Soft federation is Abadi’s best bet to keep Kurds within Iraq

Challenges ahead of Abadi despite Kurds joining talks on new government

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Charged with the arduous task of creating an all-inclusive government, Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi must endorse the establishment of a decentralized federal state in order to dissuade the country’s Kurds from declaring their long-sought dream of independence, analysts said.

“The Kurds want to be treated as real partners in a federal system; until now understanding the need for federalism is still wobbly,” UK-based Ghassan Attiyah, president of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, told Al Arabiya News.

“The future of Kurdistan in Iraq all depends on the new government, the representation of Kurds within it and the nature of new coalitions,” Attiyah, who is the author of “The Making of Iraq: 1908-20,”said.

In the balance is not just the future of the Kurdish north, Attiyah said.

“If the new government formed by Abadi is not able to secure consensus then it is not just a question of the future of Kurdistan but also the future of the whole of Iraq,” he said.

A federal state, Attiyah added, would also help ensure the representation of Iraq’s Sunni population, a group that was marginalized throughout the period of outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's rule.

For Abadi to weaken the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a radical Sunni militant group that has seized significant Iraqi territories since June this year, the 62-year-old leader will need to “consider his rule as a provisional one and to ensure that the different posts in the government are given to people who are highly respected in their different regions,” Attiyah advised.

George Joffe, a research fellow at the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University, said that although a new prime minister in Iraq was now a “fact,” the underlying policies in Baghdad had not changed and hence they would unlikely dissuade the Kurds from seeking independence.

Joffe said having a figure such as Abadi, an engineer, might create “more discussions, less tensions and a possibility to rebuild some political consensus inside Iraq but will not change Kurdish objectives.”

Analysts maintain that the Kurds have currently two options: “form an independent state or maintain a role inside a decentralized state, one that would be federal in nature,” Joffe said.

Like Attiyah, Joffe said transforming Iraq into a decentralized state “would be a decision that the Shiites must accept.”

A request, heavily rejected by Maliki’s administration, and one of the earliest demands of Sunni protesters in Anbar province in 2012, was to have their own federal entity within a united Iraq.

Jay Garner, the retired U.S. army general who served as Washington’s first chief in Iraq after toppling late President Saddam Hussein in 2003, also put forward recently the argument that federalism was the key to a united Iraq.

Garner told the Guardian newspaper in an article published Friday that the best the U.S. could hope for in terms of a united Iraq was “a confederation, a federal system of Sunnis, Kurds, Shiite.”

Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been careful to stress that Kurdish leaders had assured him of their support for a strong federal government, Kurdish officials have signaled a readiness for change.

In June, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massound Barazani’s said: “The time is now for the Kurdistan people to determine their future, and the decision of the people is what we’re going to uphold.”

There are challenges ahead of Abadi in his bid to further include the Kurds.

“Abadi might have the right instincts but the question remains whether he will be allowed to achieve what he wants,” Attiyah said, noting some of the challenges posed by the complexity of Iraqi politics.

“There are those among the Shiites who covet the PM position for themselves and do not want Abadi to succeed. There are also those from Maliki’s State of Law coalition who want to lead the governance carriage from the backseat,” he added.

Turkey has already voiced its acceptance of Iraqi Kurds declaring their independence, with Ankara's relationship becoming much improved with the Kurdish insurgency inside its own territory.

On Saturday the jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) made a bold statement when he said that the 30-year conflict with Turkey is coming to an end.

But regional countries and Western states still vehemently oppose an independent state for the Kurds.

On Sunday, Germany rejected the formation of an independent state by Iraq’s Kurds, who are currently battling ISIS militants with Western help.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “an independent Kurdish state would further destabilize the region and trigger new tensions, maybe with the neighboring Iraqi state as well,” he told the Bild newspaper in an interview this week.

The aim, he added, “was to manage to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity.”

Joffe agrees. “Europe will have a major problem. It is at the moment wedded to the integrity of Iraq, so is the United States. Therefore accepting an independent Kurdistan could be quite difficult.”

Western countries would be in a hot spot as they have already rejected Moscow annexing Ukraine’s pro-Russina Crimea and do not want to be seen as having double standards.

“There is the wider issue, if they do that, why can’t they accept the re-integration of Crimea into Russia. That is going to be very difficult for them to accept.”

Joffe also said regional resistance would come “from Iran, the government in Baghdad though they maybe unable to stop it.”

While “Turks, Iranians and Americans will not accept the Kurds to secede, increased federalism will give Kurds their rights but declaring independence will give them more problems,” Attiyah said.

Attiyah believes that the “Kurdish economy until now is still dependent on oil, and oil is not even enough. The laborers [in Kurdistan] are mostly foreigners, the budget of Kurdistan is divided between two parties, even the Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) and its leadership are divided between two parties.”

Joffe also highlighted the external influence exerted on and the divisions between Kurdistan’s two main political parties, The Kurdistan Democratic Party, headed by Barazani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

“Iran could make it very difficult for the Kurdish border to be stable, it has considerable influence in Erbil and Sulaimaniya where it has a good relationship with the PUK,” he said.

He added: “The relation between PUK and KDP is not as good as it appears on the outside and it has never been.”

“There are plenty of pressure points Iran can use to delay the declaration of independence and that is a strong possibility.”

Even if Kurds vote for “yes” in the upcoming independence referendum in late 2014 – the exact date has yet to be set – the declaration of independence by Kurdistan remains a mere speculation given the interwoven regional and international interests.

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