Baghdad-KRG Relations Go from Bad to Worse

Article Summary
The conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government is likely to escalate, reports Adil al-Jaburi.

Day after day, the belief strengthens that the possibilities for a peaceful resolution (or at least containment) of the crisis between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have grown remote, if they have not altogether vanished. The signs and indications pointing to escalation have come to greatly outnumber those pointing to a truce or cooling down.

Until recently, both parties to the crisis had been communicating through their respective official (and unofficial) channels their desire, inclination and various attempts to find a way out of the dilemma. Yet today they stress that matters have reached the point of no return. Both sides’ official statements and declarations say as much. The exceptionally obstructionist rhetoric emanating from both sides’ media outlets (whether visual, print or electronic) are stoking passions and mobilizing the street on both sides — and for the same purpose.

Regardless of whether the ongoing escalation will lead to an all-out armed confrontation between the two sides or not, the diminishment or vanishing of opportunities for a peaceful resolution may be attributed to a number of reasons. Here we may highlight four of them. Firstly and principally: the complete breakdown of trust between the two sides at the very highest levels. Namely, Prime Minister and head of the ‘State of Law’ coalition Nouri al-Maliki, and the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani. Trust has broken down not least because of the direct accusations and blunt statements to be hurled by both sides, whether from the leaders themselves or from their close associates.

In a recent statement, Maliki expressed the view that current events in Iraq’s various regions and the nature of the statements coming out of KRG officials do not signal either good intent or a sincere desire to resolve the nation’s difficulties through dialogue. In a semi-official statement by the State of Law coalition released at roughly the same time, one finds a string of accusations directed against Barzani. The statement claims that Barzani violated the constitution and “all Iraqi laws” when he sheltered Tariq al-Hashemi, a criminal wanted on charges of terrorism. It further claims that Barzani was the reason Hashemi fled to Turkey; that he subsequently offered safe refuge to Syrian insurgents in the region; that he sought through his global travels to portray the central government and Prime Minister Maliki as an enemy and a threat to regional peace; that he seeks to impede any [international] arms deal in an attempt to keep the Iraqi army weak while at the same time providing advanced weaponry to the Kurdish militias in the KRG and the disputed regions.

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As for the regions under the control of the KRG, particularly the leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) led by Barzani, they have said that Maliki is encouraging an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Kurds, and accused him of being the first Iraqi prime minister preparing the army for war and internal conflict. This, at any rate, is what the president of the KRG openly declared, and was reaffirmed by the second highest-ranking official in the KDP, Nechirvan Barzani, in a speech at the opening ceremony of an energy conference held in Erbil several days ago. In the same vein, KRG President Barzani recently communicated a similar message to the London Azzaman newspaper and to several other media outlets. Further emphasizing the total, or near-total, breakdown in trust is the ongoing military buildup by both sides in the disputed territories — or what the Kurds have taken to calling the “regions cut off from the KRG,” while the central government refers to them as “the mixed regions.”

Another reason lies in the sharp polarization and new alignments that cannot take part in a calming or resolution. After the Kurdish scene suffered from fragmentation and split positions that have driven some to offer pessimistic interpretations of his leanings and results. The different factions were united and coordinated. Talabani who, along with his party, had been sympathetic to Maliki and closely allied with him now suddenly lined up with Barzani. So too did the Kurdish Movement for Change, under the leadership of Nawshirwan Mustafa, along with the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Islamic Union. As a result, Barzani can now legitimately claim to speak on behalf of the Kurdish consensus.  One might add to the above groups various political centers of power and Turkmen tribes in Kirkuk as well as in other regions that have adopted a KRG-friendly position.

In contrast, Maliki was able to draw around to his position social and political forces from outside his parliamentary bloc and its partisan satellites. They began to encourage him  to adopt a more extreme and unyielding position toward the Kurds. The latter are viewed in many circles — both Arab and non-Arab — as having endless demands and limitless ambitions.

This sharp and dangerous polarization cannot but push everyone toward the edge of a yawning abyss and a breaking point. Whenever material temptations enter the picture, it was natural for affairs to take a more ominous turn. Money began to flow from some parties to others in order to secure the necessary military and logistic capabilities, as well as to win more supporters and adherents in the political sphere, the media, and the public. The outside parties now involved did not intervene in order to reach a resolution, but to support one of the two parties in this crisis and weaken the other. Their goal, in order words, is to weaken the effectiveness and diminish the influence of parties that desire to find a peaceful resolution and realistic settlement with the minimum of loss and strife.

This is what is actually happening on the ground, particularly as the implications and knock-on effects of events in Iraq and conflicts among its people and internal political forces have dragged the country into conflicts wracking other regional neighbors, like Syria. Since the Iraqi government has adopted positions that seemed as if they were supportive of the Syrian regime and in line with Iran’s own stance, regional and international actors began to incite against the current government and support any of its rivals in order to weaken it. Indeed, perhaps the recurring political and media leaks about Ankara and Doha’s intervention in the crisis between Baghdad and Erbil are both plausible and rational. Most likely, the further the crisis in Syria deepens and heads in the direction of grave deterioration, so too does the severity of the political polarization in Iraq, intensified by external factors and influences.

The final reason for the diminishing or collapsing opportunities to resolve the latest lies in the unfortunate reality that this crisis is not, in fact, the first of its kind. Rather, it is the product of a number of crises that have cumulitavely built up over the last ten years. Indeed, some of those prior crises have roots extending back decades. The crisis of forming a leadership for the Tigris operations command  was an extension of the crisis to apply Article 140 of the constitution, which in turn goes back to Article 58 of the Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period. In its turn, this was a continuation of the crisis over the KRG’s share of the Iraqi government’s annual budget, as well as funding for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. There was the crisis of oil contracts signed by the KRG with foreign companies, the crisis caused by KRG revenues, customs duties, taxes and other resources off limits to the national Iraqi government. This is to say nothing of the intricate problems and crises stemming from the legitimate differences of opinion concerning the administration of the state, how its policies are determined and its order of priorities enumerated.

The recent crisis is, in fact, more a result than a cause; likewise, it is more of a positive or negative conclusion than it is an introduction. It is a broad and comprehensive address located within the framework of the overarching pattern of crises and other chronic problems. Even if the proximate cause were defused, this would not lead to the defusing of other crises. And even if this were achieved, it would only hold for a short period of time. The reasons are the same that we have listed above.

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