September 30, 2006

Kurdistan - Federalism or Independence?

The area of northern Iraq inhabited by the Kurds - they refer to it as Kurdistan - is easily the safest part of the country. There are only a few foreign forces stationed there since the area is mostly pacified and under the control of the local police force. The Iraqi constitution allows for the establishment of autonomous regions, and the Kurds are taking advantage of that, having established the Kurdish Regional Government that oversees the three almost homogeneous provinces of Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah.

Earlier this month, KRG president Mas'ud Barzani banned the Iraqi national flag from public buildings in these provinces, ordering instead the display of the Kurdish flag. (See my earlier
Iraq - Replacement of Iraqi flag with Kurdish flag.) Many considered this to be yet another indication that the Kurds intend to establish an independent state.

There are other steps that tend to indicate this intention. Last year, at least three Kurdish airlines (Kurdistan Airlines, Azmar Airline and Sawan Airline) opened for business, offering direct flights between cities in Europe and the Middle East and the newly refurbished and improved
Arbil airport and Sulaymaniyah airport.

KRG officials have also made independent deals for oil drilling and oilfield development without consulting or involving the oil ministry in Baghdad. This move is particularly threatening tot he Sunnis in Iraq. If Iraq devolves into a civil war and fragments into three separate enclaves (Kurdish, Sunni and Shi'a), or if a federation is established with three regions, oil revenue will be a critical issue as it is almost the sole source of income for country. If the regions are able to control oil revenues, the Kurds and Shi'a are well-placed, as almost all the oilfields are in the Kurdish are in the north and the Shi'a area in the south. The Sunnis will be cut out of Iraq's most lucrative asset.

The Kurds will likely be satisfied with a federal structure as long as they can exercise autonomy in their region. One problem will be the status of mixed areas adjacent to the three Kurdish provinces, particularly Kirkuk and to some extent Mosul. Kirkuk may be contentious as Kurds try to reclaim what they believe is a Kurdish city at the expense of the Turkomen and Arabs.

Should Iraq erupt into a civil war, the Kurds may just declare themselves independent. They will not have much a of a problem with the Sunnis or Shi'a - neither are strong enough to take on the Kurds. The question is what will Iran and Turkey do.