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Can Al-Abadi Reconcile With Kurds?

Al-Abadi has the best chance to reconcile Iraq with Kurds. Is he willing to do so?

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By Sarkawt Shamsulddin

Washington- On October 16, 2017, the Kurds remembered old days in which they thought they are not going to see it again and their American friends told them that, too. The Kurds were told that what happened in Halabja and Anfal is not going to happen again but they see it is recurring. Rolling Iraqi army tanks toward Kirkuk, removing Kurdish flags from the government buildings, banning Kirkuk Chief of Police ( a Kurdish) to address the public in Kurdish, the looting, burning Kurdish houses in Tuz Khurmatu are the scenes occupied the minds of most Kurds. It was not a while ago that Kurds faced genocide and mass killing under the hand of Iraqi Government in the 1980s. Whenever there is a military move from Iraq toward Kurdistan, people remember old bad days and the wounds hurt again.

In the eyes of most Kurds, young and old, Baghdad is bad and we should not allow it to rule us ever. The fear and “hatred” toward Baghdad is not the cause of one battle but a struggle emerged even before the establishment of modern Iraqi State in 1932. The hostility toward Iraqi state among Iraqi Kurds has grown day by day until 1991 when it reached its climax. It should be noted that Iraqi Kurds hardly recognize themselves as Iraqi. Majority of Iraqi Kurds don’t speak Arabic at all. Kurdish youths barely understand Arabic. Culturally, Iraqi Kurds are under the influence of Turkey, Iran, and the West, not Iraq.

In 1991 people of Iraqi Kurdistan started an uprising against Saddam’s regime, the Iraqi Kurdistan as a political entity established and later recognized as a federal region under the Iraqi constitution. Since then, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan not just enjoy a quasi-independent from Iraq but also they were detached from central government and its rulers. Since 1991, people of Kurdistan region seek Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to improve public services, create jobs, hold elections, respect human rights, and other demands. They don’t appeal to Iraqi Government to do that for them and they don’t expect central government to do anything other than sending KRG’s fair share of the national budget. Almost everyone in Kurdistan Region wants the KRG to be preserved, not destroyed no matter how corrupt their leaders are!

Two things contributed to the enmity of Iraqi Kurds toward Baghdad. First is the unapologetic stance of the current Iraqi Government toward Kurdish historical sufferings. The Iraqi Government and its rulers owe people of Kurdistan a moral acknowledgment for what happened in the past. The Iraqi Government failed to embrace Kurdish culture and commemorate Kurdish national days such as Nowruz. This gives the feeling to the Kurds in Iraq that no matter who rules Iraq, Shitte or Sunni, Iraq remains “enemy” of Kurds. Indeed, most people see Iraqi Army’s advance toward Kirkuk as an “invasion” and that is how it called in Kurdistan’s mainstream media. This sentiment is not adopted only by politicians but scholars and credible writers. These scholars ask you this question “do you see Iraqi Army as an invader or not?” If your answer is “no,” they will consider you as a “traitor” right away. Even this writing may put me in that position.

Second is the Kurdish nationalism. The Kurdish struggle for self-determination in Iraq and Turkey dates back to the era of post-WW I. But Kurdish nationalism in literature is much older than that. In the 1800s, you can find this voice in Ahmed Khani’s poets and his attempt to refuse Turkification or Nali’s long letter to his friend Salim where he embraces Kurdish identity of Sulaymaniyah and attacks Ottomans’ presence in the city. But Kurdish nationalism in Iraqi Kurdistan as a political project starts with the establishment of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946. The Kurdish rebellions adopted communism and leftist sentiment but they mainly focused on Kurdish identity. Later the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and many more Kurdish parties emerged and all remained nationalistic. They educated Kurdish youth on nationalism for generations. These parties have been portraying Baghdad as an oppressor and biggest threat to Kurdish existence. Even though most of the leaders of these parties became influential in Iraqi Government after 2003 and they even played a vital role to keep Iraqi state united. However, the hostility toward Baghdad never decreased. In fact, anti-Baghdad rhetoric was one of the most popular campaign slogans in Iraqi Kurdistan’s elections. Both PUK and KDP remained popular among older and young generation due to their anti-Baghdad viewpoint. However, the Kurdish leaders legitimized their relations with Iraqi politicians because they controlled KRG institutions. But they are calling anyone else a “traitor” if he/she tries to deal with Iraqi politicians directly.

These two factors with other issues led to detachment of Iraqi Kurdish population from the rest of Iraq. But also the failure of Shitte rulers to reach out to Kurdish public created a vacuum for Kurdish politicians to exploit it. The Kurds don’t want Iraqi Government to talk to them by force. They also don’t want to see Baghdad control their airports and border crossings but they want Baghdad to engage with them and help them fight corruption. The Iraqi Government and the Arabs leaders should always attend important Kurdish events such as commemorating Halabja and Anfal and renew their commitment to treating Kurds fairly. There should a better communication strategy adopted by Iraqi prime minister to reach out to Kurdish audience in their native Kurdish language. This communication can be through TV channel and social media as well. The anti-Kurd rhetoric in Baghdad among Sunni and Shiite politicians and any attempt to undo KRG ‘s constitutional power will empower Kurdish leaders and make Baghdad evil in the eyes of almost all Kurds. But there is no constitutional and security barrier to Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to visit Kurdistan and meet with people regularly. He can also invite various groups to Baghdad to hear their concerns because since 2003 Iraqi politicians talk to Kurdish public through Kurdish leaders only and that is misleading.

Nonetheless, Baghdad can play an important role in Iraqi Kurdistan by monitoring local elections, hold Kurdish official accountable if Kurdistan’s institutions failed to do so. Iraqi rulers should deal with Kurdish public directly and avoid financial pressure against the public. But Baghdad should be more transparent with Kurdish people when it comes to KRG’s share of the national budget. Because any attempt to squeeze KRG financially can be exploited by Kurdish lawmakers and politicians to turn people against Baghdad.

In the eyes of many Kurds, the incumbent Iraqi PM Al-Abadi is seen as less sectarian and more reformist and moderate compared to his predecessors. He has the best chance to reconcile Iraq with people of Iraqi Kurdistan. But this is not enough. He needs to act as a leader not only for Shitte but also for all Iraq. He has to use his financial power to direct developments to Iraqi Kurdistan and end financial pressure on KRG, even if it is temporary. The economic is very important but Al-Abadi has to recognize Kurdish sufferings publicly and repeatedly. The moral recognition of Arab rulers of Kurdish genocide is very powerful to gain public trust in Kurdistan. People in Iraqi Kurdistan agree that KRG is corrupt and the ruling parties “steal” public money in different ways but they don’t want Baghdad’s sanctions to continue as it renews the wounds of the past.

About Sarkawt Shamulddin (61 Articles)
Sarkawt Shamsulddin is a political analyst on Middle East Affairs and co-founder of the Kurdish Policy Foundation

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