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The Kurds' Best Friends are in Baghdad

Recent events in the Middle East provide another reminder of how important it is that people can protest peacefully.

In December, as many as 10 demonstrators were killed in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) and over 300 arrested by Kurdish security forces, while Kurdish TV station NRT was closed and dozens of journalists complained of intimidation and harassment, according to Reporters Without Borders. The KRG leadership at the time warned that, “the KRG is serious about containing the chaos and to put an end to it.”

The right to peaceful protest is enshrined in Article 36 of the Iraqi Constitution, which the Kurds broadly supported in 2005. Virtually every protest in Iraqi provinces outside of the KRI between 2014 and 2018 has been allowed to go ahead peacefully, with the exception of one event where parliament was entered and even then, the security response was comparatively minimal, given the scale of the event. In that case, one protester was killed after an MP was violently assaulted. Other protests have revolved around particular issues, but recent protests in the KRI have had a broad set of targets.

At the same time, senior members of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) have been informing foreign governments, recently Canada, Germany and the United States, that the federal government of Iraq presents a threat to peace and security in the Kurdish region. Erbil’s position goes against US concerns about the closing of NRT and the demonstrations, expressed by the State Department, and UNAMI.

The leadership in Erbil also warned of a “hidden hand” behind demonstrators, while the political news channel Rudaw warned of a federal government invasion, citing footage of several Iraqi Humvees. This is familiar language, as Srdja Popovic once said about authoritarian governance, “inventing a foreign adversary distracts people from domestic issues. After all, the threat of a foreign invasion is much more frightening than high unemployment or corruption.”

A federated Iraq was not supposed to be like this; the constitutionally agreed federal system was supposed to benefit all Iraqis, free from the hand of authoritarianism and regional intervention. Anyone who doubts otherwise must read the Iraqi constitution.

However, it is not too late to stabilise northern Iraq. The question foreign supporters of Iraq must now answer is this: is there democratic legitimacy in Erbil that justifies continued support for Iraqi-Kurdish government institutions? If the answer is in doubt, such support should be called into question until legitimacy is restored.

What is interesting is that at the current time, the federal government is auditing Kurdish ministries and restoring salaries to government workers in the KRI. At the federal level, this is similar to the Russian saying, “Doveryai, no proveryai,” “trust, but verify.” The Kurds also have their own auditing effort, with Deloitte, and this is also welcome.

Some Kurds often repeat the mantra “their only friends are the mountains.” That was true in the past, but the irony now is that the Kurds' best friends can actually be found not in the mountains, or Ankara, or Washington or Moscow or Tehran, but in Baghdad. Despite this, Erbil has attempted to undermine its best ally, Prime Minister Al-Abadi.

To many observers, recent events are both troubling and unexpected. Many saw the Kurdish region as a “shining light in a region of darkness.” "The Other Iraq" has been the consistent message of the Kurdish leadership, even when events showed otherwise, for example, when the Kurdish parliament was closed for two years.

The message did not change when protests erupted in Sulaymaniyah in 2011, when live fire was also used on protesters. At the time, similar protests were erupting in Baghdad. But the situation in Baghdad is profoundly different today. Today, one of the stand out facts of Abadi’s Iraq is the right to protest, and hopefully it will remain this way long into the future.

Even the slogan “the Other Iraq” provides a clue to the confusion many people have experienced in 2017. The term was invented in 2007 by PR firm Russo Marsh & Rogers, paid for using oil revenue transfers from Baghdad. The term implied there was something inherently wrong with Arab Iraq as Baghdad struggled with a wave of salafist terrorism. Between 2010 and 2016, the KRG spent at least $1 million per year lobbying in Washington alone, while maintaining an All Party Parliamentary Group in the UK with around £100,000 in funding, according to UK government public information.

The lobbying focused on the “democratic values” of the KRG and a united Peshmerga (there are actually two Peshmergas, 70 Unit and 80 Unit, both under rival political party control) and supposedly fantastic success against Daesh. For the latter claim, the Kurds’ re-took less than 10% of the territory re-taken by federal Iraqi forces. ( For more on this, See Reuters, “Kurds use well-oiled lobbying to plead for help in Washington,” The New York Times, “Iraqi Kurds Build Lobbying Machine to Fund War Against ISIS,” Luay al-Khatteeb, “The Kurds Can’t Afford to Leave Iraq,” Michael Rubin, “Have the Kurds Lied to Congress?”)

As an example of the confusion caused by the lobbyists: On December 18th the German government announced that aid to Iraq would be contingent upon peace between the Kurdish Region and Baghdad. But within 24 hrs of the German announcement, demonstrations were erupting across the KRI, and not because of Baghdad’s policies.

We note this is not the first time there have been fatal protests against the Kurdish leadership, nor is it the first time political party offices have been attacked. On October 29th-30th, Reuters and The National reported a string of attacks on Kurdish party offices in Zahko, Dohuk, blaming supporters of the ruling party in Erbil.

Two weeks before the attacks on the offices of the Gorran opposition party at Zahko, federal government forces had coordinated with cooperative Peshmerga brigades from the PUK to reclaim disputed territory in an operation that largely avoided violence, despite calls from some Kurdish leaders to turn Kirkuk into a warzone. Abadi clearly demonstrated how Iraq had moved beyond pointless violence over oil and land. Leaders in Erbil then reverted to a series of unfounded allegations against Baghdad, including a supposed “attack” on Kirkuk by “Iran-backed militias.” This allegation was never clear. The reality was that Iraqi Army M1A1 tanks and Humvees of the Counter Terrorism Services moved forward under Coalition observation and, where possible, coordinating with Peshmerga units.

Long term observers of Iraq feared that an attempt to fight for Kirkuk--recognised by the UN as disputed territory, could have resulted in a catastrophic conflict (one reason why the international community rejected the Kurds holding a referendum there.) After the referendum, local conflict, based on very old community tensions, re-ignited in Tuz Khurmatu, something everyone wanted to avoid and something all sides must now work to end.

In any case, the message from Erbil remained unchanged: independence was a fair and reasonable demand, but the issue of Kirkuk and many other populated disputed territories remained an inconvenient obstruction to this goal.

The post 1997 PUK-KDP elite pact then hit turbulence. After a faction of the PUK refused to fire on Iraqi forces, Erbil condemned the PUK Peshmerga for “high treason.” Intra-Kurdish rioting then occurred in Zahko and in the Kurdish parliament, on the 29th October. Some worried the KRI could have been on the edge of another civil war, as had been the case in the 1990s.

Two small rays of light came after the referendum. Firstly the concession from the KRG that Iraq was a federal entity, respecting Article 1 of the Constitution, a concession partly driven by the loss of oil fields around Kirkuk and the need for KRG salaries to be restored.

The problem is, this does not address the immediate crisis, a lack of democratic legitimacy and debts of up to $20 billion run up by the KRG. Much of this funding is not accounted for, a situation that bears similarities to the financial crisis in Caracas.

A great contrast between Baghdad and Erbil is the elite bargain between the PUK and KDP which has concentrated a lack of accountability. In Baghdad, issue-based politics is taking centre stage, the growth of real democracy. 2018 elections in Arab Iraq will have a major impact on Iraqi citizens and the KRI must work to ensure the next elections are equally meaningful.

In September 2014, Iraq began to move towards a more open society, with a democratically elected government and a Prime Minister who attempted to find compromise with Iraq’s different communities. Abadi explored new oil exports and revenue sharing deals with the Kurds, unlike previous governments who presided over some brief transactional arrangements with Barzani, before angrily cutting their budget.

The budget cut was extreme, but Erbil was insisting that they would one day export 1 million bpd of oil in addition to receiving federal transfers, a situation vastly better than that in Basra or Ramadi. This would not have been fair or sustainable.

Instead, PM Abadi spoke of a new era of unity, praising Peshmerga-Iraqi army cooperation in Ninewa. He made offers of new oil revenue and export deals and remarked that through joint effort, the KRI would be secured from terror.

Leaders in Erbil greeted Abadi’s new approach by announcing the independence referendum would be held in disputed areas and that the new Kurdistan’s borders would be “drawn in blood.” This put Abadi in an extremely difficult position, because his main opponents in Baghdad were subsequently calling for war. Therefore, Erbil undermined Abadi, empowering his rivals, the same politicians who had cut their budget in 2014. Erbil then transitioned to a position that Iran was behind the federal government move into Erbil, ignoring decades of disputes over the province that pre-date the Islamic Republic, and even pre-date Saddam Hussein. Lobbyists duly relayed the message concerning "Iranian influence."

The aim of course was to create panic in Washington and London, which would have resulted in an over-reaction against Baghdad. Erbil’s lobbying machine, now led by Paul J. Manafort (Trump’s former campaign manager) obfuscated the truth. By seeking to turn Washington against Baghdad, Erbil empowered forces that unintentionally undermined their own cause.

As long as such lobbying efforts continue, Erbil, and to a lesser extent the PUK old guard, will be distracted from finding an exit strategy as their finances dwindle.

Moving forward

The best partners for the Kurds are not in London, Washington, Ankara or Moscow or Tehran. The best partners for the Kurds are in Baghdad. Hard negotiations are now underway between Erbil and Baghdad, involving the IMF, regarding the restoration of salaries in the KRI, at a sustainable level. Already, Ministries of Water and Environment, Health and Education have started to see the transfer of salaries. However, the KRG must recognise that Iraq's budget has been under sustained stress since mid-2014. Almost every province of Iraq has at times struggled to pay salaries, therefore, Baghdad's offer of 12.6% budget restoration is genuine, especially when considering KRG debt. The real challenge is for all sides to unite and transition Iraq away from oil dependency.

It is not a new idea to suggest strong cooperation in Iraq, through the mechanism of federal councils. For example, the 2014-2030 Iraqi-UNDP Private Sector Development Strategy calls for a federal council for expanding the private sector across all of Iraq’s 19 provinces, composed of various ministries and representatives from the Kurdish Regional Government.

Security sector reform should also be federally managed. Ideally, PUK and KDP Peshmerga, and all other Kurdish paramilitary and intelligence agencies, could be incorporated into a non-political force managed by federal military council, perhaps similar to the U.S. National Guard Bureau which forms the link between Washington and state governments. This would follow the lead from Iraq's current reforms, bringing the KRI in line with Constitutional Article 9, First, B, which forbids “military militias outside the framework of the armed forces.” It cannot be claimed that Article 121, Fifth, allows political militias, since this article only allows for internal provincial security and as noted, militias are banned under Article 9.

Most famously, a federal council was also intended to oversee the energy sector, but this never came into being. The problem with any federal council is that powerful political entities hold them back. Devolving power within the KRG could help this issue.

Many other problems could benefit from such cooperation: water resources (and climate change) relations with regional partners, counter-terrorism, transparency, economic diversification and democracy.

It is very difficult now to imagine a return to the status quo where the region is divided into two political fiefdoms, therefore we may see a situation where transfers from Baghdad go to provinces in the region. No solution is without problems. Merely talking about such issues underscores how much work needs to be done, so it is imperative we move beyond PR campaigns and blame games. Hard negotiations lie ahead.

Finally, the international community must insist on free and fair elections and consider suspending any projects that assist the Kurdish leadership without proof of reform. We believe the Kurds will find they have great supporters in Baghdad and a more secure and prosperous future within the federation, as Iraq can speak of future challenges with one strong voice.

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