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Gregory R. Copley

Gregory R. Copley

Historian, author, and strategic analyst — and onetime industrialist — Gregory R. Copley, who was born in 1946, has for almost five decades worked at…

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Growing Power of Iraqi Kurdistan Could Backfire on Tehran

Iran's strategy to break Iraq into three component territories, and to dominate those territories in order to reduce regional opposition and to gain unfettered access to Syria and the Mediterranean as a result of the Western invasion of Iraq in 2004, has had profound success.

The country is now, at best, a federation, with elements of a slide toward confederacy or even the breaking away of some territory. Iran dominates, and will increasingly dominate, the Shi'a-controlled central heartland and the Government of Iraq, particularly when US and Coalition forces depart. Iraq's northern — and predominantly Kurdish — region is now virtually an independent state. It is certainly an autonomous state.

And yet the solution which Tehran sought — the break-up of Iraq — may hold more problems for it than a unified Iraq, as the modern Iraqi state was created under British tutelage in 1922. Indeed, the Kurds, who had been financially swayed by both Baghdad and Tehran for decades, may feel sufficient strength that the foundations of a sovereign state can be laid. That sovereign state would — as the Iraqi Kurds have made clear — have aspirations on territory inside Iran, in Syria, and, significantly, Turkey (and possibly Azerbaijan and Armenia). In that respect, the Turkish-Iranian-Syrian rapprochement could not have come at a more propitious time.

This reality, too, fuels the momentum in Ankara toward phasing out its strategic relationship with Israel. A Turkey-Armenia-Iran arrangement would help curtail Kurdish dreams of unity (even though the Kurdish tribes have historically been anything but trusting of each other, in many respects). And, fueling Ankara's concerns has been the heavy Israeli commercial involvement in the autonomous Kurdish region since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein Government in 2004.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, under the newly-appointed Prime Minister, Dr Barham Salih, has just begun to flex its muscles, and resents the fact that the the additional 48 seats created in the Iraqi Parliament (from 275 to 323) gave only three additional seats to the Kurds as a result of the November 8, 2009, election law. Clearly, under US pressure, the new law was designed to give the electoral process greater appeal to the Sunni Iraqi population who had boycotted the 2005 elections, but while the redistricting alienated the Kurds — who felt betrayed — it also did not win over Sunni support. The dissatisfaction with the new election law has meant that national Parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 31, 2010, are likely to be postponed, voiding the Constitution, and dampening the hope of the US Barack Obama Administration to have US troops very symbolically withdrawn by August 2010, in time to give Obama and his Democratic Party a fillip for the November 2010 US Congressional mid-term elections.

Resolving the election law, to permit the 2010 Parliamentary elections, will be no easy matter. The law ran into immense difficulties in Parliament after it was initially passed on November 8, 2009, and may undergo more compromises, and certainly more delays, before an acceptable bill is finally approved. The bill, after all, determines the power of the respective ethnic and confessional groups in Parliament.
For the moment, however, energy issues and private financial arrangements (including the financing of some Kurdish and Shi'a leaders by Iran) are holding all the players together, including the Iraqi Kurds, who need to feed into the Eurasian energy pipeline network via Turkey. Equally, however, in the medium- to long-term, Iraqi Kurdistan might see its interests best served by realigning with Baghdad in order to move petroleum out from the oilfields of Kurdistan — or, more accurately, the Turkmen areas now being dominated by Kurds — and across Iraqi territory to the Persian Gulf, or through Iraq to Jordan and its Red Sea port of Aqaba. Israel has even offered the prospect of rebuilding the pipeline which once linked Iraq with the Mediterranean across what is now Israel.

The outlook, then, is fluid.

It should not be forgotten that, although the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, is Shi'a, President Jalal Talabani is Kurdish, and both he and the Prime Minister have been very close to the Iranian leadership for some time. The Shah of Iran told this analyst in the mid-1970s that most of the key Kurdish leaders were in his pay, but particularly the late Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader, Mustafa Barzani, who was succeeded as Barzani clan leader and as head of the Barzani-dominated PUK, by his son, Masoud Barzani, 63, who is now President of the KRG. The Kurdish-Iranian relationship is one, then, based on mutual distrust but mutual need. The Iranian Government does not hesitate to clamp down heavily on potential Kurdish dissidence inside Iran, and has recently done so.

Meanwhile, the KRG is moving rapidly to build an autonomous Kurdish standing army, which would supercede, and abolish, the various tribal armies run, for example, by the Barzani clan, and other tribes.

In a bid to stem the power of the increasingly-autonomous KRG based in Erbil, the Central Iraqi Government in 2010 had decided to close three of the four military academies in Iraq; two of them were in the Zakkho and Qalachwalan districts of the Kurdish region. The Kurdistan Region’s Ministry of Peshmerga (essentially, Kurdish fighters) — the KRG's Ministry of Defense — has, in late 2009, taking preparations to open two special colleges belonging to the Ministry to substitute for the Qalachwallan and Zakho military colleges.

Jabar Yawar, General Director of the KRG's Ministry of Peshmerga, said in November 2009 that the Kurdish region's share in the Iraqi Army was now only 8.2 percent, whereas it should be 22 percent according to Region’s real population share. Kurdistan Region Minister of Peshmerga Affairs Sheikh Ja’far Mustafa said that there was a Iraqi Central Government political purpose behind the decision to close Qalachwalan and Zakho military colleges, which had been built largely with Kurdish funds. “The institutional government [ie: the KRG] should certainly possess a regular army, and this is a historical need to unify Peshmerga Such a regular army will help other security forces to provide the security for Kurdistan Region’s people,” Mustafa said. He said in November 2009 that there were negotiations to organize the Ministry of Peshmerga forces, and to form military units. “The last decision has been decreed concerning the existence of one unified Peshmerga Army under the [at least nominal] control of [Iraqi] Ministry of Defense. No army is allowed outside the control of the ministry’s rules.”

Minister Mustafa noted: “Due to the Iraqi Constitution, Kurdistan Region has its own military forces. Every region in Iraq is allowed to have its own potent armed forces. For that reason, the KRG can sign protocols with different companies in order to buy weapons that will be different from the Iraqi Army’s heavy weapons, because they have different duties. We will benefit from those countries that are similar to Kurdistan.”

The US has not supported with weapons or training the creation of the Kurdish Army, but it has encouraged the Ministry of Peshmerga, possibly because the move would lead to the abolition of the private armies of the Kurdish tribal leaders. Significantly, the armed power of the Kurdish groups has been a significant factor already in consolidating Kurdish control of the region, while the US actively discouraged the Turkmen minority in the region from forming their own militias to counter the Kurdish militias, which enforced the removal of Turkmen from lands in the regions which they once dominated, particularly around the oil-producing areas. The net result has been the emasculation of the power of the Turkmen people, who the neighboring Turkish Government had pledged to support.

The result has been that the oil-rich city of Kirkuk is now regarded as a "disputed city". The newly-appointed Prime Minister of the KRG, Dr Barham Salih, a man with considerable skills and extensive experience living and working in Washington, DC, said during a visit to Kirkuk in November 2009: “I am a Kurd and see Kirkuk as part of the Kurdistan Region, but the Turkmen and Arab brothers have a different view than mine.” In the meantime, Kirkuk has not officially been incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan, and operates on its own budget. Kirkuk Governorate is part of the disputed areas covered by Article 140 of the Iraqi Permanent Constitution, the KRG claims that Kirkuk should be part of the KRG,  while the Central Government has maintained that it should be a separate independent province remaining under Central Government control. The Turkmen population of the city claims that it should take control of the province.


Iraqi Kurdistan has proven successful in building a regional economy and international relations separate from that of Iraq proper, but it needs to absorb Kirkuk's wealth if it is to succeed as it plans. This would make the careful relations which the region has fostered (even during the Ba'athist era of Pres. Saddam Hussein) with Iraq more delicate, even though it would appear that Turkey has for the moment shelved its earlier plans to intervene militarily into the region, on the premise of hunting down the Kurdistan-based Turkish armed group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan: PKK). Turkey's military thrusts into the region in recent years were effectively repulsed by PKK fighters inside Iraqi Kurdistan, causing Ankara to re-think its adventurism. Subsequent major structural shifts in the Turkish strategic architecture have led Ankara into accord with Tehran, once considered a regional rival to Turkey, and with Iran's principal regional ally, Armenia.

Turkey will work hard not to undermine the accord it has with the KRG, but only if the KRG can broker a modus vivendi with the PKK, which, just two years ago, seemed likely to be able to destabilize much of Eastern Turkey, partly from its safe-havens in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS.
Extract from Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis
© 2009 Global Information System, ISSA

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