Syria as well, which takes just as low a view of Kurdish designs on Kirkuk as does Turkey (or, for that matter, Iran, which has made its opinion abundantly clear through statements uttered by its officials in public fora). The Kurds’ freedom of maneuver will depend on their good relations with their neighbors for a long time to come.

This is perhaps why, when a friend of mine asked Masoud Barzani two or three years ago whether he was seeking “federalism,” the KRG president replied that security was what he was after. “Federalism,” he said, is just a word. It is indeed security that the Kurds need and covet. How could they not after the traumatic culmination of their alliance with Iran in the 1980s, when they were gassed in their homes, rounded up, hauled away like cattle, dragged to execution sites and summarily done away with?

The real question is how the Kurds will be able to reach a state of relative security. The KRG has set its sights on Kirkuk, seeing safety in territory and economic power. But important lessons are to be learned from the Halabja/Anfal experience. After all, while Saddam Hussein unequivocally was guilty of a crime against humanity by sending his bombers to drop their poisonous load on a Kurdish city, the Kurdish parties played a role that cannot be ignored—one that is actively being questioned by people in Halabja and beyond. It was the Kurdish parties who chose to ally themselves with Iran during a war that was existential for both countries, and it was they who guided the Iranian Revolutionary Guards into Iraqi territory to throw out Iraqi forces and liberate Halabja. However justified the wartime alliance may have been given the Iraqi regime’s extreme brutality, the peshmerga made a gamble, knowing full well what the regime was capable of doing, and would do, in reprisal against the defenseless townspeople. If there was anything surprising about the Halabja chemical attack, it was its extraordinary scale and ferocity, not that it took place or even that it involved gas, which the regime had been using against the Kurds for almost a year at that point.

The result was not only a civilian catastrophe but also the utter collapse of the Kurdish national movement, which gave up the fight and fled. The parties had clearly overreached and they suffered the consequences. The national movement’s resuscitation and return to Kurdistan in 1991 was a serendipitous event unprovoked by anything the parties themselves did. In Kirkuk today, they face a similar challenge. Aside from any claims, legitimate or not, to Kirkuk based on history and geography, they are confronted with significant obstacles—resistance from the Iraqi government and neighboring states, US unwillingness to see their Kurdish allies rock the Iraqi boat—as well as the challenge that if and when they take Kirkuk, they will have to defend it. The Kurdish parties have been notoriously ill equipped to protect their towns from invaders—their 1991 rout from Kirkuk, where they had been for less than a week, was particularly swift and devastating—and there is every reason to believe that without some accommodation over Kirkuk the Kurds’ enemies will simply be biding their time: Once US forces leave, they are bound to strike back if they can. At the least, neighboring states will use local proxies to make life hell for the Kurds in Kirkuk.

The better way forward for the Kurds in their legitimate quest for security may therefore lie in a push for the maximum that is realistically and consensually attainable at this historical juncture. Backed by the US they have an uncommon opportunity to strike deals that will be both beneficial and durable. These deals are unlikely to yield exclusive Kurdish control over Kirkuk. But they may allow the KRG to develop its own oil and gas fields under federal legislation that will draw the international investments the Kurds require to explore and develop their natural wealth. Such deals could also produce a boundary to the Kurdistan region that would be accepted by Iraq and neighboring states and as such could be recognized officially by the UN and major states, and thus could attract guarantees of inviolability.

In the end, the Kurds will have to choose between endemic strife and a compromise accord that could buy them peace for a generation or more. As long as US forces remain in Iraq, the window of opportunity for the second option is unlikely to close. And enhanced autonomy (Kurdish federalism) will not extinguish the dream for Kurdish independence; to the contrary, through a combination of good governance (fighting corruption, in particular), strong regional economic relations and good neighborliness, it may bring closer the day that this dream can be realized.


[1] This alliance dates back to the Iran-Iraq war, when ISCI was known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI and Kurdish fighters fought side by side in several battles in the north, including Halabja in March 1988.

[2] See Joost R. Hiltermann, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[3] See Human Rights Watch, Iraq’s Crime of Genocide: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

[4] The term “safe haven” was always a misnomer. It concerned only a small area that fell under the allied forces’ direct control in April 1991, incorporating the towns of Zakho and Dohuk close to the Turkish border. The unilateral Iraqi withdrawal six months later expanded the effective “safe haven” area dramatically. It was patrolled by the Gulf war allies via a no-fly zone, which ill reflected political realities on the ground. It included Mosul, for example, although this mixed but predominantly Arab city lies outside the Kurdistan region, and it excluded the main Kurdish city of Suleimaniya.

[5] It is an irony that the constitution ended up facing a challenge not from the Kurds but from Sunni Arab parties that saw the document as reflecting the fundamental interests of its key drafters, the Kurdish parties and ISCI. While the original clause in the Transitional Administrative Law reflected Kurdish fear of repression by constitution, the January 2005 parliamentary elections — and its exclusions — radically transformed the political landscape. It put the Kurds and ISCI in power and relegated Sunni Arabs to being those who had to fear for their future, as represented by the constitution or otherwise. In the end, they fell only 85,000 votes short of the required two-thirds majority in one governorate, Ninawa (Mosul), having already breached the threshold in two others, Anbar and Salah al-Din.

[6] In one of the strange post-2003 ironies, the people of Kirkuk enjoy more hours of state-provided electricity than those of Erbil and Suleimaniya, who are almost totally dependent on privately owned generators, for which they must purchase expensive fuel. Apart from endemic corruption, inability to provide electricity and affordable fuel has been one of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s great failures.

[7] The Arab council members ended their boycott in late 2007 and the Turkmen members in May 2008.

[8] Although there is oil in Anbar, it is not clear that it is possible to extract it profitably. And as long as Anbar is unstable, no international oil company will want to invest there. Distrusting the Iraqi government, which they see as an Iranian proxy, Sunni Arab politicians fear they will be left out in the cold. They place little trust in constitutional guarantees concerning oil revenue sharing and therefore want to return to state institutions and security forces to make these guarantees ironclad.

[9] See International Crisis Group, Iraq After the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy (Baghdad/Istanbul/Damascus/Brussels, April 2008).

[10] The party’s name is often mistranslated in the media as the Iraqi Accord or Accordance Front. According to party officials, the name was designed to convey their claim that the coalition represents the consensus of the Sunni Arab community.

[11] See the text of Rice’s December 21, 2007 press conference in Washington at

[12] An unpleasant byproduct of the Kurds’ alliance with the US is that they are asked at times to perform tasks they see as hurting their immediate interests. This was the case, for example, when the US, in launching the surge in 2007, demanded that its Kurdish friends send a couple of Kurd-dominated Iraqi army units to Baghdad to help US forces in clearing out al-Qaeda in Iraq. These units were brought in from Kirkuk, where they had been deployed to protect the city from AQI attacks originating in Arab districts such as Hawija. The Kurds grumbled but complied, valuing their alliance with the US, and the long-term benefits they expect to flow from it, above any temporary setbacks in Kirkuk or elsewhere.

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "To Protect or to Project?," Middle East Report 247 (Summer 2008).

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