Stability in Northern Iraq: The Kurdish region and the “good hegemon” Turkey

By: Friedbert Pflüeger, KGE Executive Director

The autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan is not yet a flaw-less democracy. Nevertheless, the days of war and conflict seem to have come to an end. The province are relatively stable and is experiencing steady democratization and an economic boost, thanks largely to Turkey. Now Europe should also get more involved.

When one thinks of Iraq, images of war and terror come to mind. However, in the northern autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the last large-scale attack was launched in March 2008. In the capital city of Erbil the day-to-day life of the more than one million inhabitants has largely returned to normal. New streets, tunnels, bridges, hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, and housing developments are being built, mostly by Turkish companies. A modern international airport has recently been opened, and with the help of Air Berlin and Lufthansa, you can reach Erbil from Germany within just four and half hours.

However, German companies are few and far between. With but a handful of exceptions, German and European business has yet to discover Iraqi-Kurdistan. Because of security issues, many large corporations specifically prohibit their employees from travelling to Northern Iraq. They fear the costs of guards and escorts, although these are no longer needed, and thus leave this rapidly developing market to the Asians and Turks. This ignorance of the current situation in the country jeopardizes potential economic cooperation with Kurdistan. Because the Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Salih made such a big splash at the February 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos, a high-level conference in Erbil was spontaneously and enthusiastically announced. Due to security statutes, this conference has been pushed back indefinitely. Granted, such reactions are understandable given to the Kurd’s turbulent history and the recent war in Iraq. However, they misjudge the importance of the stability gained in Northern Iraq which, for the first time in their history, offers the Kurdish people a shot at independence.

Few other ethnic groups have suffered as much war, expulsion, and divisions the Kurds. Their region, which is rich in natural resources, has always been coveted by their neighbors. Against their will, the people were dispersed across Turket, Syria, Iran and Iraq after World War I. In the 1980s this territory was the setting of the Iran-Iraq war. The Kurds sought refuge from Baghdad’s armies and the oppression under Saddam Hussein by waging guerilla warfare. During the al-Anfal campaign, which culminated in 1988, Saddam’s troops destroyed hundreds of Kurdish villages through systematic poison gas attacks in which over 180,000 people were either kidnapped or killed. On March 16, 1988 the Kurdish city of Halbdscha was attacked by Iraqi bombers loaded with chemical weapons: 5,000 civilians died a very painful death. An additional 10,000 were injured and many women were raped or kidnapped and forced to work in African bordellos. Traditional village life was shattered and local agriculture was destroyed. A country once rich with fertile fields, forests, rivers, and lakes has yet to completely recover. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Kurds still see the American and Allied invasion of Baghdad as a liberation. The idea that peace ruled in Iraq before the intervention is a misconception. Anyone who carelessly dismisses Saddam’s plans for weapons of mass destruction as pure US propaganda should not forget he had already used such weapons against his own people and showed no qualms.

Documenting and coming to terms with the Kurds’ past has come slowly. Saddam’s brutal ethnic cleansing, the “Kurdish Holocaust,” has had a significant impact on Kurdish identity and their desire for self-reliance. As a consequence of the former atrocities, Erbil has been guaranteed the right to maintain a Kurdish army, the Peshmerga. This excellently trained army, ready to fight at any given moment, is made up of 180,000 soldiers, and this for just 4 million inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan. Furthermore, most Kurds have weapons stashed away in a closet that could be pulled out and quickly put to use in case of a possible threat. Should it come to a conflict, the number of Kurdish militias would swiftly increase. The message is clear: There must never be another Halbscha.

Model Reconstruction

Iraq’s new constitution grants Kurds a high degree of autonomy. Under the leadership of the regional president Massoud Barzani, son of the legendary Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, the Kurdish government has stretched this autonomy almost to the point of becoming an independent state without acting disloyal to the Iraqi central government. On the contrary: at the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) convention in Erbil on December 11, 2010, all Sunni and Shiite Iraqi leaders were represented, from Nouri al-Maliki to Iyad Alawi to Ammar al-Hakim. This proves how much respect the Kurds have for all the work they have done in reconstruction. It was also made clear that the security and momentum gained in the region could sooner or later be spread accross the country. Even the American Consul General in Erbil finds the Kurds to currently be “the best Iraqis.”

Despite such progress, the list of desirable reforms is still long. These include separation of powers, equal rights for women, freedom of the press, and the fight agaisnt corruption. Suleymania, the second largest city in the Kurdish region, built an opposition movement (Goran) along these lines and managed to win 25 of 100 seats in the last Kurdish regional parliamentary vote. Goran especially opposes the strongman in Suleymania, Jalal Talabani, founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the current president of Iraq. The opposition has also used the current unrest in the Arab world to demonstrate in Kurdistan. The peoples’ dissatisfaction and protest mainly have to do with concrete everyday problems such as the difficulties still occurring with the energy and water supply as well as a general lack of training and career prospects. Rather than obscuring and complicating the situation, the demonstrations confirm what we have already been seeing: In Iraqi Kurdistan there is a relatively high level of freedom and stability. Granted, it is still far from being a Westminster democracy. The patriarchal structure and clan system are still very strong, but they are slowly opening up to reforms. In striking contrast to their neighbors, international commentators have praised their parliamentary and presidential elections as democratic.

More Than Autonomy?

Despite the overall positive developments, the Iraqi state as a whole is volatile and will remain so in the foreseeable future, therefore limiting the Kurdish regional government’s freedom to act. Does Erbil have the right to control its own natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas, without Baghdad’s consent? Should Kurdistan be able to give drilling licenses to international gas and oil companies? A compromise has been reached on these key questions since the beginning of the year. However, companies that apply for a license in Erbil will be penalized by having almost no chance in Baghdad or Basra.

Further important questions have yet to be answered. In the long run, will the Peshmerga remain loyal to the Iraqi state or, under certain circumstances, will their main purpose be a fight for the total Kurdish independence? Could the Kurdish regional government’s visible success under Barzani’s pan-Kurdish dreams expand beyond the borders of Iraq?

The Kurdish leaders in Erbil all have different ways of arguing for such goals. Kurdistan is developing well within the framework of the current conditions. As the “Second Iraq Nation” they hold their own in Baghdad and respect the wishes of the international community regarding Iraqi integration within its own borders. The government in Erbil knows without a doubt that any plans for a pan-Kurdish unification would not only involve all of their neighbors but could also damage the achievements of the past few years. Both Barzani and his former Kurdish opponent Talabani currently agree on the main goals for the region, which includes a balance struck between their neighbors, loyalty to Baghdad, and fostering a close relationship to Turkey, Europe, and the United States.

So much for theory. The cities Mosul, an Al Queda stronghold, and Ninive the historical birthplace of the Kurdish people, are both in Kurdish settlement areas outsideof the Iraqi Kurdistan region. No Kurdish leader would give up Kirkuk, the heart of Kurdistan, and not only because of the nearby oil fields. Many of the Kurds exiled by Saddam Hussein have since returned to the city.

They argue a point in the Iraqi constitution that called for a national census in 2007. The census would count the different ethnic groups living in the city, and Erbil has no doubt the results will show a Kurdish majority. Out of worry that the results could lead to an escalation of the undeniable tension between different ethnic groups, the census has been indefinitely postponed. At the KDP party convention at the end of 2010, Barzani promised a multi-ethnic Kirkuk under Kurdish rule. He handled the topic very sensitively and is well aware of what the possible danger of an ethnic conflict between Kurds, Arabs, and Turks could mean for the stability gained in the region. The best solution for all involved would be if the Americans, once they have withdrawn, at least remain present.

Lasting stability in the region is in the interest of the international community. However, up until now only Turkey has taken any serious initiative in Kurdistan. The two governments have cultivated a good, almost cordial relationship, and the interior ministers regularly exchange information. Fighting terrorism together is as much the focus as business investments. Turkey has been developing itself more and more as a “good hegemon” for Kurds. Ankara has recognized that Erbil does not hold any big ambitions for pan-Kurdish unification and that it is in Turkey’s best interest to be on peaceful terms with the Kurdish regional government. The reconciliation strategy long followed by the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu seems to be working. Through Turkish influence is growing throughout the region, it is rarely seen as a threat. On March 29, 2011, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Erbil and opened the city’s new international airport together with Massoud Barzani. Concurrently, the visa requirement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan was lifted.

Turkey Acts, Europe Hesitates

Now is when the European Union, and especially Germany, should start paying much closer attention to Kurdish achievements in Northern Iraq. After all, there is currently a German Consul General, a German-Iraqi trade office, and a German school in Erbil. European politics and business should show more interest in the area and help to constructively guide these promising beginnings in the region as well as actively support the development of Kurdish democracy.

Around 120,00 Christians live in Northern Iraq. In Ainkawa, Erbil’s business district, Christian churches stand proudly next to mosques. That different religions are managing to live peacefully together in a city where the majority of people are Muslims is a model that could be used in other Islamic societies. In Europe, all of these enormous achievements have still barely been recognized. True, the progress made in the last few years is still in a fragile state. Nonetheless, with Europe and Germany’s support and partnership, this could be the starting point for peace throughout Iraq.


Friedbert Pflüger is Executive Director of the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security at King’s College, London and is co-owner of the KGE Business Alliances GmbH in Berlin and Erbil.