By Amjed Rasheed
The events of Mosul on June 10, and its consequences have weakened the federal government in Baghdad as it has lost control of most of the Sunni cities. This in turn raises the issue of state legitimacy over its territory, locally and at a federal level. In his work on Afghanistan, William Maley talks about how the state loses its legitimacy when it is geographically broken. Iraq is now facing the same challenge.
Iraq also fits Michael Barnett’s theory of Juridical Sovereignty vs. Empirical Sovereignty. The country lacks so called empirical sovereignty where the state is the only body that exercises organised control over administrative structures. The Mosul event has proven this assumption. The Sunni insurgents control areas where the federal government doesn’t have a say anymore. The current crisis also jeopardises the juridical sovereignty of the country as well, as the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has removed the borders between Iraq and Syria.
It is crucial to mention that the current conflict is not sectarian as it appears. It is merely an attempt by the Sunnis to redistribute power in a society where they feel their rights were neglected and abused by the Shiite-dominant government. The Sunnis were ruling the country for decades, thanks to the Ottoman Empire, and thanks to Gertrude Bell who drew the map of Iraq, and maintained the Sunni rule in the country after WWI.
The world doesn’t have to blame the Kurds for this historical mistake. The history of the country has deposited and “infinity of traces” between ethno-religious groups for which the Kurds are not at fault.
The factors contributing to Iraq’s breakup are many. But the divisive approach of the federal government appears to be the main drive behind the current crisis. The government of Prime Minister Maliki excluded the Sunnis from government, and relentlessly detained many the Sunnis under the pretext of terrorism. Maliki has completely ignored their demands, and brutally cracked down on their peaceful set-in protests in Fallujah, Hawija and elsewhere. There is no doubt that the one to blame is the government in Baghdad.
However, the international media does not give an equal weight to this argument. Instead, some media outlets saw the Kurds as being behind and benefitting from the ongoing instability that has spread across the country. They claim that the Kurds have annexed new territories to their autonomous region, ignoring President Massoud Barzani’s call for a referendum in these areas where people can determine their fate.
For example, Reuters wrote an article on how the Kurds have fulfilled a dream after the Mosul events. Another article talked about how the ISIS has created the right environment for the Kurds to take over the detached territories from Kurdistan. TIME gave a provocative title to one of its articles, arguing that the only winners of the current chaos are the Kurds.
The magazine ignored a message by Deputy Prime Minister, Qubad Talabani, who said, “We’ve said all along that we won’t break away from Iraq but Iraq may break away from us, and it seems that it is”. Mr. Talabani’s message is clear that the Kurds do not want to divide Iraq, but division might be imposed on them.
The examples mentioned above are empirically inaccurate. First, the Kurds have been in control of Kirkuk and the other territories since 2003. When American troops left Iraq in late 2011, the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad agreed to have joint patrols of the Peshmerga and Iraqi army in those areas. After the attack on Mosul, the Iraqi army abandoned its posts, creating a massive vacuum, which led the Peshmerga to take over. These military positions stretch from Sinjar in Nineveh province all the away to Khanaqin in the Diyala province. The ministry of Peshmerga says that the move was a defensive strategy to protect the Kurdistan Region and people in these multi-ethnic areas from any possible threat.
The Kurds have on many occasions appeared more Iraqi than people in the rest of the country. They had chosen to stay within Iraq. For example, in 1970, Mullah Mustafa Barzani demanded a semi-autonomous region within Iraq where Kurds could enjoy their civil and political rights. Kurdish leaders and the Baath regime signed the autonomy agreement on March 11, 1970. Yet this agreement never came to force, and the conflict never stopped.
In 1991 Saddam Hussein asked Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani to meet him in Baghdad. Once again the Kurds demanded the establishment of a self-rule Kurdish region within Iraq. During the negotiations, Massoud Barzani told Saddam Hussein that he had come to Baghdad on a river of Kurdish blood, seeking an an honourable resolution to the Kurdish cause within the state of Iraq.
In 2002, the Kurds played a crucial role in the opposition conferences in London and Erbil. A year later the Kurdish leadership voluntarily accepted to participate in establishing a new Iraq with other stakeholders, the Sunnis and Shiites. The Kurdish leadership hoped to establish a federal democratic Iraq where the right of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiite are preserved. As a result, the Kurds agreed with their Arab partners to resolve the issue of the disputed territories the constitutional Article 140. Yet, a decade on this article remained unimplemented.
In 2010 the country was on the verge of a sectarian war, but the Erbil Agreement that was orchestrated by President Barzani saved the country from a civil war or a possible breakup. However, Maliki did not honor the agreement. Instead, he adopted a divisive approach. He totally neglected Article 140, and continued to threaten the Kurds. In January this year he cut off Kurdistan Region’s budget, which forced Erbil to sell its oil in the world market to pay its civil servants.
These examples show how hard have the Kurds worked for a stable Iraq and if the country falls apart, division is imposed on them. They have always sought a fair solution within Iraq, but this option has played hard to get. The Kurds aren’t to blame if Iraq is split. The world, Turkey and Islamic Republic of Iran need to acknowledge this reality.
* Amjed Rasheed, PhD research scholar at Durham University, focuses on the politics in Islamic world.