Insight Turkey, Volume 14 No. 3
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two leading Iraqi Kurdish parties that have carved up the governing of the KRG between them, recently asserted once again that the time for Kurdish self-determination might be drawing close. He cited the factional infighting in Baghdad and the disregard there of Iraq’s constitution, not least with regard to the resolution of the disputed territories
around Kirkuk. A referendum in oil-rich and majority Kurdish-inhabited Kirkuk that was supposed to have been held in 2007 has been put off indefinitely by Baghdad. The expectation is that a referendum would confirm the desire of a majority of the region’s inhabitants to be incorporated into the KRG. For Barzani, Baghdad’s undemocratic, sectarian, centralizing and unconstitutional behavior were encouraging a reconsideration of the Kurdish commitment to Iraq’s territorial integrity and federative structure. Over the years, Barzani has repeatedly referred to his aspiration for an independent Kurdish state.2 The informal referendum held in the KRG in 2005, which produced a more than 95-percent vote in favor of independence, suggests that Barzani accurately represents Iraqi Kurdish public opinion. Of course, it is possible that Barzani’s comments were little more than an attempt to appease public sentiment among Iraqi Kurds. They might also be interpreted as an attempt to squeeze concessions from Baghdad, especially as the remarks were uttered in the midst of a major wrangle with the Iraqi government over payments for oil extracted within KRG territory but that is exported via the Baghdad-owned pipeline that runs from Kirkuk to Ceyhan in Turkey. As a result of the disagreement, the KRG in Erbil cut off the supply of oil extracted in its territory for export via this route. To enable the companies operating within its territory to sell the oil they are now extracting, Erbil is conducting a cut-price trade in oil trucked largely into Iran.3 Barzani’s threat of a referendum on independence also came in the midst of a crisis in the delicate sectarian power-sharing arrangements on which stable government in Iraq rests. Iraq’s Shia prime minster, Nouri al-Maliki, had served an arrest warrant for Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq’s Sunni deputy president, on terrorism charges, as part of what looked like a wider marginalization of Sunni participation in the government. Al-Hashemi fled to the KRG, which is beyond the reach of the Baghdad authorities and which refused to hand him over, and from there he has travelled to Istanbul as well as Saudi Arabia
and Qatar. But Barzani’s comments also serve as a reminder that Iraqi Kurds continue to aspire for self-determination, that they have kept alive their claim over Kirkuk, and that their relationship with Baghdad remains fragile. There are
few grounds for assuming any of this will change much with the passage of time. Indeed, with time the KRG’s relationship with Baghdad seems likely to become more rather than less distant.