Iraq Business Report

Last updated at 22/10/2017

Kurdish leader’s gamble on independence backfires

 Erika Solomon

He was born in a shortlived independent Kurdish state, and he hoped to die in one.
But the dream of statehood that has vexed generations of Iraqi Kurdish leaders — and the hubris of believing he could be the one to finally achieve it — led Masoud Barzani to gamble with the most successful period of self-determination his people have enjoyed.
 Last month’s independence referendum, rejected by Iraq and the international community, but championed by Mr Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has become another chapter of a bleak Kurdish history, repeatedly doomed by a mix of misplaced expectations of their allies, as well as greed and betrayal within their own ranks.
 Weeks after Kurds joyously took to polling stations, waving their tri-coloured flag and voting overwhelmingly “Yes” to break away from Iraq, they were shocked to see Iraqi forces advance while Kurdish peshmerga forces quickly withdrew from disputed territories, claimed by the KRG and Baghdad. It began with the Iraqi takeover of the oil-rich Kirkuk, facilitated by a secret deal reached with Baghdad by Mr Barzani’s rivals in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, and partly brokered by Iran. Within days, Iraqi Kurdish leadership was divided, and most of the territory it has controlled since Isis swept through northern Iraq in 2014 — as well as oilfields that provided half of its revenues — was gone.
 “This political elite have squandered the opportunity at a time when we had the international community on our side, when we had an unparalleled economy, unparalleled autonomy,” said Barham Salih, a former KRG prime minister who spoke regularly with Mr Barzani during the referendum bid.
 He argues that corrupt officials encouraged Mr Barzani’s beating of the nationalist drum to detract from burgeoning discontent over wealth disparity since oil prices plummeted.
 “This referendum was definitively identified with the will of one man — but it was also about the network of corruption and of small people who stole so much money and abused power, and who have been trying to cover their tracks,” he said.
 It has lead many to wonder, how could Mr Barzani get it so wrong? 
Diplomats say he had a stubborn streak they struggled in vain to counter. Critics saw a cynical ploy to hold on to power. But many who know Mr Barzani argue it was desperation to make history.
“He wants a legacy. He wants an independent Kurdistan. He wants to do what his father couldn’t do,” says Emma Sky, who served as a political adviser in Iraq during the US occupation. “I expect he thought the Kurds were invaluable to the coalition against Isis, and perhaps their reward would be independence.”
 Mr Barzani, who dresses in simple brown sirwal pants and jacket, and a red kerchief on his head, was born in 1946 in the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, now part of Iran. His father, the nationalist hero Mustafa Barzani, was the republic’s military commander during its one-year existence, and Masoud was born there.
 “I want to die in the shadow of that flag of an independent Kurdistan,” the KRG president told Foreign Policy in a recent interview.
 But like the PUK, Mr Barzani and his ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) were not without their own treacherous streak: during a Kurdish civil war, he invited Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces to Erbil in 1996 to defeat the PUK.
 The PUK’s leader Jalal Talabani died last month. But his relatives, based in the marginalised city of Sulimaniya, struck this week’s deal with Baghdad, and may soon invert today’s KRG dynamics, where wealth flowed mostly toward Erbil.
 Some Kurdish officials blame lobbyists, many of them Americans, who they believe may have assured Mr Barzani that western support was inevitable. But Mr Barzani’s biggest overstep was including Iraq’s disputed territories in the poll — particularly Kirkuk. Ms Sky believes: “That was his big miscalculation.” 
Washington, which regards both Baghdad and the KRG as important regional allies, shares blame, too, for its repeated pattern of clinging to Iraqi leaders, no matter the conditions, analysts say. The US backed Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister, in 2010 despite his party coming second at elections that year. His crackdown on Iraqi Sunnis helped create the conditions for Isis to rise. 
During the war on Isis, it was Mr Barzani the Americans clung to — he is now two years over his presidential term limit.
 Now, it is Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi they are standing by, refusing to intervene even as Iraqi forces clashed with Kurdish peshmerga on Friday. Two officials said Washington refused to speak with Mr Barzani this week.
 Mr Barzani has disappeared from public view as the crisis has unfolded, releasing only a written statement calling for national unity. A KRG official said he still goes to his office every day.
 “Independence, we are tabling that for a while. But I don’t think it’s over yet,” he said.
 Mahmoud al-Hafid, grandson of another nationalist hero, Mahmoud al-Barzinji, says the next part of the story is clear. He shows a picture of his grandfather at the Kirkuk train station, 95 years earlier, heading to Baghdad to negotiate with King Faisal over Kurdish rights. “For 95 years to now, we’re going over these same problems,” he says. “It looks like we will ride that same train again.”
From the Financial Times on 22.10.2017

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