Uncertain Futures: Iraq & Kurdistan
September 18, 2014
Host: U.S. Institute of Peace
Dr. Fuad M. Hussein, Chief of Staff to the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Region
Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir, Head of the Kurdistan Regional Government Department of Foreign Relations
If one needs any proof that elections do not make a democracy, look no further than today’s Iraq. It has been made clear by the speed and ease with which the Islamic State (IS) captured swathes of Iraqi territory that former Prime Minister Noor al-Maliki, despite being elected and confirmed by the Parliament, it did not represent the interests of all Iraqis. However, even though Maliki has stepped down and been replaced by Haider al-Abadi, along with the appointment of a new ruling government, it is clear the Iraq still faces several short and long-term challenges. In the Northwest in and around Mosul, disaffected soldiers and military commanders have abandoned their posts and allowed the IS to advance unopposed. In total, according to Dr. Hussein, 10 divisions of the Iraqi army have so far collapsed, leaving it up to the Kudish fighting force, the Peshmerga, to confront IS on the ground. In the short-term, Iraq needs to reestablish security throughout the country. In the long-term a new political system needs to be adopted, one that gives equal power to all the country’s political groups.
Before Iraq can move forward, it must first address the same lingering issues from Maliki’s time in office – particularly having to do with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Prior to IS’ campaign into Iraq, the country was already taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. Now, following IS’ advance, the majority of those Syrian refugees, in addition to Iraqis who have also fled IS, are now seeking shelter in Kurdistan. In just a few months, Minister Bakir estimates that, has absorbed a total of 1.7 million refugees – adding what equates to roughly 20% of the region’s population. Adding additional pressure to the situation, Baghdad has been withholding funds from the Kurdish government. For several months now, both civil servants and Peshmerga soldiers have been working without being fully paid. In times of peace, this withholding of funds was unacceptable; now in times of war, Minister Bakir sees it as a dangerous liability. As the economic situation worsens, discontent grows. The government needs to resume sharing gas and oil revenues with local leaders throughout the country, so the funds can be easily directed to the areas most in need.
In addition to spreading the country’s wealth, both Dr. Hussein and Minister Bakir urged PM Abadi and the new government to reinstate the “federal structures” and decentralize power from Baghdad. Claiming that the divisions created by Maliki, which were exacerbated by IS, run too deep, both speakers favored a system in which Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds would manage their own security organizations. In order to help fight the IS threat, the Peshmerga have received light and medium weapons from European partners and asked the U.S. for heavy weaponry – tanks, helicopters, armored vehicles, etc. Under the Kurdish plan, these resources would be divided once the IS threat is cleared, and each political group would then divide the supplies into three equal forces. Through this strategy, Iraq will remain unified and the mistakes of the past will not repeat themselves.
Dr. Hussein, Minister Bakir, and the KRG have so far given the new Abadi government 90 days to make positive steps towards reestablishing Iraq’s political and strategic security. Although the PM has promised to resume funding and assisting and the Kurdish region, it is unclear whether he will grant the KRG the autonomy it wants. However, as the country is still trying grapple with the political and military challenges it now faces, it is not clear what type of Iraq will emerge once all is settled. Recent events have certainly altered how Iraq’s Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds view themselves and one another. Whether they can emerge from this conflict as a united country remains to be seen.