As Iraqi troops melted away amid Islamic State’s northern offensive in 2014, Kurdish forces rushed to fill the breach, seizing the contested city of Kirkuk and nearby oil fields. Suddenly, a viable vision of a long-cherished state emerged. Just as abruptly, it’s all gone wrong. The government of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani held a referendum on independence, and 93 percent of voters said yes. But the national government in Baghdad -- not to mention neighbors Iran and Turkey -- objected. Flights to Iraq’s Kurdish region were halted, border gates shut. Iraqi government forces retook Kirkuk and neighboring areas, symbolically lowering the Kurdish flag. And now the Kurds are feuding among themselves.
1. How have the Kurds reacted to their losses?
Less than a month after the referendum, the euphoria over the outcome has given way to dissension. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party has accused its coalition partner, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, of striking a treacherous deal with Abadi. The charge is that the PUK ordered military forces loyal to it to abandon Kirkuk without a fight. While the PUK hasn’t directly responded to those claims, some members condemned the plebiscite as an attempt to secure the hegemony of the KDP.
2. Have the factions fought before?
Yes, and at critical junctures. Protected from the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by a no-fly zone following the 1991 Gulf war, the Kurds carved out a semi-autonomous enclave. But a struggle for preeminence between the KDP and the PUK erupted into conflict in 1994. Thousands died in four years of fighting. Reconciliation efforts narrowed the divisions, but the parties are still far apart on key issues, most critically Kurdistan’s economic and political relationship with Baghdad. Since then, Kurdish politics also has been roiled by the emergence of the Gorran opposition movement. Its dispute with the KDP -- which centers on the extension of Barzani’s presidency beyond the end of his term -- shut the regional assembly for almost two years from October 2015. Lawmakers only reconvened in September, when a majority approved the referendum in a sitting boycotted by Gorran.
3. How big a loss was Kirkuk for the Kurds?
Successive Arab-dominated Iraqi governments sought to control the multi-ethnic region, and its oil wealth, by downplaying the Kurdish element of its identity, and resorting to violence. The 2003 U.S. invasion that led to the ouster of Saddam Hussein offered Kurds an opportunity to reclaim their homes. Jalal Talabani, who ran the PUK until his death earlier this month and served as Iraq’s first post-Saddam president, referred to Kirkuk as “our Jerusalem.” Kirkuk was central to the Kurds’ independence aspirations, accounting for half their oil revenue.
4. What are the implications for Barzani?
He’s facing calls to resign, with some Kurds saying he miscalculated. At a press conference in Baghdad on Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the referendum “is finished and has become a thing of the past.” Barzani says independence will happen one day. The question now is whether he will step down, dig in or call long-overdue elections.
5. How has Abadi emerged from the military action?
Abadi defended the military operation as necessary to protect a country “in danger of partition.” He’s been praised by allies, including France, Germany and the U.S., which expressed support for Iraqi unity. In the eyes of many Iraqis, he’s done himself a favor ahead of next year’s general election. With all the territory lost under his predecessor now back under central government control and Islamic State almost defeated in Iraq, he’s appeared decisive and resolute. “Abadi became a hero,” said Muhanad Seloom at the Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies in London. At the same time, to preserve his improved electoral chances, he’ll need to quash rumors that Iran influenced his decision to send in the troops.
6. Will Iraqi forces attempt to take more territory?
That doesn’t appear likely. Baghdad’s forces are now in control of Kirkuk, the province’s oil fields and most of the land the Kurds took more than three years ago. That meets the demands of Abadi, who called for the return to federal control of all territories outside the constitutional authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government. So far, there’s been little violence with Kurdish forces withdrawing rather than defending their positions. Any encroachment of core Kurdish territory would likely be challenged.
7. What’s the next move for the Kurds?
As the first Iraqi tanks rolled into Kirkuk, some Kurdish families started to pack up and leave. Abadi has sought to ease fears, saying he wants it to be “a city of peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis.” Kurdish leaders could still push ahead with independence, but given the internal dissent and loss of Kirkuk, that appears unlikely. More probable are talks with Baghdad on a new relationship. The establishment of a functioning federal Iraq would be welcomed by Turkey and Iran, which are keen to dampen the secessionist hopes of their own Kurdish minorities. Sajad Jiyad, managing director of the Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, a Baghdad-based think tank, says that would take years -- and the kind of compromises on sharing oil wealth and joint administration that have so far proved elusive.
The Reference Shelf
- A multimedia guide on the Kurds produced by the Council on Foreign Relations.
- A report on implications of the Kurds’ fight against Islamic State by the International Crisis Group.
- A report on the U.S. partnership with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
- Related QuickTakes on the Kurds, Kurds in Syria, Iraq’s brittle nationhood, and Iraq’s oil.