American presidents and Iraqi strongmen have been trying for decades to keep the country intact. But that effort is now failing under pressure from the Islamic extremists who are taking over more and more of Iraq’s cities. “Practically speaking, the country has broken apart,” a top official in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government told The Daily Beast.
In an interview, Qubad Talabani—the Kurdish government’s incoming deputy prime minister and the son of Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani—said Kurdish leaders do not seek the dissolution of Iraq, but that it’s happening nonetheless.
“Iraq, in a sense, has broken apart from us,” he told The Daily Beast. “Geographically we practically have to cross another country to get to Baghdad. We have to cross through territory that is governed and secured by forces that are not loyal to the federal government in Baghdad.”
Events in the last week prove this point. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a one-time al Qaeda offshoot, conquered the northern city of Mosul, Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit and has marched ever closer to Baghdad in recent days.
Amidst the rampage, Iraqi officers and soldiers abandoned critical outposts in and around the Kurdish majority city of Kirkuk. The Kurdistan Regional Government sent their own forces, known as the Peshmerga, to fill those positions left behind by Iraq’s army.
For years, politicians and analysts have warned that Iraq—a country formed in 1920 by the world’s great powers from three distinct ethnic and confessional regions—would eventually break apart.
In 2006 Joe Biden, when he was a senator, wrote with Daily Beast contributor Les Gelb an op-ed that argued Iraq's government should devolve into a “federal system,” with each region enjoying a kind of hyper autonomy similar to the dissolution of Yugoslavia after the Balkan wars.
President Bush and later President Obama went in another direction and tried to strengthen Iraq’s central government. But with ISIS marching on Baghdad and Iraq’s most important Shi’ite religious leader calling on Iraq’s Shi’ites to take up arms against them, Iraq is breaking apart nonetheless.
The most important development in this respect is what happened last week in Kirkuk. Talabani told The Daily Beast that the Peshmerga deployment to Kirkuk was actually approved by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“No one has asked us to abandon those posts in Kirkuk,” Talabani said. “On the contrary, the Iraqi prime minister’s office gave us the green light to do what we can to protect as much territory as we can in the north.”
The fact that Peshmerga secured positions in Kirkuk with the blessing of Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government is in itself a sign of how desperate things have become. For years Kirkuk was one of the thorniest issues for Iraq’s leaders. During the rule of Saddam Hussein, Kurds were forced out of their homes in Kirkuk. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Kurdish families returned to their homes that were now occupied by Arab Iraqis and have elbowed their way back into old neighborhoods at times with the help of Kurdish-dominated security forces. Efforts to reconcile these differences have been delayed and the issue remains disputed.
Maliki has also clashed recently with the Kurds as well. Since January, Maliki’s government has refused to send the block grants to the regional government that pay for the salaries of the region’s civil servants. The Kurds have responded by accelerating their effort to sell oil pumped out of the Kurdish regions directly to the world market through a pipeline with Turkey, bypassing the Baghdad government altogether.
“Baghdad forced our hands,” Talabani said. “They gave us no other choice but to seek out revenue independently from Baghdad.”
Talabani said the presence of Peshmerga troops at Kirkuk—which has significant oil resources itself—does not change its status. “It doesn’t change anything on the ground, ultimately we have said Kirkuk belongs to the Kirkukis,” he said. “It’s something we always felt rests with the people of Kirkuk. The fact that there are no longer Iraqi units outside the city, it does not change Kirkuk’s status in the country.”
But nonetheless it’s a powerful message. The Peshmerga were formed in 1919 originally to target British military officers. They defended Kurdish Iraqis from the Iraqi army for much of the 20th century. In 1988 Saddam Hussein’s air force conducted a chemical weapons attack on Kurdish positions in Halabja after the Peshmerga sided with Iran in the Iran Iraq war. After America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Peshmerga worked closely with U.S. special operations forces and played a key role in the campaign to find Saddam Hussein from his spider hole at the end of 2003.
Talabani said Kurdish leaders are not celebrating the chaos in Iraq today. “We don’t want to see the country in chaos and flames, we don’t want to benefit from the country’s instability,” he said. But Talabani also said the Kurdistan Regional Government is obliged to protect their own. “At the same time we are well within our rights to protect our interests and secure our citizens and to ensure instability does not creep into the Kurdish dominated areas of the country,” he said.