The Political Future of Iraqi Kurdistan by Christian Chung

No other state in the world requires two separate visas to travel throughout the entire country. Then again, Iraq is not like any other state, and the internal political situation complicates the dynamics between the northern Kurdish region and the south of the country.

Article one of the US Constitution restricts individual states from conducting foreign affairs, reserving this power to the federal government and the president in particular. This aimed largely to prevent individual states from pursuing separate foreign policies with foreign governments, which would create confusion, chaos and disunity and risk splitting the country.

The Constitution of Iraq, ratified in 2005, is a bit more complicated in this regard, though. Unlike the United States, Iraq’s constitution has the seemingly impossible task of ensuring the viability of democracy and balanced freedom between Iraq’s three main constituent blocs: the Kurdish population in the north, the Sunni Arabs concentrated mainly in the west and northwest, and the Shia Arabs towards the south.

Mostly self-governing since the end of the first Gulf War and the imposition of a no-fly-zone in 1991, the Kurdistan region immediately started to court international opinion by establishing a loose organization of representatives in a handful of capitals around the world. Today, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has a formalized Department of Foreign Relations (DFR), a sometimes awkward set up with the consideration that foreign policy is an exclusive power of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Baghdad.

The DFR is unique among comparable institutions worldwide: it is a foreign policy organization that does not set independent foreign policy, cannot work outside a predetermined policy framework, and is not even technically a ministry. But the department is a critical part of the KRG’s development and modernization strategy, and it has been a central player in a number of recent regional crises, including the uprising in Syria, changes in relations with Turkey, and business deals with international oil companies. This has led some to assume that the DFR’s growth (it now has 13 representative offices abroad, separate from Iraqi embassies, in addition to hosting 25 diplomatic missions in the regional capital of Erbil) is aimed at supporting the one aim that is a universal dream for all Kurds: an independent state.

I posed that question, and questions about the increasingly tense relationship with Baghdad, to the KRG’s Minister of Foreign Relations Falah Mustafa Bakir. Speaking better English than me, Minister Bakir was blunt about the perception of the federal government’s “dictatorial” actions in recent times, and how the recent efforts to bring down Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have impacted the KRG’s efforts on the global stage.

“The level of cooperation varies between today and tomorrow,” he said, rather sugar-coating the situation.

Because of the mentality of “a few individuals in Baghdad,” the minister told me, it would probably be a generation or two until Iraq becomes truly strong, federal, democratic and pluralistic. “We will not allow the country to go towards dictatorship…we will not be part of a dictatorial Iraq.”

Surprisingly, Bakir predicted, on the record, the future breakup of Iraq into either autonomous regions under the federal government or, in the case of continued “dictatorial tendencies” as perceived by the political opposition, into separate entities all together. In the end, that would leave Iraq nothing more than an amalgamation of the Kurdistan region, a region in the Sunni areas, two or more Shi’ite regions in the south, and Baghdad as the federal capital.

“That would be the best option for the communities [in Iraq] to live together,” he said.

Afterward, I sat down with Labid Abawi, the deputy foreign minister in Baghdad, to ask about the same subjects. Also surprisingly, Abawi was quite comfortable going out of his way to strike up a different tone of cooperation and respect than what Bakir was telling me. Everything was fine between Erbil and Baghdad, he said; the only problem is if “they can’t cut back their own perceptions or views which are not in line with federal policy, then this is a problem,” which was code for any hint of talking about independence. “We don’t see the KRG as a separate entity. It’s part of Iraq,” Abawi was quick to point out. The relationship between the Foreign Ministry and the KRG is nothing new, he went on, it is just now taking a different shape.

Of course, the elephant in the room was the political crisis between opposition figures including KRG President Massoud Barzani and Maliki—one that has yet to be solved.

Recently, many Kurds have warned against what they perceive as credible threats that Prime Minister Maliki is willing, able to and actively making plans to attack the Kurdistan region in a way reminiscent of the genocidal Anfal Campaign by Saddam Hussein during the late 1980s. This was based off of information Barzani allegedly had of Maliki making remarks to use recent acquisitions of F-16 fighter aircraft against the Kurds.

Privately, however, KRG officials and analysts have said that the risk for civil war is high but not definite. Most say Maliki would not risk the international backlash from sparking a civil war, though those calculations would definitely change if the Kurds unilaterally annexed any of the disputed areas, especially Kirkuk, or continue unilateral expansion of an oil pipeline to Turkey.

But US policymakers should not underestimate the extent to which Erbil-Baghdad relations are hanging together by a thread. It remains to be seen what will become of the political impasse, though it seems increasingly likely that Maliki will survive the attempt to oust him from office. The KRG’s Barzani is showing all indications of wanting to fulfill the long awaited dream of declaring a free Kurdistan state, but doing so would both cross a definite red line for both Baghdad and Washington and also likely spark an impending civil war. One thing is for certain though: the future of Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is quite literally on the line.

Christian Chung is a sophomore in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently working in northern Iraq as the Security and Political Reporter for the English language section of Rudaw News, with a focus on Iraqi political and security developments, Arab-Kurd relations, the political challenges faced by Iraqi ethnic groups, and security throughout the country since the American withdrawal.