Tensions between Baghdad and Kurdistan are on the rise. An attack on a Kurdish funeral that killed 30 in the disputed territory of Khanaqin provided a stark reminder to President Obama that all will not be well until the US plays peacemaker between age-old enemies, Arab Baghdad and the Kurdish north.
When Kurdistan's regional president Masoud Barzani visited the UK, his message was simple: democracy, the rule of law and respect for Iraq's constitutional integrity are the order of the day.
Such has been the brutality of Middle East geopolitics for them, that one would expect Iraq's Kurds to be the last to place their trust in law and democracy. Enemies, external and internal, have historically sought their obliteration; they have been victims of genocide and mass expulsion, and have been sacrificed to convenience by western and regional powers, with disastrous consequences.
With the US withdrawal now imminent, a chain of events suggests the Kurds will end up losers once again. They face a post-election resurgent Prime Minister Maliki who seeks greater power for Baghdad and less for Kurdistan, while tensions are increasing over Kirkuk and the distribution of oil. The US still refuses to meddle in Iraq's internal affairs beyond security and stabilisation – despite Maliki's continued use of Iraqi forces to undermine Kurdish authority with, perhaps, the long-term goal of coercing the Kurds into submission over outstanding issues.
The Kurds have supported Iraq since 2003 and carried out everything asked of them by the UN, US and allies. In the north, the Kurds have eliminated terrorist bases; in the south, they have marched the dangerous streets of Arab Iraq to assist with the battle against al-Qaida and the insurgency. Kurdistan has been indispensable in Iraq's fight for stability and the west's wider battle against terrorism.
It is, however, only the crying baby that gets the milk – the Kurds may turn out to be victims of their own goodwill. At the pre-war negotiating table, the political stage – helped by Turkey's refusal to grant access to US forces – was set for them to go all out with their demands: Kirkuk and even independence were there for the taking.
Kurdish compromise has been met with hostility and dithering. Conversely, the Sunnis, who did "cry" and then launch deadly attacks, have been accommodated and rewarded. US appeasement of the Sunnis is based on ensuring they remain a force for stability. For Maliki, the Sunnis, along with the Sadrists, give him a "coalition of the unlikely" that is united in cause – they all seek a recentralised Iraq – but different in ideology.
Kurdistan's pro-federalism ally ISCI's losses in the provincial elections were a wake-up call for the party. The national elections in December might force them to forge necessary alliances elsewhere, to the detriment of the Kurds.
Kurdistan is thus quickly losing her friends. In the US, it is open season for Kurd-bashing. Newsweek and the Washington Post have launched attacks on the lack of transparency and corruption within Kurdistan. The articles repeat previously published commentary and are devoid of analysis. As Iraq's situation improves, the Kurds are gradually being rendered dispensable.
Unlike many parts of the Middle East, in Kurdistan government is held accountable and issues such as transparency and corruption are highlighted in everyday life and within parliamentary debates. In Kurdistan, the rule of law provides for the operation of political parties and women's rights continue to grow stronger. It is Kurdistan that Iraq's Christians flock to for shelter from the attacks they face elsewhere.
Kurdistan is secular, pluralistic, and has a high regional standard for democracy; its democratic shortcomings do not in any case put into disrepute its international standing. Abramoff, Conway, and lobbying Lords show that the US and UK are still blighted by the same problems; centuries of democratic development, rather than decades as in Kurdistan's case, have failed to create an unblemished democratic record.
The question is where next for Kurdistan? The future of Kurdistan in Iraq is intertwined with the future of Iraq's constitution, approved by four out of five Iraqis and validated by the UN. It is support for Iraqi federalism and the framework it provides for Iraq's myriad of ethnic and religious groups to co-exist that preserves Iraq's territorial integrity.
The US, under Obama, has three main options as it prepares to withdraw: first, it can ensure conformity to and implementation of the Iraqi constitution. This requires pushing for implementation of Article 140 to resolve the status of Kirkuk. It requires encouraging Maliki to disband ambitions to recentralise Iraq, since Kurdistan will veto any weakening of its powers. Alternatively, the US can prolong its presence in the country for at least another five years to mediate these issues. Or, finally, the US can take up the invitation to build military bases in Kurdistan.
The US can withdraw from Iraq responsibly and without leaving their most supportive ally, the Kurds, high and dry, as explained by Professor Brendan O'Leary's blueprint for a withdrawal. The Kurds have fought battle after battle, dictatorship after dictatorship, and have come out bruised but still fighting. Kurdistan overcame genocide and emerged as a quasi-state surrounded by brutal authoritarianism but that still nurtured respectable civil and social institutions. Kurdistan is now an internationally recognised federal state. Failing the Kurds equates with failing Iraq and the often dismissed notion of a united Iraq comprised of a united peoples. Betraying the Kurds once again will be abhorrent. But based on the trajectory of the Kurdish struggle in Iraq, it may constitute the opportunity that gives birth to an internationally recognised independent Kurdistan.
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