How Close Are Iraqi Kurds to Achieving an Independent State?

Edmund Ghareeb explains why various nations are divided over support for Kurdish independence in Iraq

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

The Kurds in Iraq have seized two major oil fields near the city of Kirkuk following the seizure of the city after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant made huge gains in the country during the past month. Relations between the Kurds with Turkey continue to warm, though historically Turkey has tried to repress the emergence of a Kurdish state over the past 30 years and upwards of 40,000 have been killed in conflicts since 1984. And relations with Baghdad have only worsened since ISIS made territorial gains throughout Iraq, with Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish regional government, calling for a referendum on independence from the central government in Baghdad. And a few days ago, the Kurdish government withdrew its president and several ministers from the Iraqi government. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also accused the Kurds of harboring ISIS, a claim they have strongly denied.

Now joining us to give an analysis of the situation of the Kurds in Iraq and the region is Edmund Ghareeb. He’s an internationally recognized expert on media issues and Middle East affairs. He has taught Middle Eastern history and politics at a number of universities and has authored, coauthored, or edited a number of books, including The Kurdish Question in Iraq and The Kurdish National Movement.

Thanks for joining us, Edmund.

EDMUND GHAREEB, AUTHOR, THE KURDISH QUESTION IN IRAQ: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

WORONCZUK: So are we about to see the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq?

GHAREEB: I think probably that chances are better than they have been in more than 50 years. But I think we’re still a little bit far from the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Part of the reason why that’s the case is, first of all, I thought on the one hand the Kurds, who have been denied the opportunity, the chance to establish their own state after the First World War– and we can talk a little more about that–probably are now much closer than they had been in many, many decades to the formation of either an autonomous state of their own or a truly independent state. And so in a way the Kurdish genie is out of the bottle, and it’s going to be very difficult to put that genie back in.

The Kurds, in fact, probably this century in the Middle East, the Kurds are going to be one of the major players, and the Kurdish issue is going to be one of the major issues in the 21st century. But it’s still going to be rough, very rough going, very [incompr.] for the Kurds. And the reason why this is going to be case is that the Kurds are living in a very difficult neighborhood. I mean, if it was just Iraq and the Iraqi state, the Iraqi state especially after the 2003 war, after the dismantling of the Iraqi military, after the dismantling of Iraq’s institutions, the institutions of Iraq’s nation state, Iraq is no longer–or it’s going to be very, very difficult for Iraq to prevent the Kurds militarily going their own way if they decide to go in that direction.

Nevertheless, there are other players, major players. And these players are Turkey on the one hand and Iran on the other. Turkey has somewhere between 18 and 22 million Kurds. And so four and a half to five and a half million Iraqi Kurds can establish a state of their own. Then millions of Turkish Kurds are going to say, if our brethren next door, who are much smaller, much weaker than us are able to establish a state of their own, then why don’t we do that? And that is going to pose a serious threat to the integrity, to the unity of the Turkish state. And Turkey is not likely to look with a great deal of favor upon them.

Now, in between, it looks as if there is some flirtation going on between the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government and the government of Turkey. Turkey needs oil, needs to diversify its energy sources. They get a lot of gas and oil from Russia, from Iran, and they would like to diversify it. If the Kurds have oil–and they do to a certain extent, although nothing close to what the Iraqi Kurds have, then that would help Turkey diversify its sources of energy.

The second thing, also, is that Turkey has had a great deal of investment. It’s trading a great deal. There are somewhere close to $9 billion worth of investments in Iraqi Kurdistan by Turkish businesses.

Nevertheless, while the policies that the Erdoğan government, the prime minister of Turkey, is pursuing, whereby he’s allowing the Kurds to export oil through Turkey–she has allowed the building of a pipeline which would carry gasoline or oil from the Kurdish region of Iraq through Turkey–in fact, already a tanker has been sold, reportedly, to Israel. So that is strengthening the chances of the Kurds going their own way.

WORONCZUK: So, Edmund, what have been the grievances that the Kurds have had with the central government in Baghdad since al-Maliki came to power?

GHAREEB: Okay. The main issue has had a great deal to do with the war and the way Iraq was divided after the war. The U.S. invasion of Iraq led to the creation, basically, of a new government. There was the dismantling of the old state and its institutions, including the Iraqi military, and the positions of power within the state were divided along Arab, Shiite Muslim. The president of Iraq had to be a Kurd, and the speaker of a the parliament had to be a Sunni Muslim. So, basically, the positions were now divided along sectarian lines. Also–so that was a big problem, because there was struggle for power, for influence.

The second issue was that the Kurds claimed the city of Kirkuk and the province of Kirkuk. Kirkuk is an oil-rich region in northern Iraq. There was supposed to be a census taken in that province. It didn’t take place for a variety of reasons. The Kurds said that this was a problem because there was supposed to be a census. The government said that the Kurds were bringing people from outside the province into this region, and therefore we cannot go ahead with it. And so there was a problem. But the reason the Kurds wanted Kirkuk: partly because they said they have historical ties to it, and partly because it had oil. About 17 percent of Iraq’s oil is in Kirkuk. And so, basically, if the Kurds could gain control of the oil of Kirkuk, that would make the Kurdish state, if they decide to go their own way and to gain independence, that would make them self-sufficient and the state viable.

The other issue that was of concern was basically that the government was supposed to give the Kurds 17 percent of the income from oil in Iraq. The government did not do that, because basically the Kurds were trying to sign agreements with international oil companies without going back to the central government to Baghdad. And here you have constitutional disagreements over whether they have the right or not. And when they refused to take the government’s, central government’s advice into account, the government stopped paying some of the salaries and the contribution of that.

The other factor that was involved is that there are other disputed areas, territories on the border between the Arab areas and the Kurdish areas, and the Kurds were claiming some of these areas. So as a result you had these very difficult problems. And now the Iraqis are threatening to take anyone who buys Kurdish Iraqi oil to the International Court of arbitration. The Kurds have responded also by threatening to sue the Iraqi government.

WORONCZUK: So who among the economic or political elite in the Kurdish regions have an interest in independence? ‘Cause I’m going to make the assumption that most of the Kurds are not involved with the oil refineries or the oil wells and that perhaps from independence, a political or economic elite will have more control over the wealth that’s produced there.

GHAREEB: Now, this is true. I think there’s no doubt, however, most Kurds, if you go right now to Iraqi Kurdistan, or for that matter to other areas of Kurdistan, you’re going to find huge areas, huge numbers of people who want independence. So there is a new nationalist spirit, which is spreading and has been spreading partly because of the experience of what happened under Saddam Hussein, and partly because of foreign interference as well, which encouraged the Kurds. But basically there’s a strong sense of nationalism. The Kurds say, well, we deserve to have a state of our own. And so if you had a poll tomorrow, I would say at least somewhere between 80 to 85 percent of the Kurds would like to have an independent state of their own.

The main leaders, almost all the leaders of the major political parties–and they are Barzani, who leads the Kurdistan Democratic Party–this is one of the oldest and the most powerful of the Kurdish political parties in Iraq. Also, the other party, to which the current president (who’s very ill) of Iraq, Jalal Talabani belongs is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. These two groups, however, don’t often see eye to eye. Yes, they are both Kurdish nationalists that would dream of Kurdish independence, but they have different interests, different views of what’s going on in Iraq and the way Kurdish Iraq should be run. Also, Barzani’s closer, a little bit closer to the Turks, while Talabani and the Patriotic Union are a little closer to Iran. So, basically, you have this conflict.

But there also other parties, including radical Islamic parties. In fact, the first group used car bombs in Iraq after 2003 was a group known as the Ansar al-Islam, which means the partisans of Islam. And this was a Kurdish radical Islamist group, which have fought in Afghanistan along with the Afghan Arabs and had established a mini emirate in Iran. But they are a small percentage of the Kurds. And there are some moderate Islamists, but they don’t represent more than 5 to 7, 8 percent of the population.

WORONCZUK: Now, a few weeks ago we saw U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, he flew out to meet with Barzani and apparently urged him to stay with–for the Kurds to stay with the central government in Baghdad. But I remember also in 2008 there was a plan, I think proposed by Joe Biden, to divide Iraq into three entities. What do you think is the U.S. interest here? Is the U.S. interest in having an independent Kurdish state? What’s your take?

GHAREEB: Well, the United States has had a long history with the Kurds. In 1970, they held the revolt of Mustafa Barzani against the Iraqi government because they saw the Iraqi government at that time as a threat to Israel, to Iran, which was an ally then under the saw. And so, basically, the U.S. has been involved with the Kurdish issue for a long time, and some of it goes back, actually, to the ’40s.

In recent times, however, the U.S., after a Gulf War of 1990-91, offered protection for the Kurds who rose up against the government of Saddam Hussein. And when they were defeated, the U.S. and Britain interfered to offer protection to the Kurds in their Kurdish regional zone, which has an agreement, by the way, they reached with the Iraqi government.

The U.S. government, however, before the war and during the early days of the war, there were groups within the U.S. government who wanted to divide Iraq to three different entities or to create a confederal system–very weak states, entities, tied together in a federal arrangement. And in fact that’s more or less what happened, and Iraq was Lebanon-ized.

Now, the U.S., however, wanted to maintain a united Iraq, even if it is a weak, decentralized Iraqi state. But they wanted to maintain a unified Iraq. Part of the reason why this is the case is that the United States is concerned that some of its allies, many of its allies in the region, are also, like Iraq, are built on many different ethnic and religious and sectarian groups. So if some of these–if Iraq breaks up into three different states based on religion or sect or ethnicity, then Turkey–that could happen in Turkey, that could happen in some of the other states in the region. And this would not serve the interests. This would create turmoil, as we are beginning to see right now where the borders are falling among the states and you have a very fluid, very turbulent situation were violent groups have emerged and have taken over, and this would pose a threat not only to the regional states, but it would pose a threat to the United States and its allies. And so, as a result of this, the U.S. has been trying to get the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs and the Shia Arabs to work together, and they wanted to create a government of national unity which would at least maintain the surface unity of Iraq. It would not break up the country, but it would give great deal of autonomy and authority to each of these groups.

WORONCZUK: Now, considering the decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories, one would think that maybe Israel would oppose independence for the Kurds along the same lines. But it was just at the end of June that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called for supporting Kurdish independence. Now, why do you think this is?

GHAREEB: I think there are many reasons for this. Basically, Israel since its creation has been at war with the Arab countries. And the Arab countries basically did not recognize, many of them, Israel’s creation and, later, especially the occupation of Palestinian territories. So Israel began to look for allies. So if you go back to the late ’40s, early ’50s, you’ll find that there were Israeli leaders who were talking about establishing close ties to non-Arab Muslim countries in the neighborhood, countries on the periphery, like Iran, like Turkey, which were Muslim but were not Arab.

So one of the groups that the Israelis also–they began to work with minority groups to weaken nation states, the Arab nation states, and to make it difficult for them to threaten Israel. So, basically, they began to work with small minorities. And then, during that ’60s and ’70s, they worked with the Kurds to help them against the Iraqi government. And at that time both the CIA and the Iranian government were supporting the Kurdish uprising. And so the Kurds have had and maintained a close tie with the Israeli government, although they have not gone as far as to recognize Israel. So the Israelis, as result of this, feel that if there is a Kurdish state in Iraq, then this is likely to be an ally and a friend to Israel because of the history, because of the relationships. And so that would be much more acceptable to them, and it would weaeken, also, the Iraqi state and make it very difficult in the future for this state to take actions that might be considered hostile by Israel.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Edmund Ghareeb, I want to thank you for joining us, and hopefully we’ll have you on in the future for a series of interviews on the history of Kurds.

GHAREEB: Thank you, Anton. It was a pleasure.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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