As Kurds seize Iraq oil fields, independence push exposes divisions

Independence for Iraqi Kurdistan is looking inevitable, with Kurdish fighters seizing more territory from Iraq's central government today. But one key Kurdish faction is wary of going it alone.

Hussein Malla/AP
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands on his position behind dirt barriers built along the front line with militants from the Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in Mariam Bek village, between the northern cities of Tikrit and Kirkuk, Iraq, June 30, 2014.

Iraqi Kurdistan careened closer to independence today, with Kurdish forces advancing outside Kirkuk, which they seized last month, to seize two major Iraqi oil fields

The move heightens tensions between Iraq's central government and its Kurdish minority, which has seized the opportunity to expand its territory as jihadis and other Sunni Arab Iraqis have risen up against Baghdad. The Kurdish Regional Government has called for an independence referendum – a move opposed both by Baghdad and the United States. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused the Kurds of harboring and supporting Sunni militants, earning angry rebukes from Kurdish politicians. 

But behind the front of Kurdish secessionism lies a quietly simmering battle between two dominant political faction that could undermine any independence push. On one side is Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Regional Government, whose Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)  wants independence now. On the other is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani, which is divided on the question and distrust the KDP's motives. 

The two Kurdish parties have a history of rivalry and temporary alliances. In the 1990s, they fought a bloody civil war that led to the division of Iraqi Kurdistan. And while Baghdad appears too weakened to deny Kurds independence, any such move risks igniting internal divisions that have been papered over for the past decade. 

Farid Assasard, a member of the PUK’s leadership council, says that the conditions are not ripe now for independence. He says if Kurdistan opts to break away, it will be seen as an “exploitation” of the current chaos in Iraq.

“States cannot be established by exploiting an opportunity,” Mr. Assasard says. “This makes Baghdad see secession not as a [Kurdish] right but a reaction.” Other PUK officials have also publicly voiced criticism of the independence push. 

Zones of influence

The predominantly Kurdish parts of northern Iraq are now divided into two zones of influence, a legacy of the 1980s conflict. The KDP controls the local administrations and security forces in Erbil and Duhok provinces, while the PUK is the dominant force in Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk provinces.

After the US-led invasion in 2003, the two factions joined forces and secured recognition for Kurdish autonomy in Iraq’s Constitution, as well as a strong presence in the Shiite-dominated national government: Mr. Talabani is Iraq's president.

In recent months, as large parts of western and central Iraq fell to a coalition of Sunni Arab militant groups led by the so-called "Islamic State," the Kurdish government and its loyal peshmerga army has refused to take part in the conflict.

Instead, peshmerga fighters seized Kirkuk, an oil city that the Kurds have long dreamed off as a future capital, and other disputed territory that until now was officially in the central government's hands.

The central government, rattled by the Kurdish gains, has been powerless to respond amid the collapse of large portions of two Iraqi Army divisions in northern Iraq. The seizure of Kirkuk came with hardly a shot fired, as Iraqi forces fled in fear of a Sunni Arab rebel advance.

Following Mr. Maliki's accusation of Kurdish collaboration with the rebels, Kurdish lawmakers in parliament pulled their participation from the governing coalition. Underscoring the fragility of Iraq's powersharing deals, the announcement came from Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd who had allied with Maliki. 

Common sense

For pro-independence Kurds, the growing mayhem driven by enmity between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Arabs is a compelling reason to secede. 

“If Iraq’s situation worsens or if the crisis is not resolved, then Kurds will not want to become part of the Shia-Sunni conflict,” said Khasro Goran, a senior KDP official who leads the party’s parliamentary bloc in Baghdad. “If Iraq moves toward a cliff, then what option have we got except declaring our own state?”

Unlike the PUK, the KDP has a relatively centralized decisionmaking process and Barzani is its undisputed leader. The PUK has lacked a strong leader since Talabani was reported to have suffered a stroke two years ago. The party is split on the bid for independence – some officials support and others oppose. 

“Pragmatism and the absence of a strong and unified leadership have possibly denied the PUK the freedom it needs with regard to the question of independence,” says Mohammed Shareef, an analyst on Kurdish affairs and a fellow at the Royal Asiatic Society in London. “The absence of Jalal Talabani has denied the PUK a strong, clear and centralized approach in tackling this issue.”

Regional alliances

Another factor that has split the KDP and PUK over independence is their regional alliances.

The KDP, with its dominant role in the regional government, has developed strong ties with neighboring Turkey, which sees the benefit of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan with its own oilfields. The PUK is more mindful of Iran's influence and its sensitivities towards its own Kurdish minority. Some PUK officials argue that many countries in the region are opposed to a breakaway state and that could undermine it. 

The momentum appears to be with Barzani, the pro-independence KDP leader. Last week, when he called for a referendum on independence in Kurdistan’s parliament, not a single lawmaker objected. More than 98 percent of the population voted for an independent Kurdistan in an unofficial referendum in 2005.

Mindful of US opposition and regional tensions, Barzani has kept his options open by not setting a time frame for a referendum. But even some PUK officials seem ready to throw in the towel. 

“The problem between Shias and Sunnis has deepened and has reached a stage where they are purging each other,” says Rizgar Ali, a member of PUK’s powerful politburo. “There needs to be a solution and what will it be? … This is a matter for our people to decide on.”

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