Iraqi parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 2018, while the crisis in relations between Baghdad and Erbil — which was the result of the Kurdistan region’s referendum for separation from Iraq —remains unresolved as sanctions imposed by the Iraqi central government on the region are still in place.
In the years following the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, Iraqi Kurds have emerged as an important constituency for Iraqi parties to gain political majority in parliament and in the executive branch. Kurds have for a long time accused former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of making false promises, despite their role in electing him to office for three consecutive terms. Even now, Kurds seem to be crucial to the outcome in upcoming elections despite the weakness they suffer from the ‘referendum debacle’ and other major internal differences
There are those political parties who want to exploit the Kurdish crisis by wooing the community into helping them secure political majority, while there are others who wish to capitalize on their opposition of the Kurdish referendum by projecting themselves as national heroes, who averted the division of Iraq.
The tables turn against Kurds
Before the referendum of Sept. 25, the Iraqi federal government kept calling the Kurdistan region to resolve their differences through negotiations, but the Kurdish Regional Government — especially under its former president Massoud Barzani — kept rejecting all calls for any negotiations before “the Kurdish people decide through the referendum” and on “arrangements for separation”.
What happened after the referendum as regards the restoration of most disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil by Iraqi forces — the most important being the oil-rich Kirkuk province and the sanctions imposed on the region — has forced Erbil to call on Baghdad for negotiations. However, this time the Iraqi government has put forth a set of conditions before agreeing to enter into negotiations with the region.
On 25 December 2017, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region Nechirvan Barzani sent a letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, calling on the Iraqi government to begin negotiations instead of issuing statements to the media.
Abadi has so far not officially responded to the letter but he has repeatedly announced his conditions for the commencement of dialogue with the region, the most important of which is "the open and explicit annulment of the results of the referendum" and "the handing over of the border crossings to the federal government”.
Erbil, which had announced the “suspension” of the results of the referendum but not their annulment, has not yet bowed to the conditions of Baghdad and is demanding an “unconditional” dialogue. The Electoral Commission in the Kurdistan region announced that 92% of the participants of the referendum supported secession from Iraq.
Conflicting reports of Iraqi ministerial visits to Kurdistan
There are conflicting reports about the upcoming visit of members of Iraqi ministries of interior and defense to the Kurdistan region for discussion over several issues.
Rudaw Media Network which is close linked to Nechirvan Barzani has reported that “after the launch of several initiatives from the Kurdistan region and the announcement of its readiness for dialogue along with international pressure exerted on Baghdad, Interior Minister Qasim Araji and Defense Minister Irfan Hayali are scheduled to visit Erbil to discuss the issue of airports and border crossings with officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government”.
A member of parliament for the Movement for Change Massoud Haider also concedes: “The visit of the two ministers comes after the international and internal pressure on Baghdad”. The Iraqi government has not yet issued any statements. An Iraqi source told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper: “There is no information in this regard.”
Maliki flirts with Erbil
After years of problems and differences between Nouri al-Maliki (former Prime Minister and Vice President) of the current Iraqi President and the leadership of the Kurdistan region, Al Maliki gave an interview to Rudaw Network in which he sought to break the ice in his relations with the region by stating that “there is no justification for ignoring the Constitution and not starting dialogue for opening a new page”.
Maliki said, “The dialogue should begin on the basis of a common sense in relations and national partnership that brings us together. There is no meaning in postponing the dialogue until after the elections. The situation in the region could not wait any longer, and we should follow up on the status of the region before it is too late. The central government can help the region to meet the challenges, but the region also needs to take steps towards the central government and interact with them in accordance with the constitutional contexts.”
On Dec. 24, Maliki confirmed his support for unconditional dialogue with the Kurdistan region during his meeting with US Ambassador to Baghdad Douglas Suleiman. The Kitabat website reported a “high-ranking Kurdish official" saying that “Maliki is trying through his maneuvers to obtain political majority, and get the support of the Kurds,” noting that “the large gulf and continuing differences between the Kurds and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi has opened a door that Maliki is trying to exploit.”
An eye on Kurds to win elections
Due to internal Iraqi conflicts, the upcoming parliamentary elections are important for establishing the country's policies for the future. There are notable attempts from Maliki to return to power. But Abadi, who belongs to Maliki's own Dawa party which is led by the latter, is no easy competitor.
Abadi has several trump cards, including the victory over ISIS, the group that took control of large swathes of northern Iraq during Maliki’s premiership. Abadi has also imposed authority of the federal government on disputed areas with the Kurds and thwarted their attempts to secede, which has made him a hero for preserving the unity of Iraqi territories. Abadi is now campaigning on the plank of “fighting corruption” through which he would target some of Maliki’s interests and those close to him in the country.
One does not know if Abadi still has other cards up his sleeve, but there is a possibility that he will seek to win Kurds to his side, especially after seeing the designs of al-Maliki in this regard.
“The interview with al-Maliki has raised concerns for Abadi, and the Kurds may form an alliance with him,” the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Iraqi parliament Arafat Akram told Rudaw.
Massoud Haider, MP of the Change Movement in the Iraqi Parliament, described the interview with the Rudaw network as "a political ploy”, and a message to the Kurdistan region and al-Maliki. He pointed out that “Al-Maliki presides over the largest parliamentary bloc and carries immense political heft. Abadi is very perplexed and disturbed about this. Of course, this serves the interests of the Kurds and may resolve the crisis”.
Internal differences among Kurds
All of these efforts and propositions come in the midst of major internal differences among Kurds, with ministers of the Change parties and the Islamic Group having withdrawn from the Kurdish government. There are also major differences between the two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani, who controls Erbil, Dahuk and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls Sulaimaniya. Barzani accused the latter party of treason when they withdrew from Kirkuk.
Continued differences undermine the Kurdish role in influencing the Iraqi political scene, but it is certain that the Kurds will have plenty of influence in upcoming Iraqi elections and the country's future policy.