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Historic Grievance: A Flawed Narrative for Statehood?

The case for Kurdish independence is often based on notions of promised statehood in the new state of Iraq by colonial powers post WWI[i], which stumbled at the Treaty of Sèvres. The subsequent history of discrimination by successive Iraqi governments and in particular, the atrocities of the regime of Saddam Hussein further bolster this claim to nationhood.

The process of Arabisation and the genocidal Anfal campaign of 1988 are often cited as two of the strongest reasons for separation from an abusive Arab Iraq. While Arabisation and the Anfal campaign constituted ethnic cleansing and genocide, using them as a case for separation mixes facts and misses the current context.

The forced Arabisation in oil-rich territories was applied equally to all minorities[ii] living in the territories, while the Anfal[iii] campaign mainly targeted Kurds, which the regime viewed as traitors for their leaders’ alliance with Iran during the Iraq-Iran war.

During this period, there were also pro-regime Kurdish military units, referred to as “Fursan” or “Knights” by the regime and “Jash,” by the people, who were active participants in the Anfal campaign against Kurdish populations, having been recruited by the regime, which was exploiting intra-Kurdish conflict.

These militias were working with the regime at the time of the chemical attack on Halabja’s civilians which was in response to a substantial regime defeat by a combined Kurdish and Iranian forces there a few days earlier.

This history of atrocities did not stop the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)[iv] from aligning with the Saddam regime in the Kurdish civil war of 1994-1998 against the Iranian allied Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a war fought over the income from smuggling levies on goods and oil from UN sanctioned Iraq[v].

Ultimately, the Saddam regime was an equal opportunity oppressor of all Iraqis irrespective of sect or ethnicity, and the regime applied the same brutality to all who rose against it with the near annihilation of the Southern Marshes[vi] and its peoples as a case in point. Moreover, Sunnis were not spared oppression either as evidenced by a ruthless crackdown on Sunni tribes in Ramadi in 1995.[vii] The explanations do not take away from the suffering of the Kurds or their aspirations for self-determination, yet they put them in context and are relevant for the independence argument based on discrimination by an Arab Iraq.

Above: U.S. Government map of the Kurdish region of Iraq, prior to the 2003 invasion.

The relationship between the Kurds and the state changed dramatically post 2003 Iraq: the constitution of 2005[viii] was written with an oversized participation by Kurdish parties, Kurdish was adopted as a second official language, Iraq’s presidents have been Kurds and Kurdish parties had significant ministerial portfolios in all successive Iraqi governments. Moreover, Kurdish parties have a fair democratic representation of MP’s in Iraq’s federal parliament as well as positions in the armed forces and the civil services along the same ethno-sectarian formula adopted since 2003. Furthermore, the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) had its full rights under the constitution as well as its government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), assuming many of the sovereign rights of the federal government over the KRI. While the economic crisis of 2014 was caused by the withholding of the region’s share of the federal budget[ix], it was this share of federal revenues that provided the wherewithal for the boom the region experienced up to 2014.

The main problem in the 2003-2014 period was an absence of constitutionally based laws governing oil and gas, its revenues and their distribution, and an absence of independent federal commissions. With regard to vital issues such as disputed territories and revenue management, these commissions and laws were designed to create the detailed mechanisms for economic and political coexistence. Without these laws, the Federal Government and KRG became locked in an unwinnable war over the constitution[x].

The democratic deficit coupled with economic mismanagement, endemic corruption and high waste that Iraq suffered from since 2003, was matched if not exceeded statistically by the KRG within the KRI[xi]. This extends to criticism of the corrosive role that paramilitary militias played in the wider Iraq, in that the two ruling Kurdish parties maintain separate military (Peshmerga), intelligence (Parastin & Zanyari) and security (Asayish) forces[xii]. The different allegiances of these forces were in display as the recent events in Kirkuk showed[xiii]. Moreover, the leadership within the two political parties are dominated by family members of the parties’ founders.

The KRG, pre-October 16th, would have needed Brent prices consistently above USD 60 for its budget to break-even under its official borders[xiv], but about USD 75 for it to break-even within its aspirational borders[xv]. It is important to consider that this is an austerity budget composed mostly of sharply curtailed current spending and oil related payments with hardly any capital spending.

It follows that the KRG (pre-October 16th) would have needed Brent prices around USD 100 for many years to build the financial wherewithal to contemplate independence[xvi] within the KRI’s official borders let alone its aspirational borders, lost on October 16th but still claimed by the KRG. The KRG, aware of its financial position, is thought to have planned the referendum to strengthen its position in a post-ISIS Iraq in the 2018 parliamentary elections, in the same way that the referendum of 2005 did for its fortunes in post-Saddam Iraq. The loss of the Kirkuk related oil fields on October 16th changed the economics considerably and made an economically unlikely event impossible.

While the Iraqi constitution has no provision for secession, the referendum might not have caused so much controversy, especially internationally, had it been used to obtain a mandate to seek a negotiated secession as it has been billed. However, the issue that ignited the regional and international opposition was the forceful inclusion of what is termed the “disputed territories” or about 40%[xvii] more land than the official KRI area.

The constitution refers to “Kirkuk and other disputed territories”, yet it does not specify them, but they include some areas with Kurdish majorities. The constitution envisioned a mechanism for their resolution by 2007 but successive Iraqi governments and the KRG failed to resolve their differences over its interpretation and the issue was not resolved.

Even with the best intentions, implementing the mechanism is not as simple as it seems given the complex web of minorities living in the territories: The territories used to be part of a major ancient trade route, in which the Iraqi part begins with the Syrian and ends with the Iranian border, and over the centuries was settled by diverse populations.

The last to settle were Turkic peoples during the Ottoman Empire who eventually became the Turkmen of Iraq. Kirkuk, in particular, is problematic as it’s claimed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen with the latter being arguably most likely to have a legitimate claim. The discovery of oil in Kirkuk in 1927 and the following boom diluted the Turkmen population with migration of Kurds from the north and Arabs from the south. The census of 1957, accepted by all, showed that the governorate level ethnic makeup was 48.2% Kurds, 28.2% Arabs and 21.4% Turkmens, but that the city of Kirkuk was 37.6% Turkmens, 33.3% Kurds and 22.5% Arabs[xviii]. These percentages changed significantly under the prior regime which enforced Arabisation at the expense of all minorities including the Kurds. The territory saw a process of reversal after 2003 with the return of some Kurds but not so much of the other minorities, especially the Turkmen.

The complexity can only be glimpsed at by noting that while at a governorate or district level, a simple majority might be Kurdish, many villages and towns that dot the area are almost entirely made up of different minorities such as Turkmen, Yazids, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Armenians, Shabak or Kaki’s in addition to Kurds & Arabs.

The failure to resolve the disputed territories meant that the area was almost in limbo after 2003, being administratively part of federal Iraq with half the areas close to the KRI official border policed by the KRG. After the fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014 and the collapse of the Iraqi army in northern Iraq, the area fell under the control of Kurdish military forces, in the process increasing the official KRI by 40%[xix] in both land and population. An uneasy state of affairs prevailed while the country battled ISIS, in which the areas were policed by the KRG but administratively and financially managed by the federal government.

Therefore, the inclusion of the disputed areas, and not the rights of the Kurdish people for self-determination, caused the Iraqi, regional and international opposition. This opposition had been gradually building up as the process of forced inclusion started in 2003, as the Kurdish Peshmerga gradually extended their reach following the fall of the Saddam regime[xx].

The forced inclusion of these areas, where it to be accepted, even as a basis for dialogue with federal Iraq, would legitimize similar actions in the region leading to instability and hence the coordinated regional response. Away from the heated war of words, actions on the ground are different and aimed to reset the relationship between Federal Iraq and the KRG to a more even keel.

Irrespective of the breathless coverage, the recent deployment of the federal armed forces within Kirkuk and disputed areas was not a civil war nor a military conflict, but rather, a brokered reassertion of federal authority over Kirkuk & the disputed territories that were under federal authority pre-ISIS in 2014. However, this reassertion of federal authority was extended as Kurdish forces withdrew from areas, acquired since 2003, to the official KRI border.[xxi]

This reassertion of federal authority and other measures taken would not have worked without regional support or without the tacit agreement of international players, which has been evident in the period leading to and following the referendum on September 25th, with the unanimous support for Iraq’s territorial integrity. This support was extended during the military build-up in the disputed territories and after the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) reoccupied their pre-2014 positions in Kirkuk and other disputed territories, emphasizing their support for peaceful reassertion of Iraq’s federal authority in all disputed territories in-line with the constitution.[xxii]

In the near-term, economic and political realities will ultimately prevail with the KRG’s re-establishing of dialogue with the federal government. In fact, soon after the referendum major political and newly established parties in the KRI started distancing themselves from the referendum emphasizing the need for good governance and reform.

This echoes the same unravelling of political alliances witnessed in Iraq over the last few months, as the political class in Iraq responded to pressure from its citizens for reform and the provision of services in reaction to the failures over the last twelve years in establishing a functioning state and economy. The recent events in Kirkuk have accelerated this unravelling as the second dominant Kurdish party partially realigned itself with the federal government in its reassertion of federal authority over the disputed territories.

Longer term, the referendum, far from causing regional instability, has in fact sown the seeds of regional stability. It was assumed that the emergence of an independent Kurdistan would be the catalyst for the anticipated and feared Balkanisation of the region. In the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, this was anchored by the belief that the Kurds overwhelmingly favoured separating from Iraq as demonstrated by the 2005 referendum in which 99% of Kurds voted for independence.

The current referendum rewrites these assumptions, fears and expectations as the reported 92.7%[xxiii] support for independence is not what it seems. For example, the reported turnout of 72.7% hides large regional disparities in which, unofficial estimates suggest that a major centre such as Sulaimaniyah, or symbolic Halabja[xxiv] (cited as one of the foremost reasons for independence) had around 50% turnout figures.

While, the Kurdistan Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (KIHERC) has not released district-level results, it is widely believed that these figures hide high “no” levels, that coupled with low turnout (relative to the importance of the issue) would challenge the assumption of an overwhelming support for independence.

Combined with the reported incidences of fraud and multiple vote counting, this weakens the assumed mandate of 93% support, closer to 67.3%[xxv] of eligible voters on face value, i.e. not adjusted for possible fraud. While still a high level of support, it falls short of overwhelming majority, clearly indicating other issues of more importance to the population, or that the emotional pull of independence is counterbalanced by demands for good governance and economic development.

Finally, the rejection of the referendum over the last few weeks by a relatively sizeable percentage of the younger generation in Kurdistan is significant, as many have questioned the timing of the vote in relation to the genuine aspirations of statehood. Altogether, this changes the dynamic from the older generational struggle for statehood to the younger generational aspiration for reform, a working economy, and a functioning, inclusive government.

This is very much in common with their peers in Iraq at large, who desire to be free from the memories and demons of the older generation. It speaks of a desire for solutions within the framework of one country, rather than a need for a new state.


[i] It’s important to note that the concept of nationalism, whether its Kurdish or Arabic, and the implication of a state based on it were alien to the peoples of the Ottoman empire. While the peoples ruled for centuries by the Ottomans, Abbasids and Umayyads, identified with distinct cultural identities based on religion, and ethnicity, yet it was within an Islamic empire ruled by these dynasties. The concept of modern notions of nationalism arose as a result of contact with the West during the 19th centaury and increasingly became a theme following the disintegration of the Ottoman empire into states mostly based on nationalism. Thus, in common with Arabs, Kurdish nationalism was driven by western educated/influenced urbanities as opposed to a mass movement.

[ii] Human Rights watch: Forced Displacement and Arabization of Northern Iraq.

The Unrepresented Nations and People Organization (UNPO) on Turkmen in Kirkuk:

[iii] A thorough study of the Anfal campaign




[vii] See “Iraqi Tribes and the Post Saddam System,” Brookings Institute, July 8th 2008. Following regime change, the Albu Nimr played a key role in the Anbar Awakening with U.S. forces. They were heavily targeted by ISIS in late 2014 and now many of the tribe serve with Iraqi Security Forces, including the Hashd al-Shaabi.


[ix] 17% share, less sovereign expenses or in effect about 13% share

[x] In describing the nature of the relationship of mistrust between the two sides over the years, the Crisis Group in 2102 noted “Each side has its narrative, based on history, accumulated grievances and strong sense of entitlement. For now, neither is inclined to settle the conflict peacefully through serious, sustained negotiations, as each believes its fortunes are on the rise, and time is on its side”.




[xiv] Ever since the KRG secured of Kirkuk following the fall of Mosul and withdrawal of the Iraqi Army in 2014, the city was under KRG control, but the Federal government was still fiscally responsible for it. The KRG assumed partial fiscal responsibility for Kirkuk in the form of petro-dollar payments of USD 10.3m a month, however, the FGI paid 80% of the USD 124m budget of Kirkuk

[xv] The calculations are simplistic using some basic assumptions and simplifications and based on available data. They are broadly right and aim to illustrate the dynamics of the budget and not an accurate portrait of the budget. Data sources: - (1) Deloitte’s review of the KRG’s oil revenue for the period 1 January 2017 to 30 June 2017, (2) World Bank 2015 & 2016 reports, (3) Pareto Securities company reports on E&P companies operating within the KRI, (4) newswire reports. Main points: -

  • KRG exports of 553,000 bbl/d for January-June 2017, of which half are from disputed Kirkuk fields, KRG oil selling for $11 discount to Brent.

  • Payments to IOC’s, repayments to Oil traders for forward oil financings, suppliers & services and others are from the Deloitte report, however no details were provided in the review.

  • Extra forward Oil sales financings were USD 1.25bn.

  • Data on expenditures are from World Bank reports which imply that KRG annual expenditure would have been about USD8bn.

  • Annualized the figures for the six months (January-June 2017) by assuming that the second 6 months would be a replay of the first. However, this suffers from simplification and assumptions that are based on the limited available official data from the KRG.

  • Aspirational borders figures assume same revenues as the inclusion of the disputed territories would not have added any new oil fields, plus it assumes that budget expenditure would increase by 40%.

The KRG’s aspirational borders increase its area and population by 40% (see next footnote for reference)

The loss of the Kirkuk fields acquired in 2014, would cut the revenue of the KRG by half and would change the dynamics of the budget significantly for the worse.

[xvi] Building the financial wherewithal to contemplate independence would mean that the KRG would resume salary payments in full, begin to pay its debts (estimated by the author in a report to be published soon, at around USD 25bn by end of 2017) and to resume capital/investment spending.


[xviii] - Demographics

[xix] See footnote number 14 above

[xx] Emma Sky describes this process below during her time in the province as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Kirkuk Governorate Coordinator

[xxi] The official KRI borders are defined by the Green Line. The Green Line was marked by the unilateral withdrawal of Iraqi forces after the establishment of the safe haven and no fly zone by Western powers in response to suppression of the 1991 Kurdish uprising following the First Gulf War. The Green Line defined the official KRG boundary in the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law, and subsequently in the 2005 constitution, as the line that marked the areas administered by the KRG prior to the 2003 invasion. But there is no official rendering of the Green Line. However, there is an accepted and a clear 1996 UNICEF map clearly showing the green line (figure 1 in link below).



[xxiv] Halabja non-participation can be understood considering the history of neglect that it suffered from, which this article illustrates

[xxv] 92.7% of 72.7% is 67.3% of all eligible voters.

Further references: A great deal of the work, especially on Iraq post 2003, was made possible by the excellent work of the International Crisis Group on Iraq and in particular publications such as:

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