By Sarkawt Shamsulddin
Washington- In 1991, after the Kurdish uprising, the Iraqi Kurdistan became a de facto autonomous entity, and it was protected from Baghdad’s aggression by the United States. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was formed for the first time. However, the Kurdistan flag was not allowed to fly over the KRG institutions because the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Masoud Barzani, was against it.
Back then, Barzani never talked about independence and the nationalism rhetoric never brought to public attention. Moreover, the KDP did not want to show any indication that Kurdistan Region was gaining autonomy and undermining Iraqi constitution because it could lead to financial difficulties. In Duhok and some other areas where the KDP had absolute power, the majority of the schools were teaching in Arabic and still using the textbooks were printed by Baghdad.
After the defeat of Iraqi Army in Kuwait in 1991, Iraqi Government under Saddam Hussain suffered from multiple economic sanctions. Iraq’s most valuable production, oil, was not allowed to be exported through the pipelines to international markets. But the oil flow never stopped, and the flow smuggled its way through trucks to Turkey via Duhok. The KDP was benefiting from the relations with both Baghdad and Ankara. However, the relations was at the expense of Kurdistan interests. The KDP was not promoting any Kurdish statehood rhetoric and it was against it because both Baghdad and Ankara could not tolerate it. Also, historically, the KDP did not adopt statehood or self-determination until its final convention, the 13th Convention in 2010.
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and the rise of Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, Barzani left with no friends or allies in the region. Barzani’s relations with Tehran was at odd due to KDP’s close relationship with Turkey and opening the door for Turkish intervention in Kurdistan and inviting Iraqi Army in 1996 gainst Iran’s loyal partner the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The US was trying to keep a balance between all Iraqi the main political parties. Therefore, the KDP shifted its campaign from autonomy to independence and claiming to retake Kirkuk, as disputed area between Baghdad and Erbil.
At that time, KDP’s popularity was at stake as well. In 2005 elections, the PUK was able to win 52,000 votes more than the KDP. Baghdad became the center of the debate and the source of financial income. Under the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the Iraqi borders remain open for trade without customs. Consequently, the KDP lost its most valuable source of Income.
To turn both local and regional attention on him, the KDP’s Barzani emerged as a nationalist political figure and claiming to retake Kirkuk and hold the referendum. Until 2007, Kirkuk was KDP’s biggest campaign, but when the constitutional deadline was due, KDP Barzani handed over the Kirkuk portfolio to UN’s Staffan de Mistura to resolve; he never did.
By using Kirkuk, Barzani received Baghdad and Washington’s attention. On the highest level, the then US Vice Dick Cheney contacted Barzani to ease the tension over Kirkuk, and he later met Barzani in Erbil. Turkey was threatening to attack Kurdistan if KRG retakes Kirkuk. On regional level and in Iraq, theKirkukk case brought Barzani to the forefront of the debates on Iraq and overpassing PUK’s Talabani’s charismatic role in Baghdad as the first Kurdish president of Iraq. Domestically, Barzani presented himself as a nationalist leader who fights for Kurdish land. He destroyed Kurdish historical relations with Iraqi Shias, but embraced Sunnis.
Later, Barzani compromised on Kirkuk and delayed the referendum for an unknown date without consulting with Kurdistan parliament. In return, Barzani gained the US support and the ice wall between KDP and AKP was slowly melting down.
The next phase of the KDP’s campaign was the referendum on Kurdish statehood which was started in 2012 after Barzani, and his allies failed to gain the majority vote to withdraw confidence from then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. To regain attention and win more deals, the independence rhetoric launched. Barzani said that he will ask people of Kurdistan to make a vote for independence from Iraq. His statements got the attention of international media, and locally the KDP accused other political parties of opposing the independence. However, the KDP’s controversial campaign helped it to achieve a better position in Baghdad. Barzani and his presidential house became the place to make deals and form alliances.
The statehood campaign reached its peak in June 2014, after the fall of Mosul into self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Before the emergence of ISIL, the KDP used statehood claim to gain public support for “independence” oil sale, but it was the beginning the KRG did not have full access to Kirkuk’s oil like it has now. But the fall of Mosul shocked Barzani, and he first saw it as an opportunity to break up from Iraq. Before June 2014, Barzani did not talk about when and how he will achieve independence, but he said that he wished to see it during his lifetime. After ISIL, he claimed to hold the referendum in months. His last deadline to hold referendum was late 2016, before US elections, but he never met the deadline.
In both cases, the Kirkuk and Kurdistan statehood, the deadline passed and Barzani never presented a reasonable justification why he failed to achieve what he claimed to achieve. However, he and his Party became Kurdistan’s decisive ruler and now he, unilaterally, can make deals with Ankara, Washington, Baghdad, and Tehran. Financially, the KDP is winning too because it is the only one that has full access to KRG oil revenue. But Kurdistan was lost; Kurds are no longer the kingmaker in Baghdad and financially, Kurdistan cannot even go back to its old deal with Baghdad by getting 17 percent of the national budget. Iraq is imposing many conditions on the KRG before sending any money while from 2006 to 2012 KRG was getting full payment without prior conditions. All these happened under statehood and oil sale policy orchestrated by Barzani.