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Musings on Baghdad and Erbil: An Interview with Joel Wing.

As part of a series of articles on the Kurdish referendum crisis, we invited Joel Wing to discuss the aftermath of the vote. Joel has been writing the blog Musings on Iraq since 2008.

Readers familiar with Musings on Iraq will know it as an invaluable resource: Joel has tirelessly documented events in different sectors over thousands of blog entries and scores of interviews. If something significant has happened in Iraq or been the subject of debate, Joel has probably written about it. Unsurprisingly, he has also been widely quoted in the media.

Q: Do you think there is a historical precedent (from Iraqi history) regarding what we are seeing now in the Kurdish region?

The closest example comes from recent history during the Maliki administration when the prime minister challenged the Kurds twice in the disputed territories, especially in Diyala and Kirkuk, in 2008-09 and then again in 2012-13. Maliki tried to push the Peshmerga out of several areas and insert federal forces in their place. That led to a huge political crisis with the threat of an armed confrontation between the two.

The difference between those situations and the current one was how they were interpreted. For Maliki, this was considered another move by the prime minister to go after his opponents, which started with Moqatada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army in the Charge of Knights campaign in 2008, followed by the Sahwa and Sunni political parties, and then the Kurds twice. The prime minister was seen as using the Kurds as a foil to rally both Sunni and Shiite Arabs in northern Iraq to his side. The 2008-09 incident for instance, happened just before provincial elections. The current situation is seen differently as a reaction to the Kurds’ independence referendum and preserving Iraqi sovereignty and a re-assertion of Iraqi nationalism at least amongst Arabs. Premier Abadi was also forced into action by the anger the referendum generated in parliament with many Arab politicians demanding that the Kurds be punished for their actions. The prime minister would have been greatly undermined if he didn't respond to that pressure. Maliki therefore was seen as a crass politician, while Abadi is seen in a much more positive light outside of the Kurdish areas of the country.

Q: What now for Barzani and the KDP? Does it seem like he has many cards left to play or do you think we may be looking at a sea-change in Kurdish politics?

The Kurdish Election Commission recently announced that it was suspending presidential and parliamentary elections in Kurdistan that were scheduled for November 2017 because no candidates registered. Some like Gorran and Barham Salah’s new party are calling for an interim government in the KRG. Unless there is a revolt within the KDP against the Barzanis, which I don’t see happening, Masoud Barzani will likely stay in office for the foreseeable future.

Bigger picture Kurdistan may be reverting to a pre-2003 state when there were two separate administrations with a KDP area in Irbil and Dohuk and a PUK region in Sulaymaniya and now Halabja which is a separate entity. Given the current animosity and vitriol the two parties are throwing at each other I don’t see them cooperating any time soon.

Q: What do you make of the popular theory that Iran played a leading role in the Iraqi operations into disputed territory on the week beginning the 14th October?

Iran did play a part, but I think all the claims that they were the masterminds behind everything is a huge exaggeration. First, Quds Force Commander General Suleimani was in Kurdistan in September trying to stop the referendum and failed. Then PM Abadi sent federal forces towards southern Kirkuk and the PUK negotiated a partial withdrawal from two districts before Suleimani returned to Kurdistan. Before that several PUK leaders had said they were open to compromise with Baghdad. Into that stepped Iran. Suleimani likely convinced the party to pull farther back then it originally planned, such as giving up Kirkuk City. Rather than creating the entire situation Iran took advantage of an existing one.

Q: What now for Kirkuk? It is one thing to say federal government control has been restored, but there are very important issues--both political and military, to ensure stability in the province.

Politically the PUK will remain in control of the province. They had the governorship before, and will maintain that position. They are also a dominant force on the provincial council. On the other hand, it appears PM Abadi wants the Peshmerga to withdraw to roughly where they were in 2003, and have federal forces control provincial security and police the local areas. That will be tricky in some areas where there are large Kurdish populations or close to the Kurdistan border .That led to the fighting between Baghdad and Irbil’s forces in Altun Kupri on October 20, because the Kurds believed the Iraqi forces were advancing on Irbil.

Q: There is talk of the restoration of budget transfers to the Kurdish region, but on a different basis as before, perhaps sending funds directly to the provinces. There are many potential problems with this, despite the potential advantage for Baghdad of weakening KDP dominance over the KRI. Presumably this would be paid for by sending Kurdish oil to SOMO, but it is perhaps predictable that Ashti Hawrami is already pushing back hard against this idea. What happens now regarding oil and fiscal transfers?

I have no idea what will happen in KDP areas. A State of Law MP said that Baghdad would pay the salaries of Kurdish civil servants and Peshmerga who operated under the federal government, basically meaning the PUK. That would mean Kirkuk, Sulaymaniya, and Halabja would be receiving federal funds.

Oil exports to generate revenue is another big question. The North Oil Company is back in control of the Avana and Bai Hassan fields in Kirkuk, which are now currently off line. They will have to send their exports through the Kurdish controlled pipeline to Turkey. Ankara holds the upper hand with the pipeline, so it will have a say as well. That will all have to be worked out, and the oil fields may have to ramp down production when they get back to producing and what is made be diverted to domestic use until a deal is made.

A larger set of talks will have to be conducted between Baghdad and Irbil as the latter now holds roughly 50% of the Kurds oil production. The KRG was already in the midst of a financial crisis, and now its economy will be unsustainable. There is too much uncertainty there to predict how it will all work out, especially if Abadi decides to seize the Khurmala oil field which will take another huge chunk out of the Kurds’ revenue sources.

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