Defying warnings from Baghdad, the United States and regional heavyweights Turkey and Iran, the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum on independence on Sept. 25, 2017, that was approved by an overwhelming majority of the Kurdish people. But what was slated to be a grand leap toward realizing the Kurds’ long cherished dreams of statehood rapidly descended into a debacle as Iraqi troops moved against Kurdish peshmerga fighters in territories claimed by both sides, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. With oil fields in Kirkuk under central government control, revenue from crude sales has been halved.
In a bid to bolster his nationalist credentials ahead of parliamentary elections in May, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi signed off on shutting Iraqi Kurdish airspace to international flights and continues to withhold the Iraqi Kurds’ share of the national budget. Many blame Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who stepped down as president soon after the referendum, and his eldest son, Masrour Barzani, the powerful chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, because they were the main drivers of the referendum. But would the Iraqi army have regained full control over Kirkuk without the collusion of the KDP’s age-old archrival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)? What if the United States had not sided so openly with Baghdad? Al-Monitor put these questions to Masrour Barzani, who is currently in Washington for meetings with senior Donald Trump administration officials, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Barzani was typically cautious in his responses, but the recurring theme was that the Kurds had been unfairly punished for exercising their democratic right to vote on their future.