The Kurdish push for independence is a big problem for Baghdad

Iraqi Kurdistan is moving ahead with independence plans. With Kurds also holding an important swing vote in Iraq's parliament, this is a problem. A big one.

Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Members of the new Iraqi parliament attend a session at the parliament headquarters in Baghdad July 1, 2014. Sunnis and Kurds abandoned the first meeting of Iraq's new parliament on Tuesday after Shiites failed to name a prime minister to replace Nouri al-Maliki, wrecking hopes that a unity government would be swiftly built to save Iraq from collapse. Parliament is not likely to meet again for at least a week, leaving the country in a state of political limbo.

On Tuesday, Iraq's parliament met in a time of great crisis. The advertised hope was that some kind of political consensus would emerge on forming a new government that just might convince the Sunni minority to give Baghdad, which has favored Shiite Arabs for more than five years, another chance.

What came next was sadly predictable. Name-calling, threats and a debate that broke entirely on sectarian and ethnic lines. After 30 minutes, a break was called to give tempers a chance to cool. But when time was up, a large number of Kurdish and Sunni Arab MPs refused to return. With no quorum, the parliament session was moot. How much urgency is there to get to a compromise? The acting speaker called for a second session to discuss the issue – a week later.

On Tuesday, the unlikelihood of getting anywhere was underscored by Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani telling the BBC that he planned on calling an independence referendum for the Kurds within "months."

While that was possibly a bargaining position – a threat from a king-making swing bloc in parliament to extract concessions - he seemed serious then, and he seems even more serious now. In the past month the Kurdish military has already seized the oil-city of Kirkuk and other territory it's long sought as part of an independent state, and the Kurds are now looking to cement their hold.

Today, Barzani asked the Kurdish regional parliament to set a date for an independence referendum.

While the Kurdish desire for independence is understandable – not least because Kurdish government regions have proven more stable and prosperous than the regions run by Iraq's Shiite Arab majority – it also shows one key facet of Iraq's political dysfunction. Kurds hold about 19 percent of the seats in the parliament of a country they don't want to remain within.

This cohesive Kurdish bloc at the national level is pretty much necessary for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a government; his own bloc won the most votes in the election but is far from a majority. He also needs the bloc to improve the military situation.

And yet they're secessionists. The powerful position the Kurds hold in parliament is something akin to Jefferson Davis having enormous power in Washington during the US Civil War.

The unworkability of this should be obvious.

What next? If the Kurds continue to push forward, this means that the governing arrangements put in place by the US, including the Iraqi Constitution that it helped write, will come apart.

The Kurds are in their strongest position in the history of Iraq. They have loyal security services, expanding financial clout with direct oil sales abroad, and Turkey now on their side. In the recent past, Turkey was openly hostile to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, worried it would encourage an uprising of Kurds on its soil. But as Kurdistan has prospered, Turkey has prospered along with it – and the Turkish government isn't exactly friendly to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that's friendly to Tehran.

A spokesman for Turkey's ruling Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) told the Financial Times at the end of last month that his government would not oppose Kurdish secession from Iraq.

The hope that wise leadership in Iraq's fractured parliament could somehow mollify Iraq's Sunni Arabs was probably always a false one.  A large segment of the country's Sunni Arab population has risen up against the government in league with the brutal jihadis of the so-called "Islamic State," after years of what they see as injustice and domination. At the moment, they feel they have the wind at their back and Iraq's collapsing military on the run.

Replacing Maliki with some other politician acceptable to Iraq's Shiite Islamist parties and to Iran was always unlikely to persuade them to put down their arms.

Whether forces loyal to Baghdad can regroup and push back the Sunni Arab army that holds much of the north and the west of the country remains to be seen. But it's looking more and more likely they'll have to do it without the Kurds.

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