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Iraqi Kurds Battle Islamic State, Pursue Quixotic Campaign for Self-Determination
The Washington Diplomat / April 2016

By Larry Luxner

The pair of flags proudly displayed behind the desk of Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman says it all.

One represents Iraq — a horizontal tricolor of red, white and black, with the Arabic inscription “Allahu akbar” [God is great] centered on the white stripe. The other is the flag of Kurdistan — a tricolor of red, white and green bands, with a blazing yellow sun disk of 21 rays at its center.

In the ancient Kurdish religion of Yazdanism, twenty-one is a venerated number symbolizing rebirth and renaissance. But for Kurdistan — at least the part currently under Iraqi jurisdiction — rebranding the autonomous region as a truly independent, politically viable nation is going to take a lot more than flags and symbolism.

Nobody here knows that better than Rahman, the first woman ever to represent Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the United States.

Last month, as U.S.-led coalition forces prepared to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State fanatics, she sat down with The Washington Diplomat to explain why the Kurds are key to defeating ISIS — and why her people have waited too long for independence.

“I come from a very political family that has long been at the forefront of the Kurdish national movement in Iraq,” said Rahman, whose British accent belies her London upbringing. “My maternal grandfather didn’t have an official political position, but socially he was very prominent and was arrested many times by different Iraqi regimes and exiled to Turkey. My father was in the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and my mother was a campaigner and activist. I grew up in this atmosphere, where the Kurdish national movement was a part of everyday life.”

In 2004, her father, Sami Abdul Rahman, was killed alongside his elder son Salah and 96 others in a twin suicide bombing.

Since she was a 4-year-old — somewhere there’s a recording of Rahman singing nursery rhymes about the “heroic Peshmerga” with her older brother, then 7 — the future diplomat knew exactly where she came from.

“You feel compelled to be aware of your identity because your culture and history is denied all the time,” she told us. “Our history has been written by our enemies over and over. Now, perhaps for the first time, we Kurds are telling our own story.”

The region Rahman represents is home to about 5.5 million inhabitants, but 40 to 45 percent of Greater Kurdistan — an area roughly the size of France — falls outside the KRG’s borders.

Rahman puts the world’s Kurdish population at anywhere between 25 million and 34 million. Many of these Kurds — who are not Arabs — live in countries where the KRG has offices, including Iran, Russia, Australia, Great Britain and the United States.

A journalist by profession, Rahman spent 17 years writing for several London-based newspapers. By the time the Financial Times sent her to Japan as a correspondent, however, the subject of Iraq wasn’t making front-page news anymore.

“The Western media was not really interested any longer in Iraq. U.S. troops had withdrawn, and Iraq seemed to be muddling along. We had elections and had managed to form coalition governments. We were described as the ‘other Iraq,’ the oil capital of the world — but all of these stories had been told,” she said. “Then ISIS changed all of that. Whether politicians and diplomats in Washington choose to or not, Iraq has to be on their agenda, and so does Kurdistan.”

Indeed it is. And to ensure that it stays there, the KRG’s quasi-embassy off Dupont Circle spends generously on lobbyists.

According to an October 2015 article in Foreign Policy, Rahman’s office shelled out $291,000 on three firms and has signed a contract with a fourth worth up to $200,000.

Irbil’s main goal: to convince the White House to drop its policy of sending weapons only to Baghdad, which then distributes them to the Kurds and other militias. Instead, the Kurds want all guns, bombs, ammo and vehicles delivered directly to them.

“To keep policymakers apprised of their progress on the battlefield, the KRG has a sophisticated network of lobbyists, which has included former congressional staffers, members, government officials and political strategists,” FP reported, noting that the KRG liaison office, set up as a nonprofit, had a $1.6 million budget in 2013 — the most recent year for which filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act are available.

Rahman wouldn’t tell us how much her Washington mission is spending this year, though she did say “we really appreciate the bipartisan support we have” on Capitol Hill.

“Perhaps it’s because Americans like to help people who help themselves,” she noted, as two young men — Alex Ebsary, the KRG mission’s director of public affairs, and Ayal Frank of Qorvis Communications — took notes. “We have huge financial problems, but we also have get-up-and-go, and a vision for what we want. We see ourselves as friends and allies of the United States. You walk the streets of Kurdistan and people will tell you how much they love Americans.”

Nevertheless, Rahman is clearly frustrated with the Obama administration.

“The U.S. government is very much tied to the one-Iraq policy,” she said rather delicately, “and sometimes the way that is interpreted, from our perspective, is not very helpful.”

As the representative of an autonomous jurisdiction within a country, Rahman’s status is rather akin to that of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office only two blocks away; that mission displays both the flags of China and Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” within the People’s Republic of China.

“We have to work harder than the other embassies,” she said. “We don’t have their budgets or their staff size. Nor do we have the structures in place that their governments have. We’re a government in transition, and most of the KRG’s representatives were not diplomats. We come from various walks of life. I was a journalist. Our rep in Vienna is a doctor.”

Even so, Rahman said she has a “respectful and cooperative relationship” with Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily, who, like her, also spent most of his years in exile in the United Kingdom while opposing the regime of Saddam Hussein.

“We don’t interact on a day-to-day basis in terms of reporting to each other what we’re doing,” she said of Faily, “but the ambassador is always there if I ever need him, and we invite each other to receptions.”

In early February, KRG President Masoud Barzani called for a referendum on self-determination to be held sometime in 2016.

“The time has come and the situation is now suitable for the Kurdish people to make a decision through a referendum on their fate,” Barzani said in a statement on his website. “That referendum does not mean proclaiming statehood, but rather to know the will and opinion of the Kurdish people about independence and for the Kurdish political leadership to execute the will of the people at the appropriate time and conditions.”

Rahman said “it won’t be something that happens overnight. It could be a few years, a decade … or a few decades.” The point, she emphasized, is that the will of the Kurdish people can no longer be denied.

“For the first time, Iraqi Kurds — and Kurds anywhere — will be given a choice to determine their future,” she said. “My guess is the vast majority will vote in favor of independence, and then the Kurdish leadership will have a mandate to negotiate with Baghdad and other countries on the where and when of achieving that. Our aim is to do it through peaceful negotiation. We’re not planning on a war of independence.”

Such a referendum, said Rahman, would be vaguely familiar to the one held in September 2014 on whether Scotland should break away from the United Kingdom (voters said no by a 55-45 margin). Another possible model, she said, is the 1993 “velvet divorce” that divided Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak republics.

Yet the Scots or the Czechs — unlike today’s Kurds — weren’t at war with anyone. Nor were they on the brink of financial collapse.

Mohammed A. Salih, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist writing for the Middle East Institute, said in an analysis that when oil prices were at their peak in 2012 and 2013, the KRG was getting around $13 billion a year from Baghdad. But things started to change in November 2013, when the KRG signed a “strategic” deal with Turkey to export Kurdish oil and gas there for the next 50 years.

Iraq’s then-prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, retaliated by suspending the KRG’s budget share in February 2014.

“We were in the middle of the election campaign, and bashing the Kurds got him some extra votes,” said Rahman. “He was punishing us pre-emptively because we dared to think about exporting oil.”

In fact, writes Salih, “there is little common ground upon which the KRG and Baghdad can re-establish” relations, whether or not Kurdish Iraq declares independence.

“The Kurdish attitude toward Baghdad is shaped by a deep sense of mistrust and they are determined to maintain their current degree of autonomy, including full control over their energy resources,” he said. “The latest of a series of deals between Baghdad and Erbil in late 2014 collapsed in mid-2015 due to mutual accusations and recriminations — Baghdad accused the KRG of not handing over the 550,000 barrels per day they agreed to deliver, while the Kurds accused the Iraqi government of not fully providing them their financial dues.”

One key problem, he said, is the lack of clear incentives for either side to adhere to the terms of the agreement.

“For as long as oil prices are low, Baghdad has little incentive to take the KRG’s oil and pay it an amount that is more than the KRG’s oil output. However, if oil prices recover, the KRG will have little incentive to hand its precious oil to Baghdad because selling oil above $50 per barrel will be enough to cover the KRG’s costs. Whether or not they achieve formal independence, the Kurds will do their utmost to run their own affairs as independently from Baghdad as possible.”

Indeed, Iraq’s constitution, ratified in 2005, made Kurdistan an autonomous region within a federal state. This means that its institutions — from the presidency to its offices abroad — are already recognized under Iraqi law.

“You could argue that the system in Kurdistan is quite different from the system in the rest of Iraq,” said Rahman. “Baghdad is still stuck in a command economy, with everything centralized in Baghdad. We believe in the free market. We’re not shy about sharing profits and asking foreigners to share their expertise with us. The Iraqi binational state was created on the premise of a partnership between Kurds and Arabs, and we’ve always been on the losing end of that partnership.”

For one thing, she said, “Kurdistan’s economy is in dire straits. We can’t borrow easily on the international markets. The World Bank has given Iraq $1.2 billion, and under our agreement, Kurdistan is entitled to a 17.5 percent share of Iraq’s budget. Currently, we’re getting zero.”

That’s why the KRG has no intention of making the referendum a major issue.

“Right now, the priority is ISIS — fighting it, defeating it and pushing it out of Iraq. But let’s say we are independent or in a confederation,” she said. “We’re already having to think ahead. Now we can’t even buy weapons because end-user certificates issued by the KRG are often not recognized.”

While ISIS, she said, is “no longer able to launch those spectacular, massive attacks that it did at the beginning, when it rampaged through parts of Iraq and Kurdish areas like Sinjal, they still attack the Peshmerga. They mine everywhere they go. Everything is booby-trapped. A lot of our casualties have been from IEDs and mines.”

Such violence is nothing new. On March 16, Rahman presided over a Washington ceremony to mark the 28th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical attack on the town of Halabja and surrounding villages. The attack, in which Mirage jets dropped bombs containing sarin and nerve gases, killed more than 5,000 people — mostly women and children — and left another 10,000 seriously injured.

“We hear sometimes from our friends in Baghdad that they just want to be rid of us, that we’re a thorn in the side. But you can’t deny a people their will forever. We’ve been denied that will since the creation of Iraq,” she told us. “We’ve suffered repeated acts of genocide. Just a few days ago, chemical weapons were used again, this time by ISIS. And our economy has been completely neglected at best, and decimated at worst.”

In late February, the Telegraph reported that 1,000 to 2,000 Turkish troops are “locked in a covert fight” against ISIS only nine miles northeast of Mosul, an Islamic State stronghold — despite Iraq’s insistence that they leave the country.

“If the U.S. was doing more, the Turks wouldn’t have had to come in,” Gen. Bahram Yasin told the newspaper, in reference to coalition efforts to defeat ISIS.

As we went to press, U.S. diplomats were confirming that the Pentagon-led coalition to recapture Mosul had begun. The focus started shifting to Mosul — an ISIS stronghold and Iraq’s second-largest city — after coalition forces had seized Ramadi from ISIS in eastern Iraq. The Pentagon and its allies have already established an operations center in another Kurdish city, Makhmour, 44 miles from Mosul, where the 15th Iraqi military division — along with U.S. advisers — are now stationed.

“It’s already started,” U.S. envoy Brett McGurk said during a March 16 speech at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. “It’s a slow, steady squeeze.”

Yet even as the battle for Mosul takes shape, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are struggling to make ends meet.

“Of course the United States has helped us with weapons and training, but the war’s financial burden is falling on the KRG. It costs us $200 million a month to maintain the frontline Peshmerga and security forces,” Rahman said. “We also have 1.8 million refugees from Syria, and displaced people from Iraq. That’s a huge jump in our population in addition to the five million we already have.”

And that’s bad news for the White House, warns John Hannah of Foreign Policy.

“The region’s 150,000 Peshmerga fighters are, in many ways, the poster children for President Obama’s strategy to defeat the Islamic States: a courageous and pro-American local force that, if backed by U.S. air power, is prepared to defeat the jihadists on the ground and then liberate and hold territory,” he wrote, adding that since the war’s start, Kurdish forces have reclaimed over 10,000 square miles of territory from ISIS.

Rahman added that Turkey — which has been fighting its own Kurdish insurgency for years — should nevertheless be seen outside the prism of its struggle against the PKK, which Ankara considers a terrorist group.

“I don’t think an independent Iraqi Kurdish state would come as a surprise to anybody. We’ve been trumpeting it and talking about it, and we’re going to take slow, steady, measured steps towards it. Turkey has come a long way in its perspective on Iraqi Kurdistan as well. In 2008, the Turkish military was ready to invade Iraqi Kurdistan. Within a very short time, all of that changed, and Turkey opened a consulate in Irbil,” she said. “There is now a Kurdish political party, the HDP, represented in the Turkish parliament. There have been remarkable changes in Turkey. The Kurdish language has been decriminalized, and now private schools are teaching Kurdish.

Once Islamic State is defeated and world oil prices go back up, said Rahman, attention will again focus on Kurdistan’s ultimate political status.

“We face different paths ahead. One is complete independence. Another is for Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq to be in a confederation,” she suggested. “The two would be sovereign states with parity, but they could have a military pact to defend each other and hold joint cabinet meetings.”

As to the idea that eventual Kurdish independence would trigger the breakup of Iraq into three states — a Sunni, a Shi’ite and a Kurdish state — Rahman retorted that “Iraq is already broken” — but that the Kurds didn’t do it.

“I don’t know what’ll happen with the Sunni part of Iraq. Some Sunnis want their part of Iraq to be identified as a region. Others don’t want that, and dream of going back to the old days. The problem is that the Sunnis are fragmented, and so far they haven’t really had a coherent, shared vision,” she said. “We have sent some of our best people to Baghdad, including Jalal Talabani [president of Iraq from 2005 to 2014]. We have done our best to keep Iraq together, but Iraq is broken. So let’s deal with that.”

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