ERBIL, Iraq - Has the time for Kurdish independence finally arrived?
No other Mideast community (except Israel) has a closer relationship with the United States than the Iraqi Kurds, who have played a critical role in confronting ISIS.
With the jihadis on the run, the Kurds of Iraq believe the time is ripe to transform their semi-autonomous region into a sovereign state. Their leaders have decided to hold a long-awaited referendum asking Iraqi Kurds to endorse independence.
"Yes, there will be a referendum this year. No question," I was told by Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in his ornate office here in the Kurdish regional capital. "The outcome doesn't mean we will immediately embark but it will show the international community what the population wants."
Yet the Kurds can't succeed without U.S. support, and Washington still insists Iraq must remain one unified country. That position needs updating.
It's time for Washington to refocus on the future of the Iraqi Kurds.
The Kurdish people have been dreaming of independence for nearly a century since the great powers reneged on a promise to carve a Kurdish state out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Instead of giving this non-Arab ethnic group a national home, the World War I allies parceled out the beautiful, mountainous Kurdish lands to Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
However, Iraqi Kurds have had a growing degree of autonomy since 1991, when the United States set up a no-fly zone over their region to protect them from attacks by Saddam Hussein. This enabled them to establish a de facto government, which took on aspects of a state after Washington ousted Hussein in 2003.
Today, Kurdistan is the most stable and tolerant part of Iraq, and it has become a refuge for Christians and other minorities fleeing ISIS.
Moreover, the Kurdish region has become vital to U.S. security interests in the region: The Kurds are pro-American and have no animosity toward Israel. U.S. humanitarian agencies can work easily in Kurdistan. And, since the battle with ISIS began, the Kurdish region has become a base for a modest contingents of U.S. forces.
Meantime, in crushing ISIS, Kurdish forces have reclaimed large chunks of "disputed" Iraqi territory that they consider theirs, including the city of Kirkuk.
Now the Kurds want to consolidate their gains. "We can't go back to the old days," says Barzani. "Iraq after Mosul is not the same as Iraq before Mosul."
However, the Kurds also know they need a peaceful divorce from Iraq in order to resolve key issues concerning boundaries, oil, pipelines, and finances. "Our position is to have a serious dialogue with Baghdad and come to an amicable solution," says Barzani. Yet, he says, there has been "no progress at all" in meetings between top Kurdish and Iraqi officials.
The (unexpectedly) close military cooperation between Iraqi and Kurdish military forces has not translated into political gains. For example, while Baghdad pays salaries for Shiite militias, it has paid nothing to Kurdish fighters, who have suffered heavy losses. (Washington has been paying peshmerga salaries). Baghdad has even cut medical supplies to Erbil, although the Kurds have been treating wounded Iraqi soldiers and refugees.
Still, one has to ask whether talk of independence is just bravado.
The Kurds face steep opposition from neighboring countries. Iran, with its own restive Kurds, is dead set against the idea. And Tehran is pressing the government in Baghdad to stand firm.
When visiting Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi blew off a question on Kurdish independence, quipping, "We're discussing it." (Perhaps it's progress that he didn't say, "Never, no way.")
Then there's Turkey, whose assent would be vital, since landlocked Kurdistan's oil pipelines transit that country. Surprisingly, Turkey has good political and economic relations with Erbil. "Officially, we have not addressed this issue with Turkey," says Barzani, "but we think they are ready to listen."
Perhaps. Ankara does appear to view the Iraqi Kurds as an ally against Turkish PKK rebels and the PKK-linked Kurds of northern Syria. Moreover, Iraqi Kurds make clear that they aren't interested in linking up with Kurdish separation movements in neighboring lands.
But imagining Turkish acquiescence is a stretch.
And yet, it is still important for Washington to consider the question of Kurdish independence.
Once the ISIS caliphate is defeated, the future of the fractured Iraqi state will hang in the balance. The only way for Iraqi leaders to hold the country together is to decentralize, permitting discontented Sunnis in Mosul and elsewhere to set up federal regions, and to negotiate a new deal with the Kurds.
If Baghdad heads in that direction it might entice the Kurds to remain linked to Iraq in a confederation (a linkage between two independent states). However, such an outcome would require intense intermediation by the United States to ease the gap between Baghdad and Erbil and to counter pressures from Iran.
Is the Trump administration capable, or willing to help the Kurds achieve their goals? Unclear. The White House might be enticed by the fact that Kurdistan would provide a stable locale to base a continued U.S. troop presence. "If the United States is in need of having a base in Kurdistan our leadership would welcome it," says Barzani.
Bottom line: If Washington wants to balance Iran in the Mideast and stabilize Iraq, it must deal head-on with the Kurdish issue.
"If the Americans want a united Iraq, in practical terms it doesn't exist any more," says Barzani. "If they want stability, they have to deal with the core issue of Kurdistan."