Daniel Kawczynki is MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham.
The people of Kurdistan should be congratulated for engaging in matters of civic responsibility and turning out in such numbers in their recent referendum. Kurds have been subjected to horrific repression and political violence for decades, both before and during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Given the stability of the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq relative to other areas of the country since Saddam was overthrown in 2003, it is understandable why the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) seeks greater autonomy from Baghdad. That said, the referendum on Kurdish independence is a distraction from more urgent political and security priorities in Iraq; building up the capacity of the Iraqi government to project authority across the entire country, rolling back Iranian influence, and defeating the last ISIS (Da’esh) holdouts.
Iraq’s Kurdish regions have been one of the few bright spots in the difficult transition away from three decades of Ba’athist dictatorship after 2003. After years of division between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which included a four-year civil war in the 1990s, the parties reconciled in 2004 and worked together as the KRG carved out an autonomous niche in Iraqi Kurdistan. The KRG assumed responsibility for most aspects of governance and security, and increasingly bypassed Baghdad to build up its own exporting capacity and deal directly with international buyers of its oil.
Developments since 2014 have strained the KRG’s ability to stand alone and reinforced the need for unity in Iraq. The collapse in oil prices that began in June 2014 decimated the Iraqi budget just as Da’esh surged across the Syrian border to capture large areas of western and northern Iraq the same month. Instead of co-operating against a common (and deadly) foe, Baghdad and the KRG engaged in a tit-for-tat struggle over whether the KRG could sign its own oil contracts independently of the Iraqi government. This resulted in the Iraqi government blocking monthly payments to the KRG from the federal budget, worth about $970 million each, plunging Kurdistan into economic crisis and leaving government workers unpaid for months.
The infighting between Erbil and Baghdad has undermined Iraqi and international efforts to work together in the fight against Da’esh. The inability of the KRG to pay public sector salaries extended to many of the Peshmerga fighters on the frontline whose operational capability was limited further by military equipment the KRG could no longer afford to acquire. American attempts to broker a deal to end the standoff failed to make headway in 2015 and 2016 and left the KRG unable to finance an expansion of the Peshmerga ahead of the operation to retake Mosul from Da’esh control.
As the Iraqi government moves ahead with post-conflict reconstruction in Mosul and re-integrates other areas liberated from Da’esh, it is vital that the global coalition for countering the Islamic State remains focused on the task at hand and does not get distracted by the fallout from the two entities with boots on the ground. Rebuilding Mosul and other villages and towns damaged by the fighting is a priority that will require a very considerable investment of time and resources over years, but all this will be at risk if the city becomes part of a new frontline with KRG-held territory less than a hundred miles away.
Any outbreak of conflict between the KRG and Baghdad can only weaken our interests and strengthen those of our adversaries in Iraq. Moves to declare an independent Kurdistan will be resisted by Turkey – our NATO ally – and our partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who have swung round to the view that a strong Iraq is crucial to countering Iranian influence across the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have boosted political and economic ties with Iraq in recent months and will play an important role in getting the liberated areas back on their feet. After years of acrimonious relations between Iraq’s Shia-led government and its Sunni Arab neighborus, the sudden thaw offers hope that the sectarian tensions that nearly tore Iraq apart between 2006 and 2014 can be overcome.
Finally, Haider al-Abbadi, the Iraqi Prime Minister, needs assistance as he tackles the paramilitary threat posed by the so-called Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs), a loose collection of Shia militias that function as tools of Iranian influence in Iraq. The PMFs are a link in the chain of Iranian-backed ‘resistance’ units and a part of the corridor of strategic influence linking Iran to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria. Within Iraq, the PMFs have contributed to the fragmentation of Iraqi military forces and have resisted al-Abbadi’s attempts to bring them under control, leaving them in place as agents of Iran’s disruptive activities in Iraq and the wider region.
A unified Iraq is needed more than ever to push back against Iranian influence and ensure the final defeat of Da’esh. Iraq remains a weak state vulnerable to internal divisions and external penetration, but 2017 has seen significant progress in both areas. The operation to retake Mosul took nearly a year of fighting, but the hard work really starts now, as the Iraqi government reasserts its power and authority and assists communities displaced by the conflict. Economic weakness and security squabbling mean the KRG is not a credible governing alternative for the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. At a time when real hope is on the horizon for the first time in years, Iraqis of all backgrounds must not squander the opportunities to move decisively away from decades of conflict and instability.