Charting a new course for all of Iraq?

Charting a new course for all of Iraq?

*Jawad Qadir

Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani embarked on a two-day visit to Baghdad on Saturday, engaging in discussions with Iraqi leaders and decisionmakers. This visit serves as his second trip to the Iraqi capital within this month, subsequent to Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani's recent journey to Washington. 

In Baghdad, the Kurdish President unveiled the roadmap he has persistently advocated for during the past couple of years. He conveyed to Iraqi leaders that a window of opportunity has emerged for Iraq to overcome the crises it has endured for the past two decades. This opportunity is indeed manifested in the strategic dialogue and agreement between Iraq and the United States (SFA). President Nechirvan Barzani has consistently emphasized that despite the passage of two decades, Iraq has not achieved the status of a prosperous nation, and the Kurds have not experienced a sense of security. 

The President has asserted that Iraq now has the potential to rise and attain both domestic and foreign support. Nevertheless, he has underscored that this is contingent upon addressing internal issues, particularly those concerning the Kurdistan Region. The President has stressed the imperative of reaching a consensus on a shared vision for Iraq in order to accomplish this objective. Failure to do so, he has warned, would result in Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, descending into another cycle of domestic, regional, and international turmoil.

“It’s a very important trip and mission for the President of the Kurdistan Region, because today the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil is getting to a critical position after the attack on Khor Mor gas field which is an attack on the energy sector of Kurdistan, the private sector investment in Kurdistan, and on the security of energy in Iraq,” says Mohammed Ihsan, a Yale University professor and a former Kurdish minister.

“After the visit by Iraq’s Prime Minister to Washington, it is a very big punch on the face of all what he said and all what he discussed in Washington,” Ihsan says, adding that it is in the interest of Iraq and its government to work closely with the Kurdistan Region and its president to find a solution to such attacks by militias. And if Iraq fails to address that, Ihsan warns, the international community will “create a coalition to fight these militias inside Iraq.”

The current series of negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad is poised for a higher chance of success compared to previous attempts. This is primarily due to the fact that the US-Iraq strategic dialogue/agreement hinges on the Kurdistan Region's compliance with Baghdad's directives regarding the dialogue and the agreement. Failure of the strategic agreement (SFA) would result in the withdrawal of political, economic, and military support from the US and its key partners. Consequently, Iraq would face a state of crisis and be vulnerable to internal sectarian conflicts. The warning signs of such a scenario have been increasingly apparent in recent years. Should the strategic agreement falter, Baghdad may witness a resurgence of sectarian clashes reminiscent of the violence seen in 2007, the harrowing images of which still linger in our collective memory.

“Discussions are taking place at regional, international, and domestic levels to find solutions that benefit all parties involved,” says Omar Nuraddini, a political scientist and former member of Kurdistan regional parliament. “Additionally, security threats to the energy sector in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, exemplified by the terrorist attack on the Khor Mor gas field, highlight the need for dialogue and cooperation to prevent such incidents,” he added.

Nuraddini says that during the formation of Prime Minister al-Sudani's cabinet, a political agreement was reached among participating parties in Iraq to establish a high political committee for oversight. However, the agreement has not fully addressed the highest interests of the Kurdistan Region. Therefore, the President of the Kurdistan Region is engaging in coalition discussions to ensure these interests are adequately represented.

In fact, the failure of the SFA (US-Iraq agreement) does not align with the interests of Iraq’s political establishment and sectarian factions, who have reaped substantial economic advantages for themselves and their followers (comprising tens of millions of voters) in the last twenty years, and who are now reluctant to relinquish their material and social positions in case of potential conflicts in Iraq. Consequently, they are inclined to engage in negotiations not only with the Kurds but also among themselves and with the US. If the strategic agreement proves successful (which remains highly probable), it could significantly benefit Iraq by facilitating access to international investment and capital. Hence, the crux of the matter lies in fostering dialogue and involving Kurdistan in the process.

In turn, Kurdistan Region's economic growth is heavily reliant on support from Baghdad. Without genuine Iraqi backing, Kurdistan will struggle to resume its economic development. It is crucial for the Kurdistan Region to acknowledge this reality. The presence of US and Western international companies, which play a significant role in the Kurdistan economy, is contingent upon official support from the Iraqi government. The global economic system post the 2008 banking crisis has limited opportunities for stateless entities like the Kurdistan Region to pursue sustainable economic growth without the support of a state. This was evident in 2014, when strained relations between Erbil and Baghdad led to an economic standstill.

“There is optimism surrounding these visits as they offer hope for resolving several major issues with Baghdad, including the budget, salaries, oil, financial entitlements of the Peshmerga and pensioners, and various other concerns regarding governance,” says Hasan Amin Shekhani, a university professor and a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Movement leadership. 

“It is evident that our problems extend beyond just salaries, encompassing a range of issues that necessitate the implementation of the constitution and the resolution of matters pertaining to the Kurdistan Region,” Shekhani adds.

Therefore, it is in the best interest of both Baghdad and Erbil to prioritize each other's interests in both the short and long term. President Nechirvan Barzani emphasizes the need for a mutual agreement on a "common vision" that aligns all forces and communities, particularly regarding the Kurdistan Region, based on the constitution, within the framework of federalism, and with positive intentions from both sides.

“The Kurdistan Region President persistently emphasizes the importance of dialogue to resolve outstanding issues and joint coordination on various priority issues, especially those related to the living and service requirements of the citizens,” says Karokh Khoshnaw, Director of the US-Kurdish Research Institute. Khoshnaw says the Kurdish President’s visit pointed out the desire and determination of Kurdistan to resolve all issues in a manner that ensures justice, transparency, and strengthens security and stability in Kurdistan and Iraq.

The establishment of a shared perspective on the roadmap, as advocated by the President of the Kurdistan Region during his visit to Baghdad, has the potential to facilitate the recovery of both Iraq and Kurdistan from the present challenges and prevent further deterioration in the future, given that the roadmap enjoys backing from the global community. Internally, embracing the roadmap could potentially rectify the political landscape that has been plagued by persistent crises for over ten years.

*Jawad Qadir is a fellow at the Institute for Research and Development-Kurdistan and the executive editor of the Kurdish journal ‘Institute.’

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