2,5 years have passed since the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan organised a referendum on independence on 25 September 2017. For the Kurds the referendum was a first step towards fulfilling an old dream of national self-determination and a state of their own. The referendum took place without EU support and was opposed by Iraq and neighbouring countries.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) gambled on that Iraq and the international community would accept the referendum in view of the decisive role the Peshmerga forces played in defeating the Islamic State (IS) and the fact that Kurdistan has received more than one million people who fled its terror. These refugees might otherwise have tried to reach Europe where they are not welcome.
But EU was concerned that the referendum may result in further destabilization of a region already in turmoil after civil wars and decided to support the territorial integrity of Iraq. Its borders were drawn up by Great Britain and France during the First World War to serve their colonial interests at that time. Promises of independence to the Kurds were not kept. Again, the Kurds felt betrayed by Europe.
The Brussels Times met Delavar Ajgeiy, head of mission of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to EU, to discuss what has happened since the referendum and the state-of-play today. Born in Kurdistan to a famous Peshmerga commander, Ajgeiy studied pharmacy in Copenhagen before he became engaged in KRG. In 2013, he was appointed to his post in Brussels.
Does the Kurdish people still dream about independence or do they believe in the future of a federal Iraq under its current constitution?
“An independent Kurdistan is the wish and dream of every Kurd and we believe we have the right to a state of our own like all other nations,” he replied. “Already in 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein we had the opportunely to declare independence but we decided to stay with Iraq and build a new country with equal rights for everyone.”
“To guarantee our rights we agreed on a new Iraqi constitution. Unfortunately, the constitution was never fully implemented and often violated. After failed attempts to make it work, we had no choice but to organise a democratic referendum to ask our people about their future in Iraq.”
For the time being, independence is not on the agenda and KRG is currently negotiating with the new Iraqi government. The former prime-minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had to resign last year after mass protests against his rule that were met by deadly force by the security forces. According to Ajgeiy, the negotiations with Mahdi on solving outstanding issues after the referendum were progressing.
“There was a good understanding between the two parties and we were optimistic about finding solutions. We hope that the coming prime-minister will play an even more positive role in solving the disputes between Baghdad and Erbil. This would benefit the stability and development of the whole country.”
Another politician, Mohammed Allawi, was designated to form a truly inclusive government with ministers from all three ethnic and national groups that make up Iraq, the Kurds, Sunni and Shia, but had to withdrew his candidacy on 2 March. Claiming that he would choose independent technocrats, he had side-lined the Kurdish and Sunni leaderships and was pursuing a sectarian agenda, according to Ajgeiy.
“We Kurds need a fairer, better, and more representative government in Baghdad than the one that Allawi is forming with the support of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iranian-backed militias,” he says.
In a vote boycotted by the other parties in the parliament, the Shia parties voted for that US troops should leave Iraq. Does KRG prefer the US to stay? What about the Shia militias, supported by Iran, e.g. the People’s Mobilisation Units?
“KRG is of the opinion that the support of the International Coalition in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in confronting terror is necessary, particularly since the terrorist groups have resurged,” replies Ajgeiy. “We urge the international community, including the US and the EU, not to allow terror to revive. The coalition forces against IS must stay in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.”
IS still a threat
The Kurdish Peshmerga forces played a crucial role in defeating IS and proved to be an effective fighting force where the Iraqi Arab army failed. Ajgeiy says that Peshmarga lost more than 1,200 soldiers and around 20,000 were wounded. Is IS still a danger?
“Yes, it hasn’t been completely defeated and is able to regroup and attack in different places in Iraq, including the disputed areas that KRG was forced to evacuate after the referendum in 2017. IS is taking advantage of a security vacuum in these areas. The root causes that led to the rise of IS and the collaboration of local people with them still exist.”
During the war against IS, KRG received up to 1,5 million displaced persons from the rest of Iraq. How is KRG copying with their needs and integration?
“Currently KRG is housing about 1,1 million displaced persons from Iraq and more than 270,000 Syrian refugees,” Ajgeiy replies. “By this the population in the Kurdistan region increased by almost 30%. It has been a huge responsibility for us to shoulder at a time when we were hit by a financial crisis and had to fight against IS.”
“The support by the international community has been far from enough and we believe that the EU can do more to support KRG in tackling the refugee crisis. This would be in the interest of all.”
The referendum in 2017 was followed by a military offensive by the central government, with Iranian support, to retake disputed territories including oil fields which have been under Kurdish control since Peshmerga forces liberated them from IS. Furthermore, encouraged by its neighbours, Iraq took also control of Kurdistan’s border crossings with Syria, Turkey and Iran. What has happened since then?
“More than 160,000 persons in Kirkuk and surrounding areas were displaced and had to flee to other Kurdish cities, mainly Erbil and Sulaymaniyah,” replies Ajgeiy. “The elected governor of Kirkuk was removed and a Sunni Arab appointed instead. A policy of Arabisation started. Kurdish staff lost their jobs and Kurdish houses and farming lands were taken over by people coming from south Iraq.”
The situation reminds about the anti-Kurdish discrimination during Saddam Hussein’s rule and contradicts the new Iraqi constitution which guarantees equal rights to all citizens.
KRG lost the oil fields in Kirkuk but has other fields in its territory and is currently producing 250,000 barrels a day. The oil is exported via an Iraqi state-owned oil company. How important are the oil revenues for KRGs economy?
“Almost 95% of all income comes from oil. With the oil revenues, KRG has been able to rebuild the Kurdistan region. Investments are made in infrastructure and many of the 5,000 villages, which were destroyed by the former regime, are now being rebuilt by KRG. We have plans to develop agriculture, invest in new universities and promote tourism, besides taking care of all displaced persons.”
While security in the rest of Iraq is undermined, the Kurdistan region is safe, with a booming economy and flourishing internal tourism, says Ajgeiy. “We have not seen any terrorist attacks for many years.”
Because of its beautiful nature, Kurdistan receives up to 2 million tourists from central and southern Iraq and tourism has become an important business. There are good flight connections and small groups of American and European tourists have started to visit the region, attracted also by its historical heritage. “We hope that one day Kurdistan will be a new destination for European tourists.”
In fact, the Belgian foreign minister, Philippe Goffin, visited Erbil in February when he “praised the role of Kurdistan Region in the fight against terrorism and its efforts for the sake of stability, de-escalation of tensions, coexistence and tolerance”. What support do you expect from the EU in the short term?
“We are an island of democratic values in an unstable region,” summarizes Ajgeiy. “We expect that EU supports KRG to develop the economy of the Kurdistan region and push the government in Bagdad to implement and respect the Iraqi constitution and the rights of Kurds and all other population groups in the country.”
The Brussels Times