An Iraqi Kurdish push for independence from Baghdad appears likely to be a question of “not if, but when,” in a significant challenge to Iraq’s stability, the head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency said yesterday.
Iraq’s main Kurdish parties announced in April a plan to hold a referendum on independence this year, after the defeat of Daesh militants. The vote will be non-binding, suggesting that the Kurds may decide to use it as a political bargaining chip rather than in an actual move for independence.
The DIA’s director, Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, told a Senate hearing that the ability of Iraq’s Kurds to reach an understanding with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad would be essential to avoid renewed conflict.
“Kurdish independence is on a trajectory where it is probably not if, but when. And it will complicate the situation unless there’s an agreement in Baghdad,” said Stewart, whose role is to provide intelligence assessments and not to craft US policy.
“So this a significant referendum that comes up in October this year.”
The Kurds have played a role in the US-backed campaign to defeat Daesh, the ultra-hardline extremist group that overran about a third of Iraq nearly three years ago.
The militants are now fighting off Iraqi forces and allied Shia jihadists in Mosul, their last major urban stronghold in Iraq from where they declared a “caliphate” that also includes parts of Syria.
Forces loyal to the Iraqi government have also recently come under fire for perpetrating atrocities against the Sunni residents of Mosul. In an exposé published by Der Spiegel, Iraqi forces and Shia jihadists were documented and photographed raping, torturing, kidnapping and murdering Sunni civilians, leading to fears that the sectarian strife will intensify and not end once Daesh is defeated in Mosul.
While the fall of Mosul would effectively end the “caliphate,” it will not solve deep divisions over power, land and resources between Iraq’s Shia Arab majority and the important Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, nor would it destroy Daesh outright who are likely to wage an insurgency.
“Once ISIS is defeated in Mosul, the greatest challenge to the Iraqi government is to reconcile the differences between the Shia-dominated government, the Sunnis out west and the Kurds to the north,” Stewart said, using another acronym for the Daesh organisation.
The Iraqi Kurds have their own armed forces, the Peshmerga, which in 2014 prevented Daesh from capturing the oil region of Kirkuk, after the Iraqi army fled in the face of the militants.
The Kurds have made claims over Kirkuk, which is also inhabited by Turkmens and Arabs, and have all but annexed the territory into areas controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Hardline Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia jihadist militias have threatened to expel the Kurds by force from this region and other disputed areas.
“Resolving the Kirkuk oil field and the revenues associated with the oil fields, resolving the ownership of the city of Kirkuk, will be significant political challenges for the Iraqi government,” Stewart said.
He warned of dire consequences should Baghdad be unable or unwilling to reach an understanding with the Kurds or the Sunnis.
“Failure to address those challenges, coming up with a political solution, will ultimately result in conflict among all of the parties to resolve this and going back to what could devolve into a civil strife in Iraq,” he said.
Iraqi Kurdish independence has been historically opposed by Iraq and its neighbours, Iran, Turkey and Syria, which fear similar aspirations by their own Kurdish populations.