Kurds in Erbil, Iraq, on the day of the independence referendum on September 25, 2017..
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Iraq’s parliament has passed a long-awaited budget for 2018.
Many Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the vote in protest of the parliament’s decision to cut the Kurdistan region’s share from 17% of the budget to less than 12%.
The budget cut is part of Baghdad’s widespread economic war against the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government after the Kurds held an independence referendum in September. It builds upon the decision by Baghdad to extend the closure of the Kurdish region’s two international airports for another three months in late February.
Kurds expressed disappointment and disillusionment early this month as they watched Baghdad continue its policy of punishing the region
and trying to isolate it politically and economically.
After the KRG held its referendum last year, Baghdad responded by sending the army and Shi’a militias to take control of Kirkuk, a disputed province that reduced the KRG’s oil exports by half.
Many expected that the new year would bring new cooperation. With ISIS largely defeated and the Kurdistan region rocked by protests at the end of the year, there was hope when KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani went to Davos in January for the World Economic Forum.
The two Kurdish leaders represent two large rival historical parties in the Kurdish region, but they are united on economic issues facing their region. In Davos they met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi. They hoped that February would bring more cooperation with Baghdad in the run-up to the country’s elections in May.
Instead, Baghdad is now dominated by Shi’ite pro-Iranian political parties that have shown little intent on compromise. “The Kurds should have withdrawn from the political process in Iraq immediately a few years ago,” said Kurdistan Parliament deputy speaker Jaafar Imniki, according to Kurdistan 24.
Barzani, who has often championed economic development as an answer to the region’s future, said the budget bill passed Saturday could not meet the KRG’s needs. “We will hold a meeting with the Kurdish factions to have a united voice when defending the KRG’s public employees’ salary needs,” he said.
Kurds in Iraq are tweeting that the budget bill represents a chauvinist Shi’ite majoritarian push to weaken the Kurdish region while riding a wave of populism after the defeat of ISIS.
With many Sunni Arab areas of the country in ruins, the major power blocs in Baghdad are the Shi’ite parties that get votes in the south and the Kurds who receive them in the north.
Kurds are arguing that the new budget is unconstitutional while Baghdad has argued that the Kurdish region deserves less than the 17% share it had received in the past because its population consists of less than 17%.
Many Kurds also point out that the US has paid lip service to supporting a “strong, stable Kurdistan,” referring to a Kuwait press conference by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in mid-February. However, Abadi says, Kurdistan has a bloated public sector, one of the largest in the world in terms of percentage of population, according to some reports.
In late February, the KRG Parliament sought to reduce the 1.4 million workers on its payroll who had cost it $750 million per month in salaries. Investigations have found many thousands of employees who are either “ghost” employees or manage to receive two salaries.
According to the new budget, Baghdad plans to send around $210m. a month to the north. The gap between the reforms and Baghdad’s austerity sill leave the KRG with a huge shortfall.
Meanwhile, Baghdad and the KRG also have security problems.
In Kirkuk and neighboring Hawija, there has been an uptick in ISIS attacks. These attacks have exploited the lawless area between Kurdish control and the central government. Baghdad faces hurdles in securing the countryside not only because ISIS insurgents have gone to ground and returned to hit-and-run attacks.
The US contractors that are supposed to repair Iraq’s M1A1 Abrams tanks pulled many of its service providers out of Iraq last year when it turned out that some tanks had gone missing and ended up with pro-Iranian militias.
In February, the US confirmed that it would continue to help pay the salaries of 36,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who have helped keep the area stable and free from terrorism over the last several years.
If the Kurds and Baghdad can’t come to an agreement on budgets and the airport, it does not bode well for Iraq post-ISIS.