Nov 15, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

4 mins read

Iraqi Kurdistan Extends an Olive Branch

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani
(SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Iraqi Kurdistan's recent concession to the central government in Baghdad could pave the way for peace talks.
  • But ahead of next year's elections, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will try to boost his political standing by maintaining his aggressive approach toward the Kurdish region.
  • In the face of Baghdad's hard-line policy, Arbil will reach out to longtime patrons like the United States and Turkey to mediate the dispute.

The governments of Iraq and its autonomous Kurdish region may be one step closer to settling their heated feud. On Nov. 14, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) issued a formal response to a Nov. 5 decision by the Federal Supreme Court that the Iraqi Constitution does not permit any region to secede. Officials in Arbil said they "respect the interpretation" of the court and called for the ruling to serve as a starting point for negotiations to resolve the region's outstanding constitutional disputes with the central government in Baghdad. But although the concession could pave the way for peace talks, it is unclear just how willing Iraqi leaders are to lift the pressure they have put on the Kurdish administration since its controversial independence referendum in late September.

So far Arbil has refused to annul the results of the vote, as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has demanded. However, since taking control of Iraqi Kurdistan in early November amid the temporary suspension of the region's presidency, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has sought to distance himself from the steadfast resistance of his uncle, former President Massoud Barzani, to nullify the will of the Kurdish people. Arbil's recent decision to respect the federal court's declaration that regions cannot secede from Iraq, in essence, is an invalidation of the referendum's importance and outcome.

With national elections on the horizon, al-Abadi has only strengthened his political standing with his response to the Kurdish bid for independence. Under his watch, Baghdad has regained control of the oil fields in the country's northern regions that it had lost to the Kurds in 2014 — including lucrative resources in Kirkuk province. The central government has also reclaimed most of the disputed region that lies between the KRG and the rest of Iraq. These victories have bolstered the prime minister's image as a nationalist leader and have augmented his administration's similar successes in seizing territory from the Islamic State over the past few years.

Arbil's recent decision to respect the federal court's declaration that regions cannot secede from Iraq, in essence, is an invalidation of the referendum's importance and outcome.

Al-Abadi's nationalist credentials have shored up his support base among southern Iraq's Shiite communities. But there are still several challengers eager to supplant him as prime minister, including National Wisdom party leader Ammar al-Hakim and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Moreover, though Iraqi security forces have retaken most of the country's disputed territories, the Popular Mobilization Forces — troops that often have closer connections to other Shiite leaders — have led the charge. Many of these fighters are now forming their own political parties ahead of the approaching elections. Earlier this month, for instance, Iraqi officials approved the political wing of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq (one of the more powerful segments of the Popular Mobilization Forces) as a legitimate party. Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandes, the forces' deputy chairman, has engaged in negotiations to take charge of the security of Kirkuk's oil fields as well.

Aware that an electoral victory is by no means assured, al-Abadi will continue to try to fortify his own political position in the months ahead. As a result, his stance toward the KRG will remain aggressive, even in the face of its recent olive branch. This is not to say that Baghdad won't engage in backroom (or even overt) negotiations, but it will seek significant concessions while trying to exploit the Kurdish prime minister's weakness. According to the semi-official Iraqi news outlet Al-Sabaah, Baghdad has obtained U.N. documents that place three cities — including the strategic border town of Fishkhabor — outside the line drawn in 1991 between southern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. If true, the central government could use these documents as justification to take control of the cities.

Faced with an unyielding government in Baghdad, Arbil will have little choice but to reach out to external actors that have historically interceded on its behalf, such as Turkey and the United States, for help. And that is where the KRG's recent statement will make the most impact: Rather than swaying Iraq's central government, the move by Kurdish officials is likely meant to mollify Ankara and Washington. Turkey, in particular, has reiterated its alliance with the KRG, even as it has consistently joined Baghdad in opposing the independence referendum. Perhaps it is telling that, in the wake of an earthquake that decimated parts of Iraqi Kurdistan on Nov. 14, Ankara has come to the region's aid more than Baghdad has.

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