The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) faces tough choices. Baghdad has been mounting pressure on the Kurdish enclave to concede the oil export authorization to the central government by employing a budget war to subjugate the Kurdish Region.
Baghdad's economic war with Kurdistan is neither new nor surprising: It is only an extension of that same policy employed by former dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1990s to undermine the KRG.
When Saddam could not use military force against the Kurds due to the no-fly zone, he imposed an economic blockade on the entire Kurdistan in the hope that its government, and probably the rest of the survivors of his genocidal campaigns, would perish too.
Obviously, he failed and brought an end not just to his rule, but to himself as well.
However, this time, the KRG's status and situation are different.
Kurdistan's citizens have enjoyed a higher standard of living. People used to be more revolutionary and more forgiving to the misdeeds of their own government. Most importantly, Kurdistan was not a rentier state to a very good extent and millions of its population was not on the government's payroll.
During government hardships, teachers, and other employees continued to teach and work without being paid. In short, a big level of patriotism and nationalism kept the KRG intact, despite internal conflict and a limited budget.
Now, people are complaining for not being paid and consider the KRG's policies and plans shortsighted for not administering its revenues well and for not saving enough money to cushion such shocks from Baghdad.
As senior Kurdish officials have said, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malik's goal through cutting the budget is to make the people rise up against the KRG. This ultimately is to make Kurdistan capitulate its authority and repudiate its right to export and sell its only survival weapon and hope: oil.
When it comes to oil, for me it’s a matter of survival or death. It’s about whether KRG has to give the sharpest ever sword to Baghdad to slaughter us or keep it and leverage it to ensure its political and economic survival.
Indeed, it’s just unthinkable that the KRG should grant Baghdad authority over its oil to fund the central government’s multi-billion dollar arm deals. These could potentially be used against Kurdistan once more, even as Baghdad refuses to compensate thousands of Kurdish victims due from the genocidal campaigns in Kurdistan.
How can the KRG trust Baghdad? What guarantee that, if KRG gives up its right to export oil, Iraq will not come up with more excuses? Oil is the biggest card KRG currently holds. If it loses, the next thing to expect could be the dispatching of the Iraqi army to Kurdistan under different pretexts.
In this case, if KRG refuses to let the army in or refuses any directives from Baghdad, just like now the Iraqi government once more can use the budget as a more effective weapon against the KRG to ensure its authority on the Kurdish enclave.
Probably, if pressed, people in Texas would not mind conceding control of their natural resources to Washington DC, because of the way the US government has been founded and functions.
But for Kurdistan, with its bitter past with Iraq, it is different. The Kurds have only known constant threats by federal officials, consolidation of power by one man, violation of the constitution on a daily basis, the purchase of vast weapons and the refusal to pay the KRG.
Indeed, the stakes are bigger than Mount Everest, if the KRG loses control over its oil and gas.
The real question is: What are the KRG's options?
Conceding oil authority as mentioned is self-destruction. Some suggested shutting down the rivers that irrigate Iraq’s central and southern farms. This only fuels nationalism and turns the whole population against the Kurds, while it presents a bad image of the KRG internationally.
In the same way, shutting down Kirkuk fields may not be tolerated by Turkey and the Western powers. Of course, Peshmarga forces will not and cannot invade Baghdad.
Indeed, the options come down to withdrawal from Baghdad and declaring independence. The first step can be withdrawal from Baghdad. This threat has been made several times before, but did not materialize because negotiations bore fruit at the last minute under outside pressure and convinced the Kurds to stay in Baghdad.
Then KRG can return to people by reviving the referendum movement. Parliament has to take up an active role in supporting the government with this move by having the MPs engage with the public and set up a deadline for holding a vote in Kurdistan, on whether it wants independence or to remain in Iraq. In the meantime, hundreds of Kurdish civil society organizations can assist by staging rallies in support of the move.
For this, the KRG has to also hire international lawyers, invoke various articles and sections of the UN and other human rights agencies to make its compelling case for independence. In the meantime, it has to undertake heavy-duty multilateral and extensive diplomacy in the world capitals to pursue support for its independence.
Will this be opposed? Of course, it will be strongly rejected by most, but at the end it should be the Kurds who determine their own fate, not others. No independence of any people has been granted. It has always been earned. So the Kurdish case would not be exceptional.
Many ask, how about Kirkuk and the disputed areas? Such areas are in de facto control of KRG and thousands of Peshmarga forces are already there to protect these areas.
Most entities that have declared independence, whether two years ago or two centuries ago, still have border demarcation issues disputed territories. Thus, like many other countries, the newly independent Kurdistan and its neighbor Iraq can tackle such issues when the dust of the new state has settled.
Others ask, how about hundreds of thousands of Kurds who live in Baghdad and other Iraqi provinces? This can be settled through population exchanges between Kurdistan and Iraq, in the same way it was done in South Sudan and North Sudan, and between Turkey and Greece after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Certainly, borders could be loose and problematic for years to come. But eventually, it will be these borders that allow the future Kurdish generations to live in peace and prosperity without begging Baghdad!