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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Barzani’s independence gamble has failed. Now Baghdad has the upper hand

The blame for the loss of Kirkuk must be placed at the feet of Kurdistan's leader, writes Faisal Al Yafai. His combative politics have set Kurdish independence back years

A man rides a bicycle with an Iraqi flag in Kirkuk. Ako Rasheed / Reuters
A man rides a bicycle with an Iraqi flag in Kirkuk. Ako Rasheed / Reuters

After the defeat, the recriminations. Within Iraqi Kurdistan and without, across newspapers and social media, the blame for the fall of Kirkuk from Kurdish hands has been passed, pinned and hurled at every imaginable candidate.

For some, it was the Iraqis, using force to retake a city that the Kurds have controlled for three years. For others, it was the Americans, refusing to support the referendum or to come to the aid of Kurds as Baghdad's army moved north. For others, it was the international community, committed to a conspiracy to keep the Kurds from a state of their own.

But time and again, the blame circled around to the one figure who started this latest confrontation with Baghdad, and who must bear a significant share of the blame: Masoud Barzani.

Mr Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government that controls Iraqi Kurdistan, was the figure who pushed hardest for the referendum last month on Kurdish independence, against the warnings of others from his community and from almost every regional and international capital.

It was, by any political yardstick, an extraordinary and spectacular miscalculation. Disregarding friends and allies, heedless of warnings from Baghdad and Ankara, Mr Barzani pushed ahead. There was only ever going to be one response from the Kurdish people, an overwhelming vote in favour of independence. But with the status of the mixed city of Kirkuk still undecided, there was also only going to be one response from Baghdad.

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The result was that Kirkuk, the prize that the Kurds have for years longed for, was ripped away in less than a day. Despite rhetoric that they would stand and fight the Iraqi army, the Kurds retreated with barely a shot fired. After three years controlling Kirkuk, it was over in an afternoon. A bad day for Kurdistan.

With Kirkuk gone, other “disputed areas” fell too, along with the prized oil fields and Kirkuk airbase. Within hours, Iraqi Kurdistan was at its weakest point for years.

Without Kirkuk, there can’t easily be a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. The KRG's coffers are almost empty; the government in Erbil is accused of corruption, is haemorrhaging cash and cannot pay salaries. It needs Kirkuk. But for too many years, Kurdish leaders have told the Kurds that keeping the mixed-ethnicity, oil-rich city would be straightforward. What Mr Barzani was counting on was western public opinion, hoping that western governments, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, would be pushed into acting.

In particular, after the referendum, Mr Barzani appears to have believed that Baghdad would not risk a military confrontation, or that, at least, the United States would rein in Haider Al Abadi, Iraq's prime minister. In that, Mr Barzani was not alone.

I remain astonished that commentators genuinely believed Mr Al Abadi would not seek to retake Kirkuk. He has spoken before of re-establishing control over that entire area. He certainly could not allow it to be ceded to the Kurds without a fight. With rivals constantly circling Mr Al Abadi ahead of next year's elections, Iraq's prime minister could not hope to survive if he took back Mosul in the summer, only to lose Kirkuk by the winter.

Mr Barzani also appears to have underestimated how far other Kurdish rivals would seek to undermine him. His Kurdistan Democratic Party's chief rival, the Patriotic Union for Kurdistan, was in control of Kirkuk. As Iraqi troops moved north, the PUK colluded with Baghdad and slipped out of Kirkuk quietly, leaving only lightly-armed KDP fighters on the front line. (Mr Barzani's supporters were furious, calling the deal a betrayal.) Inside Kirkuk, Iraqi Turkmen and Christians greeted the Iraqi army as liberators. Three years of Kurdish rule appears to have fostered some resentment.

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Baghdad is now in a very strong position to exact political revenge. Expect it to do so. Without Kirkuk or other disputed areas, with international support ebbing away, with Mr Barzani having openly defied regional and international capitals, Baghdad will now tighten the squeeze. Mr Al Abadi reportedly offered control of Erbil's airspace if the referendum were postponed; that won't be offered again without further concessions.

Mr Barzani, by contrast, is in a very weak position. Gorran, an upstart Kurdish political party that has in less than a decade broken the two-party system in the KRG and now holds the second-highest number of seats in the Kurdish parliament, has already called for him to resign as KRG leader.

Questions about his tenure, now 12 years into an eight-year term, are being asked. KRG parliamentary and presidential elections, due to be held next week, have now been postponed. Mr Barzani had said he would not run again for the presidency, but he may not wish to leave his legacy so tainted. But there is a risk that he would run again, and lose, weakening not only himself but the party.

His future, and indeed the future of Kurdish independence, is now in question. The Kurds desire it, have worked for it and have voted overwhelmingly for it. Those who support it, inside Iraq and outside, deserve to see it happen. But after Mr Barzani's miscalculation, positions in Baghdad and in the wider region have hardened. Mr Barzani will have to travel a hard road to regain his authority. The Kurds may now have to travel a long road to gain independence.

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