10/18/2017, 20.44
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Iraqi Kurdistan caught between Talabani's death and Barzani's political suicide

by Pierre Balanian

Kirkuk's seizure by the Iraqi army marks a turning point, and certainly widens the split between Talabani’s supporters and those of Barzani. Turkey and Iran are happy at the end of the dream for independence.

Kirkuk (AsiaNews) – Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al Abad yesterday said that "The referendum for Kurdistan is part of the past.” For him, the taking of Kirkuk is a turning point. In Sulaymaniyah Barham Salih, who recently broke away from Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to create his own Coalition for Democracy and Justice, called on all parties to follow reason, and put a stop to the politics of the “fait accompli” (a clear critique of Barzani’s referendum). He noted that “armed conflicts have only brought troubles to Iraq", adding that the "referendum on Kurdish independence created many problems", and that “we should have heeded what Ayatollah al-Sistani said." Salih went on to say that Kurdish leaders "must revise their analyses that turned out to be wrong," noting that "Kurds are unhappy with politics, that reforms are needed" and that "there are many new divisions and new alliances taking shape in Kurdistan."

The first day of Kirkuk under Iraqi full control went off without a hitch. Flags flew amid tight security. Shops, government offices, and schools were open. People in the city’s central district were happy and reassured. For months, the possibility of war over Kirkuk had fuelled fears among residents. In the end, fighting and devastation did not materialise as predicted by some who had promoted a doom-and-gloom scenario out of fear of losing their advantages. As the city’s governor went missing, his deputy, Rakan Al Jbouri, took over. At a press conference yesterday, the latter called on residents who fled to come back to "preserve and protect their property". For his part, Kirkuk Police Chief Khattab Omar was not allowed to answer questions in Kurdish from Kurdish journalists.

Kirkuk's fall or liberation has certainly widened the gap between Talabani’s and Barzani's supporters. The two leaders had always been at loggerheads over how to manage Kurdistan’s autonomy. Although Barzani became a cult figure among Kurds for raising the possibility that their ancient dream could become reality, some in recent months had begun to criticise him for the economic empire he built in 26 years at the helm of the Kurdistan Regional Government and for his management of oil sales without checks from the central government. Regardless of the accuracy of the criticism against him, rumours and accusations are thought to have been spread by Talabani’s party.

Following Talabani’s death two weeks and Masoud Barzani’s suicidal all-or-nothing strategy, Kurdistan appears split into two. Talabani was not opposed to the referendum, which he saw as a lever to gain more for the Kurds whilst staying in the country. Conversely, for Barzani it was the first step towards secession and total independence. Iraqi Kurdistan today, in many respects, resembles a Gulf emirate in the hands of a single clan, the Barzanis. This has angered many, especially the many smaller Kurdish opposition parties. And now the domestic situation could get worse, aggravating the economic crisis caused by the blockade imposed by Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

A retired pershmerga told AsiaNews that some pro-Barzani Kurds along with members of the PKK "have thrown stones at retired pershmerga urging them to resist and fight instead of fleeing." The loss of Kirkuk "undoubtedly marks the end of the dream of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan," said the leader of Shia Al Hashd el Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) militia.

Over the past two weeks, much has been done to prevent the outbreak of an armed conflict between Kurds and Iraqi forces, or rather between Kurds and the al-Hashd el Shaabi militia. Had it occurred, Barzani would have been seen as the victim, thus creating an international consensus on Kurdish independence. According to many local analysts, Barzani was counting on this, but the diplomatic and legal moves of the central government in Baghdad stopped them thanks to the support of Iran and Turkey. Meanwhile, in Kirkuk people are talking about a player who worked behind the scene to avoid a Kurdish-Iraqi war, namely General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Al Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, seen as a sworn enemy of the Islamic Caliphate by the Islamic State group’s spokesman Abu Mohammad El Adnani but also of the United States which considers him a "terrorist leader". General Soleimani was seen several times in Erbil in recent days, despite Iran’s ban on land and air links to Kurdistan.

Now everything seems to be going against Masoud Barzani whose disenchantment worsened following impromptu statements by his allies like the US president who said he was not taking sides between Iraq and Kurdistan, dashing hopes Barzani had placed in the US Jewish lobby during the referendum campaign which saw Israeli flags waved in Kurdistan itself. After a long silence, Saudi Arabia spoke out reiterating its support for Iraq’s territorial integrity in a message attributed to King Salman after Iraqi forces took back Kirkuk. For Barzani, the final blow came from Israel when a spokesperson for Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel would not intervene in the referendum in Kurdistan. Presently, Masoud Barzani is completely isolated.

Among the various players, Turkey is probably the happiest. The Turkish parliament authorised the return of a crossing near Khabur in Iraqi Kurdistan to Iraqi authorities, giving Iraq the opportunity to collect millions in customs duties hitherto going to the Kurdish Reginal Government.

In Iran Ali Akbar Velayati on Monday said that by taking Kirkuk Iraqi forces broke the back of the traitor Masoud Barzani. This foiled the attempt to split Iraq and ended the flow of 90 per cent of northern oil to Turkey and then to Israel through foreign societies made up by 70 per cent by Israelis. Israel’s Second Channel confirmed the information on Tuesday, saying that Kirkuk's takeover by Iraqi government troops stopped the arrival of oil from Kirkuk to Israel via Turkey.

Among Barzani supporters the talk is of high treason by the Peshmerga of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, now under the control of his widow who "betrayed the cause along with the Iranians," an anonymous official in Erbil told AsiaNews. Meanwhile, the Peshmerga Command in Erbil issued a threatening statement that "Kirkuk's seizure will cost the Iraqi government dearly”. It is no coincidence that Iranian TV broadcast live a raid by Iraqi forces against a Peshmerga car bomb factory in a cemetery, whilst Iraqi TV showed a similar find at a site held by the Peshmerga in Baghdad.

Searching for a scapegoat for his failures, even Masoud Barzani said in a televised speech that "what has happened in Kirkuk is the result of unilateral decisions taken by some Kurdish parties". Some now fear, not so much a civil war between Iraqis and Kurds, as many analysts predicted, but an all-out clash between Barzani and his rivals who are now stronger given the let-down Kurds experienced with the loss of the dream of independence.

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