What has happened to Kurdistan? All was supposedly going well, the de-facto president Masoud Barzani was going across the region, city to city pushing the independence referendum. It was as if the Kurdish people gave him a mandate to bring a lasting state, but that was not the reality. Barzani ignored all calls for postponement, including warning from the United States, United Nations Security Council, European Union, Great Britain, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and of course Iraq. Barzani also ignored the Kurdish opposition’s concerns and legal procedures. The response from surrounding states was unexpected according to Barzani. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) faced immediate sanctions, shutting down of airspace include a stop on all international flights into the region, military drills, threats from Turkey and Iran calling for a nullification of the referendum results.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), with many positions filled by the Barzani clan. Barzani’s nephew is the Prime Minster and his son is the head of Security Council. Barzani’s term has been expired for years despite being extended twice, once in 2013 by the parliament and illegally in 2015. The KDP has treated KRGs institutions for their will, the parliament has been forcefully shut down since 2015, but briefly reconvened to fulfil Barzani’s referendum wish. Presidential and parliamentary elections is set for November 1st of next month, but even that is threatened. Barzani is aiming to extend his term yet again.
Barzani was warned by experts, analysts, world leaders, and journalists to have his house in order before calling for any sort of referendum. Unfortunately, he is surrounded by ‘yes men’ on the pay roll.
The result of the referendum was not a 93% win, but the loss of Kirkuk, Shingal and other historical Kurdish territories. The referendum led to a loss of everything Kurds have sacrificed for the past 26 years. It was the mass wealth, land, and oil taken by KDP elites and members of the PUK. Kurdistan has lost everything it has gained in 26 years within a mere 48 hours.
This was certainly the result of the referendum, Kurdistan was enjoying a degree of positive ties with Baghdad while fighting the Islamic State. Kurdistan was selling oil independently with Turkey, and trading goods with Iran. The problems Kurds faced internally were shifted towards Baghdad by the KDP. The KRG under KDP government faced lack of transparency, accountability, no freedom of press, kidnappings of journalists and civilians, mass oil theft, billions in monetary debt, nepotism both in Kurdistan and KRG across Europe and US. In short, Kurdistan was far from a legitimate state, and the referendum was a total failure.
Kirkuk in depth
The late Jalal Talabani promised that Kirkuk, known as the Jerusalem of Kurdistan, would never vanish from the control of Kurds without a fight. Chaos, confusion and anger spurred among Kurds. The situation on the ground is still not clear still, but the main actors involved were the Iraqi security forces backed by the Iranian funded proxy, Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Peshmerga, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Peshmerga under Kosrat Rasul, KRG vice president (who has close ties with KDP), and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Peshmerga under Lahur Talabani (two PUK factions are foes). The defeat began in southern Kirkuk, town after town the PMU and Iraqi forces rolled in all while Peshmerga forces retreated.
Both PUK wings blamed one another, and Lahur’s forces stated that he would not sacrifice his soldiers while the sons of Barzani are safe- he continued to add, Massoud Barzani is not Kurdistan’s president, if he has any honor, he will resign.
KDPs presence in Kirkuk was largely concentrated around the oilfields, it was able to sell oil to Turkey independently, but the city has historically been heavily controlled by the PUK. Rumors of Lahur Talabani cutting a deal with Iran has engulfed the region, allowing PMU/Iraqi forces to take over the province.
An important factor was the governor’s role, Dr. Najmadin Karim, he was part of the PUK but deeply leaned towards the KDP. The PUK under Lahur felt threatened by KDPs growing influence in the province, Dr. Karim also pushed for Kirkuk to be included in the referendum. Dr. Karim has been out of the scene since Kirkuk was lost in his control, PUK in Kirkuk has removed him as governor.
What we now know as the most likely scenario (although not officially confirmed), is that Lahur Talabani’s PUK wing did cut a deal with Baghdad to remove any KDP influence over Kirkuk, this in return would allow PUK to continue to control the city and Baghdad would resume oil sales.
Abadi also called for the PMU to withdraw from the city, this is in contradiction with what the KDP media Kurdistan 24 and Rudaw has been spreading, that PMU has retreated.
To ordinary Kurds, this was a surprise, many felt betrayed by the KDP and PUK and ultimately held Barzani accountable. But as we are learning, the battle for Kirkuk was coming, it was all a matter of time. (Read my piece on Kirkuk here).
Next steps for KRG
The first step is for Masoud Barzani to resign immediately, for many reasons. The de-facto president is illegally holding the post, elections are in November while delaying is not an option, and finally for his catastrophic failure for the loss of Kirkuk. He cannot take credit for the good but remain innocent for actions labeled as treason in many countries.
Next, elections must be held on time or a transitional government should be put in place under an interim president and the current parliament should set a date for elections.
Third, all who were involved in the betrayal of Kirkuk and Kurdish territories must be held accountable. They cannot pretend it is ‘business as usual’. The elites were nowhere to been seen when the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and Iraqi army rolled into Kirkuk. Yet these same elites proudly raised the Kurdish flag and pushed for a failed referendum. It was the people who received the short end of the stick.
Fourth, nepotism in Kurdistan must be addressed. The Barzanis cannot continue to drive Kurdistan into chaos while they distance themselves from the suffering the average Kurd experiences on a daily basis. Nepotism is the reason why both the Talabani family under the PUK and Barzani are able to do as they please. Kurdistan is not theirs.
Fifth, the United States and allies in Europe must differentiate between the KRG from KDP and PUK. The KRG is the governing body, these parties appoint KDP and PUK officials to representative offices, in return pushing party agendas leaving behind Kurdistan’s interest. They are emboldened by the support they receive abroad, and can no longer be given a blank check.
Sixth, Kurds must let go of tribal mentality, being ruled by warlords is not the best form of government. For as long as Kurds allow the two families be the judge and jury of Kurdistan, it will end in failure. The youth, educated and young professionals at home and abroad must lead the way in forming a new system.
Kurds have two options: What happened post referendum is not by accident. It was clearly predicted, there was no surprise. Either Kurds demand total top-down reform of the KRG, or allow these two parties to continue to gamble with the welfare of the nation.
Finally, what happened in Kirkuk was not the doing of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Europe or US, but solely KDP-PUK themselves. Surrounding regions will continue to do what is in their best interest, the US warned Kurds and provided an alternative, while Europe called for dialogue with Iraq. KDP attempted to act unilaterally, backing its allies into a corner.