Since the withdrawal from Kirkuk and other territories disputed between Erbil and Baghdad, the Kurdistan Region’s financial woes have worsened considerably. The perfect storm that hit the Kurdistan Region in 2014, including collapsed oil prices, the highest per capita refugee burden in the world, the war against ISIS, and the budget embargo from Baghdad, is now that much worse due to the loss of oil revenues from fields in Kirkuk and surrounding areas. Then came Turkey and Iran’s post-September referendum tightening of the border and Baghdad’s ban on flights in and out of Kurdistan.
It is in this context that protests and riots broke out in Sulaimani and Halabja provinces this past week, with teachers and others demanding their unpaid salaries and public services that were cut under the Kurdistan Region’s austerity measures. The protestors burned Kurdistan party offices belonging to the KDP, PUK and others. How the heavily-indebted Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is supposed to produce the funds to pay salaries remains unclear under current circumstances.
KRG leaders have made concessions on all of Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s demands in order to try to break the log jam. They have offered joint administration of border crossings and airports. They have said they respect the so-called “federal” Iraqi court’s ruling that declares the September 25 referendum invalid. They have declared themselves amenable to forwarding Kurdistan’s oil revenues to Baghdad (this has actually been there position since 2005 – what they disagree about is Baghdad’s demand that SOMO, the “federal” government’s oil and gas company, monopolize every aspect of the oil industry, including contracts, operations and exports from Kurdistan – something which would be in clear violation of Article 112 of the Iraqi constitution).
Yet Abadi’s government in Baghdad persists in refusing to even talk. Mr. Abadi demands that Kurdistan’s leaders declare the referendum “null and void” – something which KDP leaders say only another referendum could do. Mr. Abadi insists that the Iraqi military take control of border crossings, because apparently “federal” civilian officials are insufficient for the task. Mr. Abadi insists that the KRG provide Baghdad with information regarding its employees and salaries, which it claims to have done, but which Baghdad finds lacking. And the Shiite-dominated parliament in Baghdad now insists on reducing Kurdistan’s share of the budget from the constitutionally-mandated 17% to something closer to 12%, after deductions for “sovereign Iraqi expenses” such as the military, federal government and other issues Kurdistan has no say in helping to calculate.
This is not the politics of moderation, inclusion and power sharing. Not for the first nor the last time, it seems that “Washington’s man in Baghdad” is not who they thought he was. Even Washington’s last man in Baghdad, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, appears embarrassed at the impasse. In a recent interview with this newspaper, Mr. Maliki stated that “I can’t see any excuse to delay talks until after elections….What is the reason behind delaying talks until after elections? The situation of this logic shouldn’t be dominant in doing politics with the Region which is part of Iraq and Kurdish nation is part of Iraqi nation. The Region doesn’t endure this. The situation in the Region needs a quick review before it is too late…”
Clear, honest language remains preferable to prevarications: Mr. Abadi appears intent on humiliating Kurdistan and violating the constitution he claims to uphold by destroying the Region’s autonomy. When it comes to the Sunni Arab areas of the country, Prime Minister Abadi has likewise failed to put into place any kind of post-ISIS political program that would address Sunni disaffection within Iraq. This looks like the same triumphalist, authoritarian and paranoid political style that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place.
If the United States, European countries and others would like to see Iraq implode yet again, they need only continue to sit back and do nothing as Baghdad destroys the only success story resulting from America’s post-2003 occupation of Iraq. The moderate, pro-Western Kurdistan Region may not be perfect, but should they let it be crushed, the ungrateful Americans and Europeans may not see its like again in the Middle East for some time.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.