Freedom Denied: A Firsthand Look at Kurdistan’s Referendum Debacle, One Year On

, September 3, 2018

The Kurds hold a crucial role in the War on Terror, the Syrian Civil War, Iraq’s future, ongoing dissent in Iran, and Iran’s aspirations to establish a continuous range of influence spanning Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Numbering some 35 million spread across Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, the Kurds comprise the largest nation without a state. On September 25, 2017, the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRG) held a highly contentious independence referendum, the fallout of which defines their future one year later. This is an analysis of those events from several vantage points on the ground, of the actors and decision-makers involved, and of what their future may hold.

Sulaimaniyah – Mam Jalal

As the midday muezzin call to prayer blared from the Grand Mosque of Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, hundreds of men gathered in orderly lines in the middle of the normally busy intersection. When prayers ended, however, most remained, part of a rapidly growing crowd who would end up waiting hours to catch a glimpse of the inbound hearse of Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s sixth president. Pop-up vendors arrived to offer buttons and flags emblazoned with the mustachioed face of the affectionately nicknamed “Uncle” Mam Jalal. The bouquet-laden vehicle entered the gates of the 18th-century mosque – also the tomb of Kurdish King Mahmud Barzanji – for a stop along the slow cortege from Sulaimaniyah’s Airport to Dabashan Hill, where Mam Jalal would be interred.

Thousands of emotional Kurds, jostling to pay final respects and to kiss the vehicle, pressed upon two rings of gendarmerie police linked arm-in-arm around the car. After flashing a press card, I was allowed to duck under the officers to snap a few photos of the hearse and the intense commotion. The flight bearing the casket had arrived from Germany as the first to land directly in the Kurdistan Region since Iraq’s punitive closure of Kurdish airspace to international flights in the days after the referendum. The sight of President Talabani’s coffin, draped with the Kurdish flag instead of that of Iraq, was enough to end some Iraqi live news coverage. This rare gathering of the most senior Kurds from across the political spectrum also attracted Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, the highest foreign dignitary in attendance, who had earlier warned that the referendum would be a “strategic mistake.”

It would be but days before his prophecy would be fulfilled.

A few days after the burial, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, made a joint graveside appearance with President Talabani’s nephew, Aras Sheikh Jangi. Exactly one month later Jangi would be seen in Iran, quietly attending the funeral of Soleimani’s father. Everyone sensed that Soleimani’s visit was not innocent, but nobody knew that the spymaster was plotting an unimaginable turn of events for Iraq’s Kurds and the nascent Trump administration, which just happened to designate his IRGC forces for terror activity the very next day. He then paid a secret visit to the southern Kurdish city of Tuz Khormatu, a disputed city near Kirkuk, where he reportedly met Bavel and Lahur Talabani, sons of the late president. It was there that the deal to end Kurdish statehood aspirations was set in stone.

The “Battle” For Kirkuk

On the night of October 15, columns of Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed militias maneuvered toward Peshmerga lines, setting the stage for a defining showdown. Vital strategic and economic points like the Kaywan Airbase and Baba Gurgur oil fields around Kirkuk fell in quick order, and the United Nations estimated that more than 180,000 were displaced by the five-day operation. Kurdish lines melted away with little resistance, which the American-led coalition described as “coordinated movements, not attacks.” The unforeseeable, historic setback happened in all of 15 hours.

The Iraqi forces who had handed over Mosul to Islamic State and Kirkuk to the Kurds without a fight just three years before, after a decade of coalition advisement, were now conducting a blitzkrieg against the only forces that had put a halt to Islamic State’s near-total takeover. Baghdad must have been ecstatic that it did not succeed in convincing Barzani to cancel the vote. Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, in a dramatic interview with Peter Galbraith, revealed that American Special Forces had suddenly showed up at the governor’s residence to extract him, as Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units were quickly moving in and would almost certainly have killed him. An important, unstated takeaway from the interview is that while Erbil’s (the KRG capital) intelligence could monitor Iraqi troop movements to a limited extent, it did not have a view into Baghdad’s decision-making that would offer any reasonable prior warning. Neither did American intelligence provide any advance warning, and it was not possible for American advisers embedded with Iraqi forces not to have known. Furthermore, the account shows that the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) governor never received word of the deal made by his PUK counterparts, so the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK factions intent on defending Kirkuk had little or no view into the deal-making with Baghdad and Iran by the PUK’s other factions and were taken by complete surprise. This logic extends to Bavel’s brother, Qubad, serving as KRG deputy prime minister, and KRG Vice-President Kosrat Rasul, who was on the ground in Kirkuk. Bavel Talabani had admitted to KDP leaders on the day before the Kirkuk operation that he had had a discussion with Iranian and Baghdad representatives about withdrawal, but firmly denied any agreement – a lie that would make any reallocation of still-loyal forces impossible.

It is said that the soft-spoken Soleimani, in a meeting with KRG officials, extended an open palm, asking them, “What do you see?” “Nothing,” they replied. “That,” said Soleimani, “is what you will have if you resist.”

Barzani’s hope, it is said, was that in a major confrontation the Peshmerga could hold off Iraqi forces for about a day or two, until the United States could step in as mediator. The Kurds only halted Islamic State advances with close air support, and they only advanced with close air support. In a scenario in which they had prior notice and stayed unified, they could only have withstood a direct ground engagement with the Iraqi forces for a couple of days. Islamic State’s Hawija pocket, just west of Kirkuk, had been conveniently bypassed by the Iraqi forces throughout the battle for Sinjar and Mosul. It thus provided a pretext for a large Iraqi force to be massed in the vicinity of Kirkuk, without raising complete alarm.

Forces like the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service’s “Golden Division” were not the Iraqi units that had fled Mosul three years earlier. The Iraqi forces had failed in recruitment and training benchmarks set by the United States, with only an average of 60 percent peak strength, and suffered heavy casualties in Mosul. They were bolstered by the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), which had become a formal part of Iraq’s Defense Ministry. These units offer would-be enlistees respect and sufficient financial incentives, making the PMUs probably as or more attractive than the Iraqi army itself. These forces reached to within 55 kilometers of Erbil, up to the Turkmen village of Altun Kupri, where Peshmerga had managed to destroy one of two M1 Abrams tanks used by opposing units.

Farther west, along the Rabia-Zummar front, the other Abrams was taken out, in clashes that halted the Iraqi advance as it closed in on the KRG’s Faysh-Khabur border crossing with Syria. The single-lane pontoon bridge for trucks and landing-craft-style ferry for pedestrians betray the strategic significance of the last remaining crossing. The loss would have placed the connection between the KRG and Rojava (the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria) at the mercy of Baghdad’s border security and just a stone’s throw from the KRG’s economic lifeline, their sole crossing with Turkey. In 1992, after liberating Kirkuk from Saddam Hussein’s forces, the late President Jalal Talabani declared that “as long as a single Kurd is alive, the city of Kirkuk will be Kurdistan.” How ironic that it would be Mam Jalal’s relatives who would doom any hopes of keeping what he described as the “Jerusalem of the Kurds” in Kurdish hands. Sources have said independently that the death of Jalal Talabani had actually occurred before the referendum, but the announcement was postponed in order not to divert attention from the referendum and avoid destabilizing the fragile PUK.

For the author, remaining in Erbil felt increasingly risky by the day. It was impossible to know how far the Iraqi forces would go. Would they encircle the city? The international flight ban meant the only way out was to fly via Baghdad, but upon arriving in that city, I learned that without having an Iraqi visa I would be fined $550 or be deported back to the KRG. My Israeli bank card was of no use, and there was no Western Union. For the hundreds of billions sunk into Iraq, America lacked the leverage to merely help a citizen move from passport control to the boarding gate to leave the country. “You should have signed up for the State Department’s traveler notification program,” was the embassy’s smug reply. There were no follow-up calls back. Finally, a mutual friend came to my aid, paying the fine and allowing me through. Waiting for my flight in the VIP lounge for Iraqi Airways, a roll-up banner for the Hashd al-Shaabi – one of the powerful Iranian-backed proxies that had just swarmed Kirkuk – stood ominously across the hall, a reminder not to get too comfortable.

Kirkuk’S Significance

The loss of Kirkuk was a historic reversal, and virtually ended any economic viability of an independent Kurdish entity. Former CIA chief Gen. David Petraeus estimated that the Kurds would need to export around 800,000 barrels of oil daily at some $105 per barrel. Up to the loss of Kirkuk, their production often hovered around 600,000 barrels, at about 40-some dollars. With the retaking of Kirkuk, Kurdish oil production cratered at between 200-250,000 barrels a day. Already under crushing austerity measures for a 1.4 million-strong public sector workforce – comprising half of employed persons – what remained of the KRG was on the brink of collapse. The issue was compounded by the fact that the KRG would pre-sell oil at a discount in order to cover mounting deficits and costs of war. Unlike a sovereign state, they lack many tools to issue debt, to inflate a currency, or the ability to secure direct monetary relief from global organizations like the International Monetary Fund. The Kurds face a recurring struggle to get their share of any foreign aid sent to Baghdad.

The Rough Road to a Referendum

The preparation for the vote was dissipated for two reasons: typical Kurdish divisions at home, and opposition to the referendum beyond the KRG’s borders. Baghdad’s and regional opposition to the KRG hoisting the Kurdish flag over Kirkuk was the cited raison d’être for convening a joint KDP-PUK meeting to schedule the referendum, but the two did not finalize their agreement until very late. Just 10 days before the vote, the KRG parliament reached a deal to convene for the first time in two years to offer a legislative mandate for the referendum, in a 65-3 vote of the 111-member body. After stubbornly boycotting all referendum planning, opposition MPs from the Gorran Movement abstained from the parliamentary vote, but on the eve of the referendum said that its members were free to vote as they chose.

In the KRG’s daily back-and-forth, good-cop, bad-cop dialogue with Baghdad, led by the PUK’s Mala Bakhtiar, one could be forgiven for believing that the referendum was not real until the people were actually voting. An endless parade of foreign representatives visited to attempt to dissuade Barzani, including U.S. Special Envoy Brett McGurk and the Arab League’s Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Curiously, the Arab League apparently preferred to see Iran and its proxies step closer to their regional ambitions than to allow the measure to proceed. The U.S. position was that the referendum was ill-timed and ill-advised, as it wanted Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to win reelection and to avoid distraction from the fight against Islamic State. Yet the Kurds no longer shared a significant border with Islamic State, and the U.S. Defense Department’s direct payments of Peshmerga salaries were set to end that very month. Barzani had been asked before to postpone moves toward independence, when his border with Islamic State was several times longer than his border with Iraq. As the war drew to a close, it was now-or-never to cash in on his goodwill with the international community. Barzani, born during the 11-month existence of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, Iran, resolutely told Foreign Policy: “Imagine what this means for my legacy, all of my life has been for the independence of Kurdistan,” adding, “I was born in the shadow of [the Kurdish Mahabad] flag. I want to die in the shadow of the flag of an independent Kurdistan.”

Barzani “examined” the alternatives offered by the United States and Baghdad, but in the end concluded that he would receive no major concession from Baghdad for the KRG, no guaranteed date for a future referendum, and no justification for an embarrassment to his legacy by otherwise retreating from the vote. Short of actual independence, he argued that it would at least be his popular mandate to break the impasse with Baghdad and strengthen his hand in negotiations. Iraq’s Kurds showed a rare spirit of unity as the vote drew nearer.

Barzani rallied the Kurdish people in Sulaimaniyah in a first-ever appearance since 2013 in the opposition stronghold. Yet the absence of any visible signs that the enclave was heading toward independence just weeks from the plebiscite was striking. Even as these efforts ramped up, visits to opposition Sulaimaniyah showed a city with few hints of an impending vote. There, many of those loyal to Gorran expressed indifference or an opinion that the vote was premature and a means for the ruling party to earn a mandate for continued leadership – talking points that were inaccurate as President Barzani stepped down at the end of his term on November 1, and had pledged that neither he nor anyone related to him would seek another term for the post.

Compared to Barzani’s packed stadiums, “No, for Now” antireferendum leader Shaswar Abdulwahid only mustered several hundred in a single event. The author met with a top member of the Kurdistan Referendum Board shortly after the commencement of approved campaigning, who had said, “We wanted to keep the campaign short and focused,” but then added, “Yet we do not yet have a detailed plan for the public campaign.” This was with less than three weeks to go. Weeks spent in the specially built, four-story referendum commission headquarters on Erbil’s main 100-meter road bore out this reality. The media and website sections of the office did not have internet, and relied on what limited hotspot devices were brought by others from home. The website administrator was on leave in Iran; there was no English content for the international community. The logo for the “Yes” campaign did not receive approval until 10 days before the vote.

The author was also one of 140 foreign election observers. As the call for monitors had gone out late, many of these were Kurds holding Iranian and Syrian passports. It was during the election observers’ training, two days before the referendum, that everyone received mobile notifications that the KDP and PUK had accepted the “international alternative” to the vote, which was now “postponed.” The announcement came from PUK official Bafel Talabani, who up to this point was fairly unknown to the wider public and did not hold a formal position within the PUK. The training seminar continued, just in case. Indeed, KRG authorities refuted the claim and Bavel removed the announcement, saying it was a “mistake.” Despite the disorganization, the result was a resounding 93 percent in favor, and was conducted without significant discrepancies.

Post-Referendum

Another key factor was a very weak lobbying effort and little organized presence in global forums. Congressman Trent Franks’ office phoned me on the day of the referendum, asking for help with a supportive statement. I suggested introducing a resolution I had drafted earlier for a senator who opted not to make a statement after having heard of the Kurds’ disorganization. The bill was introduced without any coordination with the KRG, whose K Street lobbying firm was likely paid less than their basic retainer at a time when they were needed most. Their $20,000 retainer for the Dentons law firm was a fraction of what regional states pour into lobbying contracts. Unsurprisingly, most statements of support from public officials came as responses to news correspondents from Kurdish outlets. Former U.S. officials and political operatives consulting the KRG for the referendum – who included Paul Manafort, the now-imprisoned former Donald Trump campaign manager – were unable to give Kurdish leadership a real “in” with the new administration.

By the time I had arrived at Capitol Hill from Baghdad in the first week of November, recognizing Kurdish self-determination had become less pertinent, eclipsed by finding ways to leverage Baghdad to spare them from total collapse. Calls to suspend aid to Iraq fell on deaf ears, as scheduled F-16 sales continued and members of Congress who had railed against President Obama’s aid to anti-American countries remained silent (with the exception of Sen. John McCain). One of the few pieces of good news was the removal of language in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that tied the $345 million in aid to the Peshmerga to “participation in the government of a unified Iraq.” The 2019 budget allocates $290 million for Kurdish forces but leaves out direct salaries for Peshmerga, who are now seen as part of Iraq’s security forces.

The United States Moving Forward

The sense of abandonment and betrayal by the United States had led the recently retired President Barzani to tell NPR (National Public Radio) that there would be a “revising” of the relationship, with an eye toward a potentially stronger partnership with Russia. Russia was warm toward the referendum, and continued investment by state oil giant Gazprom immediately before the vote even relieved $1 billion in prior KRG debts to the United Arab Emirates’ Dana Gas, showing Russia’s calculated readiness to exploit cracks in the U.S.-KRG relationship. Such investment continued even after Baghdad’s destabilizing punitive measures. These developments come amid a mixed outlook for American military commitment. July brought a groundbreaking ceremony for Erbil’s new American consulate, set to be the largest in the world – which, paired with the Vatican-sized largest U.S. embassy in Baghdad, underscores the long-term strategic value of the Kurdistan Region.

In May the Trump administration gave a six-month extension for Brett McGurk as special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL, but had already deactivated the Coalition Joint Land Component Command (CJICC) the month before, marking a devolution in capability back to the “advise and assist” strategy that followed the original U.S. drawdown. Hence the United States will be less nimble ahead of the next cycle of instability in Iraq – and face an increased challenge to win approval for future intervention from an increasingly Iranian-aligned Baghdad. This comes as emboldened, Iranian-backed units already make threatening statements to U.S. forces.

The Trump administration’s designation of Soleimani’s IRGC and tough rhetoric on Iran are yet to be matched with an assertive policy on the ground. The administration shows reluctance to add terror designations for more elements of the Iranian-affiliated PMUs operating under the Iraqi Defense Ministry. Such a move would have implications for continued U.S. aid. In a small sign of accountability, General Dynamics – the contractor providing upkeep to Iraq’s some 140 Abrams tanks – withdrew maintenance crews after it was revealed that some of the vehicles had been improperly used by the Iranian-linked militias, violating the end-user agreement. This was a blow, given that around half of Iraq’s Abrams had been inoperable from action in Mosul, but it was not enough to cause any break from the most troublesome groups.

This balancing act is more precarious in the Kurdish-administered enclave in the northeastern third of Syria, which like the KRG must hedge its bets with potential deal-making with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, Russia, and Iran. Iran is more than happy to take advantage of every opportunity to achieve its key goals: to establish a Shiite crescent, curtail U.S. leverage in Iraq, and stymie Kurdish guerrillas operating from the KRG against Iranian forces. Senior officials and military commanders had told me that the KDP territory was the bulwark against the putative Iranian “land bridge” to the Syrian border. Although KRG officials hailed the Iranians as the first to provide aid for crumbling Peshmerga lines against Islamic State in the summer of 2014, they were not going to be permitted to send weapons and forces onward to Syria, where they would inevitably reach Hizbullah along Israel’s northern borders.

Following the Mosul and Kirkuk operations, Iran’s militias linked up with the Syrian Arab Army and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which are already coordinating cross-border operations against the remaining Islamic State forces along the border. Whatever free rein the Iranian-aligned units like the Hashd al-Shaabi had in the area may have started to end in mid-June. Some 22 fighters were killed in an airstrike initially attributed to the U.S. coalition – but which was quickly denied. Unnamed U.S. officials attributed the strike to Israel. As a condition of normalized KRG-Iranian relations, Iran almost certainly demanded that activities of KRG-based resistance movements like KDPI be curbed. Iran carries out intermittent assassinations of KDPI leaders, including in Erbil, far from the border. In July KDPI claimed to have recently stepped up operations, but these are likely to be in a limited range of activity: the KRG cannot bear Iranian sanctions, while Iran’s tenuous economic situation in light of renewed U.S. sanctions would only be harmed by isolating itself from the Kurdish market. One Iranian member of parliament had estimated $2.5 billion in self-harm to Iran’s economy resulting from post-referendum sanctions.

Baghdad’S Response

Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi shuttled between Tehran and Ankara in the same week to quickly build regional coordination following his successful Kirkuk campaign. Abadi did not push his luck with military advances, but he made a number of clear demands: the cancellation of the referendum result, and federal control of the Peshmerga, and of trade, borders, and airports. These, and other floated measures like passport invalidations and an end to currency transfers, were never implemented. It was reported that the IRGC would assume a presence at Erbil airport, and it is unclear what, if anything, the KRG gave up in order to resume flights – but the KRG’s independent, lax visa regime remains unchanged. Riots and civil unrest began in Sulaimaniyah province, with calm only restored following the deployment of riot police and Peshmerga to quell the violence that saw government and party buildings torched. Hundreds were arrested, including Shaswar Abdulwahid, whose media office was accused of providing a platform that encouraged violence. Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara were all interested in encouraging this actual Kurdish disaffection as a pretext for further Iraqi incursion, with Abadi stating that he would “intervene” if the Kurdistan Region cracked down on the protests. Offers to pay KRG employees then became a means to entice the population, but floated the idea of doing so separately. This placed the KRG in danger of being split into a rump state along the former KDP-PUK lines (as existed from 1992 to 2005), through baiting old Kurdish tribal-political divisions.

Such attempts were successfully averted. This represented one of the gravest threats to continued KRG survival in the weeks and months following the referendum. In the end, Kurdish public sector employees were paid as each ministry was audited, but the budget share has been only 12.67 percent – while the budget calls for the KRG to sell oil only through Baghdad.

Revenues Unconfirmed, Turkish Restraint

Trade with the KRG carried heavier importance for a troubled Turkish economy. One possible factor may have been the more than $4 billion loan from Turkey to the KRG, which Baghdad would be unlikely to assume in the event the KRG folded up. For its part, the KRG still made consistent monthly payments to oil companies despite the severe fiscal crisis. Turkey was willing to accept the KRG “devil” they know compared to the Iranian-backed militias representing Baghdad and Tehran, two actors with which Ankara has had its own share of friction. De facto Shiite dominance of the area would galvanize Sunni resistance. The PMUs therefore reportedly withdrew from key disputed areas and Kirkuk’s center. Erdogan must be satisfied with being able to make up to 30-kilometer incursions into the KRG to fight his greatest adversary, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), in operations conveniently timed to shore up his security image at the polls. PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers within and from the KRG, and the PKK’s continued holding of two agents of Turkey’s MIT intelligence agency who were captured in Sulaimaniyah, only add to his justifications.

Weeks of silence from the KRG ended when Prime Minister Barzani said the PKK’s “occupation of KRG territory” was the cause for Turkish incursions. Barzani congratulated Erdogan on his June 24 election victory, and was in turn invited by Erdogan to his inauguration in Ankara, in a first post-referendum visit marking a move toward normalized relations. The Turkish border never closed, and the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline never stopped flowing. Iran first opened border crossings to Sulaimaniyah province, not Erbil. Reverse of Turkey’s steps, flights not resumed to Sulaimaniyah, using the PUK-Gorran-PKK relationship.

Iraqi Elections, Coalition Bargaining

Much has been written about Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s surprise upset win over incumbent Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi in Iraq’s elections. Less analyzed is how this affects the outlook for the KRG. The United States lost the bet that not holding the referendum would help Abadi, when Abadi’s clean sweep of Kirkuk left him on his strongest-ever footing – and he still massively underperformed against Sadr’s populist message of skepticism toward both U.S. and Iranian interference. Abadi’s victories translated into very little support at the polls, as he emerges as the probable next prime minister from the now third-largest party in parliament. Abadi had even steadfastly paid tens of thousands of public sector employees in Islamic State–controlled areas so as to maintain some leverage and hope to reenfranchise the Sunni populations, but with little reward at the polls. Abadi’s dismal election returns were a reminder that Iraqis lack a common nationalistic identity that transcends sectarian, ethnic, and political divides. His al-Nasr Coalition continues to position itself as a neutral bloc among sectarian parties.

The “catch” in Sadr’s surprise victory was that he opted not to run for parliament, and is therefore unable to serve as prime minister – meaning the path to a majority coalition in the 329-seat parliament could not have been straightforward in any Sadr victory scenario. To assemble a coalition broad enough to be acceptable to voters and the United States and Iran, ministries would be assigned to so many parties as to be inefficient and corrupt. A too-narrow coalition would create disenfranchised losers, who in turn would disrupt the coalition’s ability to govern. Sadr will be the kingmaker, but he will need to choose wisely. His ability to step out of politics at any time, and to set his followers out on the streets ensures his status as an outsider and maverick with leverage.

No matter the eventual composition of the coalition, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was quick to visit Baghdad’s Green Zone to ensure that whoever won Iraq’s election, it was Iran. Iran’s insurance policy lies in former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law and Hadi al-Amiri’s al-Fatah Alliance. Al-Amiri is an infamous PMU leader, served under Soleimani in the Iran-Iraq War, and said in 2013, “I love Qassem Soleimani, he is my dearest friend.” His preferred method of executing those taken captive was to use a power drill to pierce their skulls, making him one of the most colorful potential coalition members of America’s ally.

Entering the coalition presents the best chance for the Kurds to regain a measure of influence in Baghdad, the extent of which depends on Kurdish unity. Before the referendum, the Kurds had been so confident as not even to appoint officials to reserved positions in the Iraqi government. Now, the two parties have issued joint statements pledging no independent negotiations, while maintaining an “open-door” policy. Kurdish demands focus on the KRG’s finances, where it must receive enough from Iraq to cover debt obligations and civil salaries or risk further unrest. The KDP will probably enter the government as part of a unified Kurdish block with the PUK, elements of which had betrayed it to Baghdad. They may join a coalition with al-Maliki, who had some of the strongest rancor against the Kurds, had originally severed their budget, and had led Iraq to the point of destruction under Islamic State. They could also be together with al-Amiri, who led the Iranian-backed units that took Kirkuk, and with al-Abadi, who presided over the retaking of the disputed territories.

It is difficult to be optimistic. Most allegations of fraud in the election occurred in the PUK and Gorran’s stronghold in Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk. Main opposition parties alleged high levels of fraud in the PUK-administered areas, including voter-roll inflation, suppression, illegal transfer of ID cards, and discrepancies between electronic machines and paper audits. The Iraqi Electoral Commission nullified ballots from 103 polling stations, but a full recount did not occur. Gorran, in response, has said it could seek to establish its own Peshmerga force, parallel to existing PUK and KDP units. Such a move would be a step back from efforts to unify and depoliticize Kurdish forces, and add a wild card to PUK-Gorran relations, although key components of security maintain bulletproof ties to the U.S.-led coalition. If the Sunni/secular coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad al-Allawi and Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi is harshly excluded from the political process, their calls for canceling the disputed election could set the stage for Sunni unrest.

An Islamic State Comeback?

Islamic State seeks to capitalize on the voter frustration, particularly in the Kirkuk areas, and will employ tried-and-true tactics of sowing discord, including the assassination of Sunni civic leaders seeking to take part in the government – while at the same time instigating reprisal from the Shiite PMUs. For the KRG, Kirkuk was continually tested as a point of entry and source of recruitment, and Islamic State is taking advantage of disenfranchisement from the elections and a fragile situation. Security authorities speculate that only 50 Islamic State fighters would be needed to take over Kirkuk – which, even exaggerated by a factor of 10 or 20, the amount it took to take Mosul, for instance, is a Kurdish narrative portraying an untenable situation for the Iraqi forces in the city. It can be argued that the Kurdish security forces have a moral responsibility to protect Kurds in the disputed territories, but Kurdish-affairs expert David Romano suggests that the best path is not to “repeatedly request that Baghdad call Peshmerga back in for assistance” but instead to enjoy the show “until Baghdad and the Americans ask the Peshmerga for help.”

As of early July, there are reports of Iraqi-Kurdish cooperation in counterterror operations in the nearby disputed city of Tuz Khurmatu. Iraqi units deploying to the Syrian border will not completely halt the flow of weapons, funding, and fighters between the two countries. Security incidents continue to be heavily concentrated in the still-unsecured Hamrin Mountains and the former Hawija stronghold of Islamic State. Farther east in Iran, however, Islamic State has made some headway in recruiting disaffected Kurds living under the Iranian regime and from former extremist hotbeds around Halabja, the birthplace of the Sunni insurgent group Ansar al-Islam. The mid-2017 attack on Iran’s parliament building by ethnic Kurds was notable but shows that the recruits are probably more valuable for use inside Iran, as such operations have yet to take place outside of Iran and have yet to present a threat to the KRG, though many did go to Islamic State–controlled territory in Iraq and Syria.

For now, Kurds are more inclined to migrate than to join or organize into extremist movements. While Iraq’s parties jockey for posts in Iraq’s next government, and Islamic State seeks opportunities to resurface, the KRG is set to hold elections on September 30.

Krg Elections

The upcoming KRG parliamentary elections will reveal whether voters wish to offer a fresh mandate for the status quo under KDP leadership. In terms of party leadership, there have been zero changes at the top of the KDP, and very little at that of the PUK, but the KDP is clearly the emergent leader in post-referendum Kurdish politics heading into elections. The most interesting shifts will be in the allocation of seats between the PUK, Gorran, and the latest competitors, led by Shaswar Adulwahid (New Generation) and the PUK’s former KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih, who vie for disaffected voters, potentially cannibalizing the populists who had backed Gorran’s insurgent rise. An underwhelming finish for Gorran in KRG elections, following a weak performance in Iraqi elections, could signal that their reformist populism had reached a high-water mark. The PUK has repeatedly pushed to delay elections in order to resolve internal splits, but has made little headway and may quietly again maneuver to delay the elections. The party has been unable to hold a party congress since 2010, content with “acting” secretaries and “eternal” leadership of its late founder, President Jalal Talabani. With segments of the party bearing the blame for the loss of Kirkuk, and sharing responsibility for the weak economy, it is unclear how they will inspire turnout beyond those in their respective public and private sector patronage fiefdoms.

Incumbent Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, nephew of President Barzani, and his Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani from the PUK stayed out of the referendum spotlight. Masrour Barzani, KRG Security Council chancellor and son of President Barzani, was most prominent alongside his father in making the case for a referendum, but obviously this did not offer an opportunity to catch up to his cousin’s prominence in the KRG political landscape. The campaigns have brought renewed rhetoric from Massoud and Masrour about seeking reparations, rights, and greater sovereignty in order to motivate voters. The rhetorical willingness to walk away from the table is now somewhat subsiding as coalition negotiations begin in earnest.

The Israeli-Kurdish Dimension

Many average Kurds had turned their hopes toward the Jewish state, seen as turning long odds into decisive victories of biblical proportions against its neighbors. A popular rumor was that Israeli jets had even arrived on standby in the KRG, similar to independent claims on both sides that Israeli jets had been the among the first air support to halt the advance of Islamic State west of Erbil in August 2014. True or not, such rumors that Israeli support would come (or return) to help the Peshmerga hold the line set the stage for wide disappointment. In reality, Iraq is a sovereign state, and beyond lobbying in international forums, Israel’s abilities were far short of many Kurds’ expectations. A renaissance of more open KRG-Israeli relations is unlikely beyond the current humanitarian cooperation and quiet visits of civil society representatives. Some Kurds proudly displayed Israeli flags at rallies, leading the Iraqi parliament to reinstate a law criminalizing the display of “Zionist symbols.”

Zach Huff

Zach D. Huff is a Middle East analyst with expertise in Kurdish affairs, and splits his time between Tel Aviv and Iraqi Kurdistan. He has been published or quoted in The New York Times, Jerusalem Post, CBS News, The Forward, Algemeiner Journal, Sputnik, and the Clarion Project.