The most common question asked as a regular visitor to Iraqi Kurdistan is whether it or all Kurds can, will or wish to be independent. It reflects the long struggle of the Kurds to maintain their identity in often hostile circumstances but it is looking at the issue the wrong way round.
Complex cases are often framed overseas by a somewhat simplistic folk memory that hasn’t kept up with changing circumstances. For instance, many outside observers used to believe that the answer to the Irish question was unifying the two parts of the island. That may one day be the answer but the first issue that had to be settled was how the people of Northern Ireland could overcome their tragic history as equals. And how the two parts of Ireland could co-operate for mutual benefit. The imposition of a solution that disadvantaged one side could have caused more conflict and bloodshed.
It is highly improbable that the Kurds in connected areas in four well established countries – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – could form a new country, given realpolitik and increasingly divergent histories and dialects. This assumes that that they achieve full equality in each of those countries. The process of resolving historical differences in Turkey, where the vast majority of Kurds live, could do that.
Independence for the officially recognised autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan is more feasible. It is already independent in all but name. It has its own army, flag, parliament, President, airports, foreign representatives and foreign envoys in its capital. Iraqi flags flutter in official meetings but it is hard to believe that you are in Iraq.
Breaking with Baghdad is an aspiration – a poem, a dream as many say – of most Iraqi Kurds. This is hardly surprising because the British forcibly incorporated them into Iraq nearly a century ago to help balance relations between the Sunnis and the Shias in the Arab south and to add a very different geographical profile – mountains, cooler climate and rivers.
Throughout the last century, the Iraqi Kurds were derided, neglected and suffered a brutal campaign of genocide. The most notorious example of this was the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in March 1988 in which 5,000 people were killed in an instant. An estimated 182,000 people were murdered in 1987-1988.
The British Parliament last year formally recognised the genocide. Two members of the US Congress have tabled a bipartisan resolution urging the House of Representatives and the government to recognise the genocide. In November 2013, Representatives Chris Van Hollen and Marsha Blackburn introduced resolution (H.RES.422) which also reaffirms friendship between the United States and the Kurdish people in Iraq.
When Iraq was liberated in 2003, the Kurds could have opted to go their own way. Instead, they decided, in the words of their Minister of Natural Resources, Ashti Hawrami to remarry Iraq, although it had been a very abusive partner for decades. The Kurdish leadership made it clear that they would remain in Iraq as long as it was federal and democratic. They played a critical role in enshrining these in the Iraqi constitution, agreed by the Iraqi people in 2005. They helped broker settlements that formed a national unity government led by Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki. They are active in the government and Parliament in Baghdad, which is guarded by their efficient troops – the Peshmerga (those who face death).
Yet the question of independence keeps popping up. The reason for the renewed focus is that the Kurds have decided to make the most of their recently uncovered natural resources of oil and gas by building a new pipeline. This can take these plentiful resources to market in Turkey, which requires them to fuel its fast-growing economy and become a new energy hub.
The Kurds are seeking economic independence but are making it abundantly clear that the oil and gas remains the property of the Iraqi people as a whole. They want to transparently measure the flow and seek a new, reliable and robust revenue sharing law that allocates the revenues fairly and proportionately. They are acting within the Iraqi constitution.
There has been much overblown rhetoric about this but it now seems possible that Baghdad and Erbil can come to an agreement about how Iraq as a whole can benefit from the Kurdish success in building their energy sector from scratch in just a few years.
Economic independence can cement the country together but America opposes this. The reason given is that it could be transformed into political independence. The U.S.A. fears that this could upset the apple cart and drive a divided Iraq further into the arms of Iran. The counter-argument is that failure to fully implement federalism could drive the Kurds into independence.
America is respected in Kurdistan, whose leaders followed their advice in seeking better relations with Turkey, but they point out that official American analysis is behind the times. They should, to use an old Irish phrase, catch themselves on and examine how the Kurds are seeking, yes, to defend and promote their interests but are also seeking to build a new Iraq based on partnership and power-sharing as a federal and binational country. Getting the analysis the right way round is the prerequisite for American influence and support securing a decent outcome in Iraq after so many years of dictatorship and suffering.
Gary Kent is the Director in the British Parliament of its all-party group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and has visited Iraqi Kurdistan 16 times since 2006, mainly as a guest of the Kurdistan Regional Government and twice to Baghdad as a guest of the Prime Minister and his Islamic Dawa Party. He writes in a personal capacity.