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Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers are seen marching at their graduation near Erbil (Reuters file).

Iraq is going to break up.  It is already happening, but no one wants to acknowledge it because no one wants to be perceived as being responsible for the disintegration of a major Middle Eastern country.

There is not much about the Kurdish region of Iraq that is Iraqi.  When you arrive at Erbil’s brand new international airport, there are no signs that welcome you to Iraq.  I am sure somewhere at the entrance to the airport there is an Iraqi flag, but I didn’t notice it.  The only hint that I was actually in Iraq was the stamp a Kurdish police officer put in my passport that says in tiny letters, “Republic of Iraq-Kurdistan Region.”

The Kurds have a foreign ministry (actually two, maybe even three, but that is another story), a military, interior ministry, intelligence services, a parliament, president, prime minister, investment authority, and a flag.  No one under the age of 30 speaks Arabic (English being the favored second language) and not a single person I met of any age believed themselves to be Iraqi.  Why would they?  What is the common idea that ties someone from Sulaimaniyah to someone in Basra?  There isn’t one.

None of this should be much of a surprise to anyone who has even been paying half attention to Iraq over the last decade – or rather the last two decades when the Kurds quietly began building the institutions and structures of independence under the Anglo-American no-fly zone established after Operation Desert Storm. Beyond solemn declarations that, “the Kurds will not be responsible for breaking up Iraq” and not-so-believable assertions about the differences between “the dream of independence” and the constitutional reality of a unified Iraq, you get the sense that the Kurds believe that the environment for their independence is slowly ripening.  They have serious reserves of oil and gas as well as significant amounts of foreign direct investment from Turkey, the Gulfies, Lebanon, Egypt, the United States, Europe, and the Russians.  A lot of investment is in the energy sector, but not all of it.  There are, for example, more than 1,000 Turkish companies – both large and small – operating in the Kurdistan region.  Kurds are munching on Ulker biscuits, cooling off during the brutally hot summers with Arcelik air conditioners, and I stayed in the Koc family’s Erbil outpost – the Divan Hotel.  Speaking of Erbil, it is a bit dreary, but definitely booming.  The most oft-sighted bird in the Erbil sky is the “construction crane.”

“…it is likely that one day everyone is going to wake up and there will be a new country called Kurdistan.” – Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations

Combined with good economic times in Kurdistan is the pervasive dysfunction in Baghdad and the sectarian violence that threatens to tear the country apart.  Just last Sunday there were ten bombings killing at least 41 people in Shi’ite majority areas of Baghdad. The death toll is up to 1,000 a month, which is not quite 2006 levels, but close. In contrast, the Kurdish area has experienced three bombings in the last decade, the most recent on September 29, the first major attack since 2007. In addition, the Kurds and the federal government – officials in Erbil chafe at the term “central government” – are forever in conflict over the electoral law, hydrocarbon law, and the Kurdish share of the budget, which is supposed to be 17 percent, but is always less.  People in Erbil and in Baghdad, I am told, wonder whether the effort to maintain the fiction of a unified, federal Iraq is worth it both politically and economically.

A Kurdish woman casts her ballot in a regional election in Irbil September 21, 2013. (AP)

A Kurdish woman casts her ballot in a regional election in Erbil September 21, 2013. (AP)

As good as it looks for the Kurds, they still have serious challenges before realizing their ultimate goal.  The first is Kirkuk. The oil-rich region around the disputed city is in the central government’s hands, but the disposition of Kirkuk remains a powerful nationalist issue for Kurds. There have been censuses in the city in 1957, 1977 and  1997. And while there is agreement that the 1957 tally was the most accurate, no one actually knows the current demographic balance of the city. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Arab population surged as a result of Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policies and there continues to be a large Turkoman population that claims Kirkuk to be culturally Turkoman rather than Kurdish. Even if the non-Kurdish populations were considerably smaller, Kirkuk remains in the hands of Baghdad and there is no way the Kurds are going to “liberate” it without force, something that seems farfetched despite the apparent bravery and legend of the peshmerga. At least one Kurd said to me, “If we have a lot of oil and gas in other places, we do not really need Kirkuk.” He freely admitted that his view was not widespread.

Second, the Kurds have their own internal political difficulties. Despite burying the wounds of a civil war they fought in the mid-1990s, it is clear that the two parties that have controlled the Kurdistan region – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) eye each other warily. The PUK has largely controlled Sulaimaniyah, though a breakaway party called Ghorran (meaning “change”) secured more votes than the PUK in recent elections.  The KDP has a virtual lock on Erbil and Dohuk, the other governorate that makes up the Kurdistan region located next to most of the Turkish border. The KDP and PUK form a governing coalition, but cooperation between and even within ministries between party members can be tough going. There are other more ominous outward differences. The security forces in Erbil, for example, wear different uniforms than those in Sulaimaniyah, which would not be a problem but for the fact that my non-government Kurdish interlocutors impressed upon me that these groups are loyal to different and competing power centers.

A night view of Erbil September 22, 2013. (Reuters)

A night view of Erbil September 22, 2013. (Reuters)

Finally, even though the Kurds insist they will do nothing to break up Iraq, they want others – especially the United States – to approach the region in a way that reinforces the idea of the inevitability of Kurdish independence.  Yet for political reasons Washington will resist deviating from its “one Iraq” policy. This, of course, produces policies that are incongruous with reality, but when has that ever stopped Washington?  My favorite example is the American effort to encourage better relations between Ankara and Erbil.  There was a time not too long ago when observers feared that Turkey would invade Iraq to snuff out Kurdish independence. In order to forestall such an event, the United States has encouraged Ankara to shift its approach to the Kurdistan region and since 2008 the Turks have developed (as noted above) strong economic ties with the Kurds. A great American diplomatic success, except that it is apparently too much of a success. Washington now wants the Turks to back off of a deal that would send Kurdish oil directly to Turkey, bypassing the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline that Baghdad controls. Why?  Because the Turkish-Kurdish deal would demonstrate that the Kurds can act independent of Baghdad.

Unlike the first two challenges to Kurdish independence, Washington’s position is a complication not a potential obstacle. Yet even accounting for Kirkuk and internal rivalries, it is likely that one day everyone is going to wake up and there will be a new country called Kurdistan. The Kurds will not have to declare independence, they won’t dance in the streets, there will not be a need for fireworks, or a founding date, though I am sure someone will make one up so future Kurdish embassies can invite people to their national day celebrations. No, the Kurdish state will just come into being. It is already happening.

This post was originally published on blogs.cfr.org.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. On Twitter, he can be followed at @StevenACook.

10 Comments

  1. Sattar Faylee

    April 27, 2014

    The Kurdish people have suffered enormously including genocides, deportations, destructions of their villages and towns, and neglect by the rulers of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. The Kurdish people need the support of the freedom-loving people around the world to achieve independent for Greater Kurdistan.

    Reply
  2. arrobanaathehero

    April 11, 2014

    I’m really angry because, Kurdistan hasn’t became a country. And the Soviet Union, invaded it at 1944, the nation has been for 2000 years. The Russians have Russia, the Turks have Turkey, the Georgians have Georgia, the Armenians have Armenia, the Azerbaijanis have Azerbaijan, the Syrians have Syria, the Iraqis have Iraq and the Persians have Iran. Massoud Barzany and Nyrchyrvan Barany want Kurdistan to be a strong and a powerful country.

    Reply
  3. Javed Butt

    December 11, 2013

    How the disintigrations started in ME.

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    November 21, 2013

    Threats must always be ignored, Israel will no doubt recognize an independent Kurdistan, so will many European countries. Try it I say.

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    November 21, 2013

    I hope Kurdistan may reach independence soon, how about an independence declaration ? That might succeed and get recognized, certainly by me.

    Reply
  6. John Lindauer

    November 6, 2013

    The United States should stop trying to save the foolish borders the French and British imposed almost a century ago. And Turkey should consider expanding its borders to include all of the adjacent Kurdish areas as, for example, an autonomous region of Turkey instead of Iraq. Why Turkey wants to remain small and insignificant escapes me. How about an agreement with the Kurds similar to that which China had regarding Hong Kong wherein Kurdistan is an autonomous province for ninety nine years?

    Reply
  7. Armen Dabbaghian

    November 4, 2013

    It is almost impossible to have an independent Kurdistan, anyone who suggests it does not understand the politics of the middle east??!! No one is going to allow it, that means the Iranians, Syrians, Turks who are fighting the PKK, etc..etc.??!! As for the Israel analogy the sooner it passes into history the better it is for the Jews & US??!!

    Reply
  8. Armen Dabbaghian

    November 4, 2013

    It is almost impossible to have an independent Kurdistan, anyone who suggests it does not understand the politics of the middle east??!! No one is going to allow it, that means the Iranians, Syrians, Turks who are fighting the PKK, etc..etc.??!! As for the Israel analogy the sooner it passes into history the better it is for the Jews & US??!!

    Reply
  9. David Ford (Abdullah Barzani)

    November 2, 2013

    I was stationed in Kirkuk, Kurdistan and have seen how strong is the desire for an independent Kurdistan. This nation has gone without a country for almost 2,000 years. The Jews have Israel and the Kurds should have Kurdistan.

    Reply
  10. David Ford

    November 2, 2013

    I was stationed in Kirkuk, Kurdistan and have seen how strong is the desire for an independent Kurdistan. This nation has gone without a country for almost 2,000 years. The Jews have Israel and the Kurds should have Kurdistan.

    Reply

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