One of Iraq’s worst kept secrets is that Iraqi Kurds want an independent state. Whitehall included the Kurds of what was then the Mosul villayet (province) of the Ottoman Empire into its newly crafted Iraq some 80 years ago and for most of that time the forced marriage has not been a happy one.
During my first visit to the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, in the summer of 1994, the area was in the throes of a full blown civil war. The 1991 Gulf War had allowed Iraq’s Kurds the opportunity to run their own affairs for the first time, in a safe haven the size of Switzerland established by the U.S., Britain and France. But the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – had begun fighting over the scraps of smuggling revenue that consisted of the near-destitute safe haven’s main source of income. Also suffering from double sanctions (the international ones placed on Iraq and Saddam’s sanctions against the Iraqi Kurdish region) and unfriendly regimes in every direction – in Baghdad, Damascus, Teheran and Ankara - the future did not look bright.
Despite this, every Kurd I spoke to was thrilled to be free of Baghdad’s grip, however tenuously. With their history of central government neglect, repression, deportations, forced assimilation and finally chemical weapon-borne genocide in 1988, it is not hard to see why.
I travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan again in the autumn of 2000, and then lived there for just short of a year in 2003 and 2004. Still, I have yet to meet an Iraqi Kurd who does not favour an independent Kurdistan. For most Kurds I spoke to, the question was "when" rather than "if" they would have an independent state. The answer, however, was "not right now, but hopefully within the next 50 years."
For Kurds, Iraq’s territorial integrity is not some sacred value that trumps their right to self-determination. The lives of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of their people are sacred. A push for Iraqi Kurdish statehood in today’s Middle Eastern context would put that many lives at risk. In addition to mainly Arab Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria all have significant Kurdish minorities of their own, chafing under central government rule, and these states would harshly oppose such a move lest it set a precedent for their own Kurdish citizens. The armies of these neighbouring states might intervene quickly to assist Baghdad in re-establishing control of Iraqi Kurdistan, or to try and claim chunks of territory for themselves.
Even if they managed to secede with Kirkuk and its significant oil reserves, landlocked Iraqi Kurds would still need to transport their oil to foreign markets, either via tanker trucks or pipelines. Surrounded by unfriendly regimes, they would be cut off from the world and placed in an economic and political choke hold.
Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan has made some impressive gains since 1991, and even more since Saddam’s overthrow in 2003. The region went from being Iraq’s poorest and least developed historically to its richest, and the Kurdistan Regional Government actively courts investors and even tourists with ad campaigns such as theotheriraq.com.
Construction cranes dominate the skylines of Iraqi Kurdish cities like Erbil, Suleimaniya and Duhok, with Turkish investors accounting for some 80 percent of business. The KDP and PUK have buried their animosity and are nearly finished unifying into one Kurdish regional administration. Kurds also now play a prominent role in Iraq’s central government, holding the Presidency (Jalal Talabani), Foreign Ministry (Hoshyar Zebari) and one of the Vice-Prime Minister positions (Barham Salih).
All this would be put at risk by a hasty bid for statehood. Nor do Iraqi Kurds wish to risk their present gains by supporting or stoking Kurdish unrest amongst Syrian, Turkish and Iranian Kurds. The Iraqi Kurdish bid to control extra territory in Iraq, especially oil-rich Kirkuk and parts of Diyala province, is also probably not an attempt to seed the ground for secession in the near future. In any case, the Iraqi constitution requires them to turn over revenues from all existing oil fields to Baghdad for proportional distribution amongst all Iraqis.
Rather, they simply want to include most of Iraq’s Kurds in the autonomous Kurdish region. Of course, physically controlling some one third of Iraq’s oil fields might also go a long way towards making sure that the government in Baghdad actually shares the revenues amongst all Iraqis, which is not a bad idea given the country’s previous history.
Although a complete accommodation breakdown in Baghdad between Kurds and Arabs might push them towards riskier choices, for the foreseeable future Iraq’s Kurds therefore appear content with the fruits of autonomy. If 40 to 50 years from now the Middle East and the world appears ready for a Kurdish state, they will be too.
David Romano is author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement