Kurdish parties have become kingmakers in Baghdad , and they know it. As no federal government can work without them, they are pulling every available political lever to expand the territory and resources they control, trying to build the foundation of an independent Kurdish state. But even more than territory, they need security. If everyone acts quickly and wisely, that understanding could help resolve one of the Iraq war’s thorniest issues.

No one was more surprised than the Kurds themselves by the speed with which former peshmerga guerrillas moved into senior positions in the new Iraqi government: the president, deputy prime minister, foreign minister, deputy army chief of staff and many less visible but pivotal spots, especially in the security and intelligence services.

With the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a party Iran created, the Kurds are working steadily to hollow out the central government so it won’t be able to attack the Kurdish population ever again, and to maximize prospects for an independent Kurdistan.

They are also pressing for control of Kirkuk, whose oilfields contain 13 percent of Iraq’s proven reserves. But this two-edged approach risks freeing other centrifugal forces that could shred the fragile country altogether.

What the Kurds really need—and they should admit it publicly—is long-term security within recognized boundaries.

Once US forces leave, the Kurds’ enemies in Turkey, Syria and Iran, as well as Baghdad, could easily use local proxies to make life hell in and around Kirkuk. The July 29 suicide bombings, which killed 61 people in Kirkuk and Baghdad, underscore the volatility of that region. But with US forces still present and friendly, the Kurds have an uncommon opportunity to make deals that will be both beneficial and durable.

Time and again the Kurds have seesawed on whether to accommodate and fight for minority rights in Baghdad politics, or to rebel, secede and retreat beyond the Hamrin mountain chain, the northern ridge they consider their border.

The 1958 revolution, the 1968 coup, the 1980 Iran-Iraq war and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait all led to negotiations on the fate of Kirkuk. But the talks repeatedly collapsed into chaos and vicious attacks that killed thousands of Kurds. A bloody Kurdish internal split made things worse in the 1990s.

The Kurds claim a continuous presence in Kirkuk and see it as vital to the economic leverage they need to resist central government pressure and, eventually, to support a statehood bid. Their alliance with US forces, aided by Turkey’s 2003 refusal to grant transit rights, let the Kurds solidify their control of the area, smoothed some of their internal differences and led to a constitution that, in effect, gives them veto power over much legislation.

But despite their political strength in Baghdad, the Kurds’ minority status in Iraq prevents them from forcing implementation of other laws they like, such as Article 140 of the constitution, which lays out a path for formal control in Kirkuk. Arabs in the region have not been removed (a process referred to as “normalization”); many displaced Kurds have not returned because of continuing insecurity; nor has there been a census or a referendum, all of which was supposed to happen by December 2007. The Baghdad government has excelled in dithering, and Kirkuk is now in limbo, profoundly backward, unhappy and divided.

Much parliamentary wrangling centers on federalism as it relates to the division of power: How much power should regions really have vis-à-vis the federal government? Should new regions be allowed? If so, how and how many? Who has the right to manage the country’s oilfields? How will revenues be shared? Turkey, Syria and Iran observe and pull their allies’ strings in Baghdad to block any tilt toward Kurdish preferences.

The result is a central government that is steadily unsteady, which the major players seem to prefer to any firm resolution, at least for the time being.

Some Kurdish maps show a Kurdistan that reaches through Syria and Turkey to the Mediterranean, but no Iraqi Kurdish politicians believe that is realistic. By acknowledging that their real need is for long-term security, and that they are unlikely to gain exclusive control over Kirkuk, they could instead win the right to develop oil and gas fields within the Kurdistan region under federal legislation that would allow them to draw international investment and to use export routes through Turkey.

They could also secure a regional boundary that Iraq and neighboring states might accept with guarantees of inviolability. In turn, they should agree to deal with the endemic corruption and indifference to social needs that is undermining their own local authority.

The Kurds must choose between endless strife and a compromise that could buy them peace for a generation or more. Their dream of independence, if not fully realized, at least would not die.

The window of opportunity for compromise agreements is open, but it is closing fast. Once a new US administration begins withdrawing its forces, whether by “aspirational” target dates or a final deadline, the opportunity will have passed. The time for the Kurds to negotiate a real future for themselves is right now.

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "Iraq’s Kurds Have to Choose," Middle East Report Online, July 30, 2008.

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