Passengers are seen at Erbil airport on September 28, 2017. All foreign flights to and from the Kurdistan Region will be suspended from Friday, officials said, as Baghdad increases pressure on the Kurds over this week's independence referendum. Photo: AFP/ Safin Hamed
The Iraqi government's harsh response to the Kurdistan Region's September 25 referendum on independence indicates that many in Baghdad want to punish the autonomous region to the extent of completely undermining, if not destroying altogether, its sovereignty.
In the space of less than a week Baghdad has demanded that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) hand over control of its two international airports and all of its international border crossings with its neighbours. They have also demanded that the more than 30 foreign consulates in Erbil pack up their bags and leave the region.
Were Erbil to actually abide by all these demands that would effectively undermine, if not compromise, its sovereignty and severely restrict its access to the wider region and the rest of the world.
When the Saudis and Emiratis began their blockade on Qatar over the summer they sent very exorbitant demands to the Qataris in return for lifting the blockade. Analysts reasonably determined that the very broad demands meant in reality that Doha would have to surrender its sovereignty in order to meet them.
Saudi Arabia gave 13 sweeping demands to Qatar ranging from unspecified reparations to the closure of the Al Jazeera network. Baghdad has issued 12 orders to the KRG, which include leveling charges against Kurdish President Masoud Barzani for going ahead with the referendum to taking measures against Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk who the Iraqi parliament voted to sack earlier this month. Karim has retained his post nevertheless, affirming that Baghdad has no mandate to withdraw confidence in him since he reached his present position through a vote of confidence from the Kirkuk Provincial Council and the people of that province, not the Iraqi parliament.
No serious Kurdish leader could make these concessions without, in effect, surrendering their real authority in the region. Another disturbing aspect of Baghdad's recent policies is their pressuring of Iraq's President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, to publicly voice his opposition to the referendum – in spite of the fact that the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds voting in that referendum have publicly declared they would rather have their own nation state. This could potentially set a precedent whereby the Iraqi government in a sense encourages Iraqis, through such actions and declarations, to question the loyalties of ordinary Kurds living outside of the KRG.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Baghdad's behaviour in recent weeks is its sudden interest in the Iraqi Constitution. Drafted and approved over a decade ago many articles in the constitution were simply ignored by the central government. Baghdad selectively, and arguably hypocritically, cited it in an attempt to discredit the referendum and now to cancel it.
Abadi told Iraq's parliament that KRG must first “cancel the referendum and its outcome” as a prerequisite for any negotiations before adding that, “We will impose Iraqi law in the entire region of Kurdistan under the constitution.”
Take the most striking example of Baghdad's selective use of the constitution, Article 140: had Baghdad simply implemented it a decade ago as it was supposed to there would be no serious controversy over the status of Kirkuk. Instead they conveniently ignored it leading directly to the present impasse which could erupt into a dangerous confrontation if Iraq, as par the parliament's new resolution, sends troops into Kirkuk to take the oilfields.
Barzani, on the other hand, told Reuters in early July that: “Whatever the people of Kirkuk decide within the referendum, that decision should be respected.”
The KRG has insisted that the referendum will not determine the borders of a future Kurdish state, insisting that they will negotiate this key issue with Baghdad over the course of the next two or so years before any actual declaration of independence. If Baghdad can readily cite the constitution to demand the Kurds to cancel their referendum then it can surely implement Article 140, or just reasonably accept the legitimate outcome of the actual referendum vote counts in these areas, and sort out these serious issues without any needless bloodshed.