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The independence gamble has misfired for Iraq's Kurds

The flare up between Baghdad and the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) over the past two months has revealed that loyalty towards the capital comes first. The actions of the allies whom the Kurds once looked upon as reliable suggests that regional players have more to gain from a united rather than partitioned Iraq. By protecting Baghdad's longevity, Turkey, Iran, Russia and others are working only to shield themselves from harm. Political disputes have a way of contaminating the oil sector which lines the coffers of all the aforementioned states.

The military seizure by federal forces and allied Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) has pushed the Kurds back to pre-2003 borders after their Peshmerga militia defences collapsed. A wounded Kurdistan is indeed struggling to rise to its feet, but not before accepting that it has lost the independence race. De jure autonomy — although one of the hallmarks of political life since Iraq's new constitution was drafted — drew little resistance in 2005 compared with that now voiced by Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran, all of which are opposed to a self-governed Kurdistan.

The demotion that the referendum has cost the KRI has been most disruptive in the investment arena, both foreign and domestic. Access to vital border crossings has also been lost. The noose has been tightening, and economic freedoms that the region has enjoyed since the US toppled Iraq's former government, are but a distant memory.

Read: Iraq threatens to resume military operations against Kurds

Independent oil sales were also frozen as dependence on Russia — the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG's) preferred policy — could move oil sales only so far. Russia after all, has also sided with Baghdad. The path towards independence, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated in late October, runs through Baghdad. Lavrov's advice to the perennial victims was "the need to avoid additional sources of instability in the region."

The next episode of betrayal was dealt in the first week of November after the KRG's 17 per cent share of next year's federal budget was cut to 12.67 per cent. Iraqi MP Sarwa Abdelwahid, who is linked to the Gorran Party, described Baghdad's response as collective punishment, harming "the people" first and foremost. The 12.67 per cent, as Abdelwahid confirmed in a television interview on Hona Baghdad, also includes salary payments to KRI civil service employees. For this, the MP gently scolded Iraqi premier Haider Al-Abadi for not separating the matter of public salaries from the unfolding political crisis.

Read: Tillerson urges Iraq, Kurds to resolve conflict through dialogue

Having defied Baghdad, the KRG has softened its tone, with the President of the Kurdistan region accepting the ruling of a federal court that annulled the results of the referendum, as "unconstitutional". This ruling, it insisted, is final.

Kurdish Members of the Iraqi Parliament also returned to Baghdad last week ready to resume political participation. Baghdad says that it was the side which called the shots, claiming to have "allowed Kurds back in".

What has not happened, as local observers had warned, is the withdrawal of Nechirvan Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party from Baghdad's political process. The strategy has long been applied by Iraq's Sunni camp that turned its back on Baghdad after it entered into a duplicitous alliance with Washington and Tehran; and most recently by Lebanon's outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Barzani dropped hints, perhaps to mirror Baghdad's foreboding. Lest one forgets history, Kurdish figures and Iraq's Islamist parties rode together on the escalators that delivered them to power.

Fourteen years are behind us, but the political game is no longer in favour of Kurdish independence it seems. Kurdistan's leadership has not lost support from all its allies, though; Israel, for now, remains loyal.

It is unlikely to curb Baghdad interference in Kurdish politics or advance an oil and gas sharing agreement. New moves will have to be adopted, however, if dialogue with the capital places the Kurds on the road to nowhere. As Barzani said today, there can be no military solution to resolve tensions between Erbil and Baghdad.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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