Masoud Barazani’s strong hand

The results of the presidential elections in Iraqi Kurdistan represent a turning point in the region’s history, for a variety of reasons. The polls have bolstered the authority of rebel-turned veteran statesman Masoud Barzani, 63, as president of Kurdistan, voted in with a nearly 70 per cent majority.

A joint list between his Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of President Jalal Talabani won nearly 60 per cent of the ballots cast, giving them around 55 seats in the 111-seat parliament. This was something of a setback, since the two parties, which also campaigned jointly in 2005, had previously controlled 78 seats.

The presidential victory, however, was both sweet and expected. After decades of tireless work as a guerilla leader, Barzani is once again being recognised as the legitimate representative of his people. During the rule of Saddam Hussain, he had to endure the killing of three of his brothers and multiple other members of his family. His native village, Barzan, was razed 16 times by military regimes in Baghdad.

Kurds have genuine respect for his leadership, although there is muted criticism of his administration by those who accuse him of corruption and nepotism. Qazi Mohammad, elected in the short-lived Republic of Mahabad in 1946, was the first president of Kurdistan. Barzani was the second, ruling from 2005-2009.

Many observers were concerned that these elections could backfire on the central government of Iraq and Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who is at odds with the Kurds over a variety of complex issues. Al Maliki described the polls as “another step in building a democratic Iraq”. Relations between Baghdad and Barzani have been at an all-time low for months, due to a prolonged stalemate over the fate of oil-rich Kirkuk, which has an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil reserves and produces almost half of the country’s oil exports. Barzani says that Kirkuk should be incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan, and is calling for a referendum in the city to see whether its people want to remain part of Iraq, or join Kurdistan. Upholding Kurdish rights in Kirkuk was among his most effective campaign slogans.

The referendum was initially scheduled for November 2007, but has been delayed ever since by Baghdad. One observer once described the situation by saying: “Kirkuk is the prize that the Sunnis lost, the Kurds want and the Shiites will not give. He who controls Kirkuk controls Iraq’s oil and Iraq’s wealth”. Precisely for that reason, Iraqi Arabs flatly refuse to relinquish control of the city. At one point, former vice president Tareq Aziz famously told then opposition leader Talabani, “The only right you will ever have in Kirkuk is walking past it, and weeping because it will never become yours!”

In 2007, Al Maliki and his allies toyed with the idea of ceding Kirkuk to the Kurds. Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, head of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, believed that if the Kurds were given more autonomy, they would support his bid to create a similar autonomous district for the Shiites in southern Iraq.

The Sunnis cried foul, however, claiming that if the Kurds got control of oil in northern Iraq, and the Shiites got the same in southern Iraq, they would be left in central Iraq, where there is no oil.

Al Maliki himself had visited Kirkuk, and oversaw the transfer of Iraqi Arabs from the city to other parts of Iraq, claiming that they had been illegally brought there to ‘Arabise’ the district, by Saddam. This was at an all-time low point for Al Maliki, when he desperately needed the support of both Barzani and Talabani to keep his Cabinet coalition alive, while heavyweights like Ayad Allawi, Moqtada Al Sadr, and the Iraqi Accordance Front collectively walked out on him. His initiatives fed the ambitions – and imagination – of Iraqi Kurds, who were naturally horrified that when Al Maliki later felt more secure, he abandoned his commitments to Barzani and Talabani. Adding insult to injury, he failed to protect Iraqi Kurdistan when the Turkish Army struck in 2007 in an attempt to exterminate Kurdish militias from northern Iraq.

Although Barzani’s support is important to Al Maliki, he would rather have the backing of regional heavyweights such as Syria, Turkey and Iran – three countries that categorically oppose granting any more power or autonomy to Iraqi Kurds. That would naturally fuel the ambitions of Kurds in all three countries, who all dream of creating Kurdistans of their own.

Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said recently that, had there been no US troops in northern Iraq, a military clash between Kurdistan and the Iraqi government would have been likely, primarily over Kirkuk. Last June, Kurdish militias close to Masoud Barzani clashed with the Iraqi Army in Makhmur, a predominantly Kurdish town between Mosul and Kirkuk. The president made it clear that neither his men, nor the Iraqi Army, have the unilateral right to move into disputed areas claimed by the Kurds. His nephew the prime minister explained the incident by claiming that Al Maliki’s men still have “a military-style mentality of being the Big Brother and wanting to impose their will”.

Masoud Barzani now has a stronger mandate than ever to lobby for the annexation of Kirkuk. Opposing him is Al Maliki, who received a strong mandate of his own from his constituency during the January provincial elections. His people want Kirkuk to remain part of the Iraqi Republic.

The problem for Barzani is that while Al Maliki enjoys the support of Riyadh, Damascus and Tehran, he has the backing of only his own people. The United States was once a strong supporter of Kurdish activism, but that was long ago, during the era of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Back in 1974, Kissinger encouraged the Kurds to riot in order to sap the energy of the Iraqi Army and divert Baghdad’s attention away from supporting Syria’s war against Israel.

Kissinger fanned the flames of conflict in Iraq and was very generous to the Kurds, prompting Mustafa Al Barzani – Masoud’s father – to send him expensive rugs as a token of appreciation, and a gold necklace for his bride on the occasion of Kissinger’s marriage in March 1974. This was revealed during the Watergate investigations in 1976, in what became known as the Pike Report. The testimony said that Kissinger had armed and financed the Kurds to dissuade Iraq from “adventurism”, such as coming to the aid of Syria. The report adds, “Our clients, who were encouraged to fight, were not told of this policy”.

The Kurds were never intended to win, but only to weaken Iraq and thus realise US goals in the Middle East. Barzani – a man who reportedly loves history – knows that very well. Inasmuch as he wishes to annex Kirkuk, with no regional or international support he will find that very difficult to achieve.

Gulf News, 31 July 2009