KURDISTAN REGIONAL Government President Masoud Barzani gestures during a news conference in Erbil, Iraq, in April. .
(photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
Baghdad continues to threaten its Kurdish region two weeks after millions turned out for a pro-independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
In the last two weeks, it has banned flights to two international airports and attempted to restrict trade at the borders, seeking unprecedented sanctions against the autonomous region. In addition, it has sought to unite Turkey and Iran in its policies, leaving Kurds wondering who will stick by them in this difficult time.
On September 25 slightly over three million voters went to the polls in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. With turnout at 72% and 93% supporting “yes” for independence, the region was bathed in Kurdish flags. However two weeks later the optimism and celebrations have been dimmed by the central government’s attempt to strangle the region economically and politically.
First Baghdad sought joint military exercises in Iran and Turkey with a show of force. Baghdad has also demanded that it be handed control of the autonomous region’s borders and airports. The airports at Erbil and Sulaymaniyah were closed on September 29 to international traffic, stranding thousands of international travelers who had to leave via Baghdad. Travel to Iraq via Baghdad requires a special Iraqi visa that is difficult to get, whereas the Kurdish region has generally granted visa on arrival for many travelers.
The Kurdish leadership, including President Masoud Barzani and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani have stressed the need for dialogue with the central government. “After the referendum we want to begin serious talks with Baghdad,” Nechirvan told the local network Rudaw.
“The meetings [with Iraqi politicians] have to be in a way that no party suggests preconditions.” He also stressed that the Kurdish region is not a threat to its neighbors Turkey and Iraq. “We want to maintain and make our friendly, economic, political and social relations with the countries around us better.”
On Sunday President Barzani met with the Iraqi parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri.
The death of Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani on October 3 and his burial near Sulaymaniyah on October 6 has symbolized the current crises. Talabani was the first non-Arab president of Iraq between 2005 and 2014, and won praise around the world.
He was the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, at times a partner and rival of the current President of the Kurdish region. Iraq allowed the plane carrying his body from Germany, where he had been receiving care before his death, to fly to Sulaymaniyah. However Iraqi TV stations cut the live feed of his funeral when his coffin was draped with the Kurdish flag.
Nevertheless there was a moment of unity at the funeral events attended by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Iraq’s interior minister Qasim al-Araji.
Brett McGurk, US Special President Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, tweeted “our world will terrible miss MamJalal’s rare combination of heroic courage, hard-earned wisdom and remarkable leader,” using Talabani’s nickname ‘uncle Jalal.’
In many ways the brief unity at the funeral and the threats uttered by Baghdad after, including the cutting of the live feed by stations, is symbolic of the reality of Iraq today. While Iraqi politicians may mourn Talabani, they shy away from discussing one of his main legacies: The struggle for the province of Kirkuk to be connected to the Kurdish region.
Today Baghdad has threatened to try and cut off Kurdish oil exports from Kirkuk, as seek to return the disputed city to central government control.
In addition, the Shi’ite State of Law faction is trying to strip Kurdish MPs of their seats and put on trial civil service officials involved in holding the referendum.
According to local reports, on Monday the Iraqi National Security Council passed a resolution to take over the mobile communications network in the Kurdish region.
Now Kurds are looking to Russia, which has oil and gas interests in the region through Russian oil giant Rosneft, to encourage the borders remain open. According to a Kurdistan 24 report on Sunday, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said there was an intention to “connect the Kurdistan region’s oil and gas pipeline to the Black Sea.”
This puts the US in a difficult position. For decades the US has been a close ally of the Kurdish region, supporting it in the 1990s and aiding and fighting alongside Kurdish Peshmerga against ISIS.
The US is planning a new consulate for Erbil, yet officially the White House has stood by Baghdad. The international US-led coalition has also temporarily suspended training of Kurdish peshmerga. A new bill in Congress supporting the referendum seeks to alter the US stance. With Russia stepping up to the plate and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threatening US troops, Washington might be encouraged to stand by Erbil as Baghdad seeks sanctions.
Kurds see Iraq’s attempts to punish the region and blockade it, as one more piece of evidence why they were right to vote to leave Iraq.