Breaking Away From Baghdad
The mood in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Dohuk — the three largest cities in Iraqi Kurdistan — is newly buoyant these days, and with good reason. Iraq’s Kurds, who occupy the semiautonomous region run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), have much to celebrate. They enjoy relative peace and stability compared with the rest of the country, boast a moderately open society, and, over the past year, have received a whopping vote of confidence in their nascent economy from some of the world’s largest oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, and Gazprom, all of which have signed exploration contracts with the KRG. Not only is Iraqi Kurdistan undergoing an unprecedented building boom, but its people are now articulating a once-unthinkable notion: that the day they will break free from the rest of Iraq is nigh.
As the Kurds press forward, they are growing increasingly estranged from the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; personal relations between Maliki and the Kurdish regional president, Massoud Barzani, have reached an all-time low, keeping them from resolving critical disputes over power, territory, and resources. This past June, Barzani and other opponents of Maliki tried to oust the prime minister through a vote of no confidence, and although they failed to do so, their ambition remains very much alive.
The Kurds are victims of history, geo-graphy, and, on the occasions they overreach, their own ambitions. For almost a century, they have struggled to free themselves from central control and to overcome their landlocked location. Today, a rapidly changing region is presenting them with new allies and fresh opportunities. Yet there is good reason to think that the Kurds will have to defer their quest for statehood once again, at most trading Baghdad’s suffocating embrace for a more amenable dependence on Turkey.
* JOOST R. HILTERMANN is Deputy Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group and Research Affiliate at the MIT Center for International Studies.