Anyone following the official Iraqi press and the statements of Iraqi officials, especially Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, must have been surprised at the recent dramatic change in their language. Not so long ago they spoke respectfully of the Kurds, but since Baghdad’s assault on the disputed territories began three weeks ago, their language has grown astonishingly harsh.
Iraq’s 2005 constitution formally guarantees Kurdish rights within a federal state and recognizes the authority of the “Region of Kurdistan.” However, since Iraqi forces in concert with Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias seized control of Kirkuk on October 16, Abadi along with Iraq’s official media have instead referred to “our beloved northern Iraq.”
This is the language of Saddam Hussein’s regime – language it used to deny that a Kurdish people even existed. Such language facilitated Saddam’s brutal repression of the Kurds, including the genocidal Anfal campaign in which Iraqi forces used chemical weapons, depopulated the Kurdish countryside and sought to concentrate the surviving population in easily controlled settlement towns.
The change in tone is an unambiguous sign that Iraqi officials do not support Kurdish rights and suggests that any past recognition of such rights was insincere.
Baghdad now displays unprecedented arrogance toward the Kurds, as if Iraqi forces alone had gained control of the disputed areas, without Tehran’s support and intervention. And it isn’t as though the Kurdish Peshmerga were actually defeated.
An agreement between a faction of the influential Iraqi Kurdish Talabani family, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, and the Iraqi government prompted the Peshmerga to withdraw from Kirkuk, offering little resistance. When Iraqi forces and Iranian- backed militias later attacked the Peshmerga, they were promptly repulsed. The assailants took heavy losses, even though they outnumbered the Kurdish fighters and had better equipment, including US weaponry.
The September 27 Kurdish independence referendum has only been the excuse to attack Kurdistan. In 2013, then-Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki sent guns and tanks into the disputed areas, particularly around Khanaqin. At the same time he cut the Kurdistan Region’s budget and the wages of government employees there. No Kurdish official had said a word about a referendum at that time.
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Iraq’s constitution forbids the use of military force to settle internal political conflicts; Baghdad’s assault on Kirkuk and other disputed territories is a grave violation of the constitution. Nonetheless the Iraqi government brags about it, encouraging ethnic hatred among Arabs for Kurds, even as there is already a strong sectarian dimension to the flames of animosity that Baghdad is stoking.
Iraq’s Arab population is overwhelmingly Shi’ite. Kurds are overwhelmingly Sunni. The ethnic tensions Baghdad is exploiting are also sectarian tensions, which Tehran exploits as well.
The Iraqi constitution states that the status of the disputed areas is to be resolved through a referendum. That vote was supposed to occur by the end of 2007, and has yet to be held. As the US State Department affirmed, “The reassertion of federal authority over disputed areas in no way changes their status – they remain disputed until their status is resolved in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.”
Baghdad simply ignores this, while the US looks on.
Iraqi forces and their militia allies are committing gross abuses of human rights, especially in Kirkuk and the ethnically mixed town of Tuz Khurmatu. As Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations have reported, those forces have conducted a campaign of looting and arson, arbitrary arrests and even targeted killings.
The objective, as the head of the Kirkuk Provincial Council explained, is to change the sectarian composition of the area, forcing Sunnis to flee and replacing them with Shi’ites.
Baghdad is also cracking down on press freedom, inhibiting independent reporting about its actions in the disputed areas. A Kurdistan TV cameraman, Arkan Sharif, was brutally murdered in his home outside Kirkuk on Monday, October 30. His killers left a knife in his mouth, signaling their motive while at the same time sending a message other journalists. Kurdistan TV charged the Iranian- controlled Shi’ite militias with responsibility for the horrific crime.
Iraq is also pushing for the closure of Kurdistan 24 News Network, after making baseless accusations that we promote violence. If Kurdistan 24 and other Kurdish channels threaten the civil peace, as Baghdad claims, what of the demolition, burning, looting and kidnapping that followed the Iranian-backed militias gaining control of disputed territories? What about the murder of some 600 people in those areas, as local humanitarian organizations and the Kurdistan government have reported?
In the face of all this the US has maintained a studied neutrality. The Kurdish people feel enormous frustration at America’s silence as Iranian-backed militias attacked Kurdistan. “America betrayed us” was seen on the streets of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and while the signs were taken down the sentiment remains.
The US wants to see Abadi reelected, but this is a pipe dream. Abadi is not popular among Shi’ite voters and it is doubtful he will prevail in the next elections, scheduled for May. And even if he does win, Washington is delusional with regard to Abadi’s ability to curb Iranian influence in Iraq.
Iraq’s record is full of countless violations of human rights. It is a Shi’ite sectarian regime, dominated by Tehran. If the US continues to do nothing to stop Baghdad’s aggression against its minorities, it will merely facilitate Iran’s further expansion in the region, while setting the stage for continued instability and conflict within Iraq itself.The author is the general manager of Kurdistan24 News Network. He can be followed on Twitter @nwaisy.
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