The Kurdish delegation's visit to the Iraqi capital Aug. 14 failed to change the declared stances on the Kurdistan region independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 25, but did set the stage for future dialogue to discuss the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil.
The president of Iraq's Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, reiterated Aug. 22 that the referendum is irreversible. This was while the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in his meeting with the Iraqi prime minister the same day, expressed his country's support for the unity of Iraq and rejection of any action to divide Iraq. Mattis is supposed to discuss the matter with Kurdish officials in Erbil on Aug. 23.
The Kurdish delegation, headed by the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Rose Nuri Shaways, met in Baghdad with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, parliamentary speaker Salim al-Jabouri and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in addition to political leaders of the movement of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and discussed with them the referendum, among other pending issues. Chief among these was the disputed areas and the division of oil wealth.
Kurdish government adviser Kifah Mahmoud said, “Erbil will by no means change its mind about the referendum for various reasons, as explained by the Kurdish delegation to the Iraqi parties in the capital.”
“The Kurdish delegation sensed a new and unprecedented response on the part of the Iraqi forces, whose objections were limited to the date of the referendum but not the idea, which most political forces in Iraq have come to tolerate,” Mahmoud told Al-Monitor.
He said, “No final results have been reached yet, but the visit served as a prelude to discussing the outstanding issues once the referendum is held so that the talks are based on the Kurdish people's desire to either become independent or not. We know that independence needs many years, so we need to find a solution to the disputed areas, amend the constitution and divide the oil wealth by peaceful means.”
Reuters quoted Mala Bakhtiar, the chief of the executive body of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, on Aug. 20 as saying the Kurdish delegation asked Abadi to make “substantial” concessions in favor of the Kurds in exchange for the postponement of the referendum until further notice. This was denied by Abadi’s bureau in a statement that said the Reuters report “only cited the opinion of a party that was not part of the delegation and that provided incorrect information.”
Member of parliament Mohammed Sahyoud, a close associate of Abadi, told Al-Monitor, “The Iraqi government informed the Kurdish delegation that it will not recognize the results of a referendum organized by a party that lacks legitimacy. [The referendum] is also contrary to the Iraqi Constitution. The government called on the delegation to solve the internal problems of the region first, elect a new government and breathe new life into the disabled Kurdistan parliament before discussing the issue of the referendum.”
The Kurdistan region is has been experiencing a constitutional vacuum crisis since 2015, following the end of Barzani's mandate as president and the disruption of the work of the Kurdish parliament.
“The government wants to solve the outstanding problems with Kurdistan, but not through pressure and a referendum, which will never lead to independence, as the majority of Iraqi and international forces reject Kurdistan’s secession from Iraq,” Sahyoud added.
The visit of the Kurdish delegation to Baghdad did not include members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Movement for Change (also known as Gorran) and the Kurdistan Islamic Union. All the Iraqi figures who met with the delegation advised postponing the referendum and warned against secession. Also, the Iraq's supreme Shiite authority, Ali Sistani, refused to host the delegation in the province of Najaf as had been planned, and this was interpreted as opposition to the Kurdish referendum.
This comes in light of the continued Turkish and Iranian rejection of the region's continuing steps to hold the referendum, and it may not have been by sheer coincidence that the visit of the Kurdish delegation to Baghdad coincided with the visit of the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces to Ankara to meet with his Turkish counterpart. They announced a common position against the Kurdish steps toward independence so as not to “lead to a series of tensions and confrontations inside Iraq that would affect neighboring countries.”
All this opposition to the referendum has made the Iraqi government think twice before responding to the four demands put forward by the Kurdish delegation, Al-Monitor learned from sources close to the talks. The demands consisted of “allowing the region to act at its discretion when it comes to the oil wells located in the north of the country, demarcating the administrative border of the region by annexing the disputed areas that are now under the control of the Kurdish peshmerga forces, giving Erbil 17% of the country's overall budget and finally implementing Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution related to the normalization of the situation in Kirkuk.”
The central government appears to be pursuing a “brinkmanship” policy with the Kurds. It will not rush to make any concessions and is counting on domestic and international positions to get rid of or postpone the referendum. Meanwhile, Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party will try to prove its seriousness in organizing the referendum.
However, the fact that the main Kurdish parties in the province of Sulaimaniyah (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Movement for Change), which are close to Iran, accepted the minimum promises made by Baghdad (as per Bakhtiar’s statement) may lead to the reversal of the equation in the region and the postponement of the referendum.
The Kurdish sources who spoke to Al-Monitor confirmed that the Kurdish delegation would go to Tehran, Ankara and perhaps to Washington and some Gulf states to put forth an idea that might make the referendum acceptable. The idea is that “the referendum will not lead to independence but will be a pressure tool in the negotiations with Baghdad that have been going on for years without any tangible result.”