An Independent Kurdistan?

Robert Olson, Professor of Middle East Politics, University of Kentucky

Due to the strong resistance to the US occupation of Iraq and the internecine hostility that has resulted between Arabs and Kurds, reports in the public media have raised the possibility of the Kurds declaring an independent state. While the Kurds have made great strides in state formation developments since the US occupation of Iraq in March 2003, their achieving of independence remains problematic.

It is important to recall that the Kurds of Iraq have had a great deal of autonomy since the Gulf War of 1991 when a “safe haven” was created in portions of northern Iraq by the Americans and British. In 1992 the two major Kurdish factions (Kurdistan Democratic Party-KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan-PUK) formed the Kurdistan Regional Government with autonomy for the three provinces of Arbil, Dohuq and Sulaymaniya. Despite internecine warfare between the two factions, they continued to consolidate their control in these three provinces and in four provinces—Ninawah, Salahuldin, at-Ta’mim (Kirkuk) and Diyala—adjoining their autonomous region.

The Kurds’ position was further strengthened by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. When the Turkish government refused to participate in the US invasion, the Kurds became the main ally of the US forces in the conquest of the Arab regions and cities of northern Iraq, including the important cities of Kirkuk, Tikrit and Mosul. Kurdish forces, popularly know as peshmerga (those who face death) became the chief ally of US forces against the increasing strong resistance, largely comprised of Sunni forces along with some internationalist guerrilla groups.

The strong position achieved by the Kurds in fighting the resistance compelled the US to support and grant important concessions to the Kurds in the temporary governments that the US spawned such and the Coalitional Provisional Government, Iraqi Governing Council and the Interim Iraqi Government. The consolidation of Kurdish power became evident in the January 30, 2005 national assembly elections when due to a Sunni boycott; the Kurdish parties garnered 75 of the 275 seats which made them the second strongest faction next to the Shi‛a parties that won 140 seats. Kurdish officials assumed top positions in the new national assembly: Jalal Talabani, the former head of the PUK became the President of Iraq; Barham Salih, the prime minister of the PUK-controlled region, became Vice-President in charge of national security; and Hoshyar Zebari, chief foreign affairs spokesperson for the KDP became the foreign minister of Iraq. In addition, the Kurds of the Kurdish-controlled regions, in a referendum on the issue of independence conducted at the same time as the January 30 national assembly elections, voted 98.5 percent for independence—a vote that Kurdish leaders would have to take into consideration when they negotiated what the status of Kurdistan-Iraq would be in any kind of federation that would be negotiated with the largely Arab, both Sunni and Shi‛a factions, in the new parliament. It is clear that Kurdish leaders will have to take Kurdish grass roots nationalist sentiments into consideration as they negotiate their federative status with Arab factions and the US.

The Kurds also gained many privileges in the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) that was passed on March 8, 2005, most of which were incorporated into the interim constitution approved on August 15. In these documents, the Kurds were granted many rights: autonomy in the three provinces they controlled; maintenance of a full army to protect their regions’ border with Iran, Turkey and Syria; to established diplomatic, political and economic agreements with other states; to tax and to control the oil and gas resources that were not being currently exploited. By achieving these rights, the Kurds had gained more authority over the region they controlled than the cantons of Switzerland—one of the most devolved federative systems in the world.

What, then, is holding the Kurds back from declaring independence? There are several factors: one, it currently goes against the US stated position of supporting an “unified” Iraq; two, such a declaration would put an end to any federation negotiations between Arab Iraq and the new Kurdish state. This would also entail the possibility that the Kurds would face a newly aroused Iraqi Arab nationalism, this time infused with an Iraqi Shi‛a nationalist discourse, rather than a Sunni discourse, which could be even more strident. A declaration of independence would also greatly irritate Turkey which has a strong Kurdish nationalist movement among its estimated 15-17 million Kurds. Turkey has so far supported the US position of advocating a unified Iraq in order to contain the spread and influence of Kurdistan-Iraq, much more prosperous than the poverty laden and economically underdeveloped Kurdish regions in the southeast of Turkey. If the Kurds of Iraq declare independence, there is no guarantee that Turkey will continue its policy of tolerating such a state. Iran, with a Kurdish population of an estimated 6 million (out of a total population of 69 million) and Syria with an estimated Kurdish population of 1.5 (out of a total population of 18 million) also face strong Kurdish nationalist movements and would be strongly opposed to an independent Kurdish state in Iraq.

The Kurdish leadership also faces certain dilemmas. Kurdistan-Iraq is landlocked and dependent on its Turkish, Iranian and Syrian neighbors for most of its land and air communications. This is especially the case if Arab Iraq were to adopt a hostile position toward the new state. In such a situation how would Kurdistan-Iraq be able to prosper economically? Would Kurdish officials and economic entrepreneurs be satisfied with such a small market to exploit? What would the new state’s position be if the above circumstance compelled the Kurds to become a client state and ward of the US—with US military bases? This would make its neighbors, especially Iran, but including Turkey, very nervous. If the Islamic Republic or Iran, and the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria were to topple or there were internal strife in either country, such developments would most assuredly affect Kurdistan-Iraq.

Probably the most important reason for the Kurdish leadership to not declare independence at this time, it that the two major Kurdish factions, the KDP and PUK, have themselves not resolved issues of power-sharing and the politics of institutionalizing a state are substantially different from those of being a unit within a federation which, in turn, could lead to more division—at least, a unity with any democratic pretensions. Lastly, the Kurds must consider that the US might lose interest in sustaining its military and economic commitments to Iraq, and to its Kurdish ally, due to increasing public lack of support for the war in Iraq.

Robert Olson, Professor
Middle East Politics
University of Kentucky

Professor Olson is a leading international authority on trans-national Kurdish nationalist movements; a topic on which he has published 95 research articles and essays.