Two decades of spectacular drama

Two decades of spectacular drama

Dlawer Ala'Aldeen

In: Lobbying for a Stateless Nation

5 August, 2007

A week, they say, is a long time in politics. Looking back at two decades of evolution of political events in the Middle East, their impacts on the Kurds and their political fortunes have been astounding.

In the late1980s, the Superpower-sponsored, apparently invincible, regime of Saddam Hussein, emerged “victorious” from his 8 year long “Al-Qadisiya” war against Iran (named “Saddam’s Qadisiya” after the Arabs' early Islamic victory over the Persians). By the end of the war, the regime had at its disposal an aggressive army of 1.2 million ground troops, 5,800 tanks, 5,100 other armored vehicles, 3,850 artillery pieces, 750 fighters and bombers and 200 other aircraft. Meanwhile, the Kurds were licking their deep wounds, having just about survived the toughest decade in their history. From early 1987 to late 1988, the people of the land-locked Southern Kurdistan found themselves at the receiving end of a genocide campaign, designed in the long run to exterminate life in rural Kurdistan and “Arabise” the rest. As a consequence, Kurdistan suffered the worst deliberate demographic and topographic mutilations in its history. Well over 100,000 men, women and children were massacred and buried in mass graves; thousands of towns and villages were raised to the ground; farms were burnt; and Kurdish families were systematically evicted without compensation from their homes in the oil-rich cities. Had Saddam played his cards right on the international stage, he would have got away with worse in Kurdistan. During the Cold War era, dictators were often favoured by Western governments, and moral lobbyists faced an uphill struggle in the face of both industrial lobbying and international complacency.


Five decades of Cold War brought misery, bloodshed, wars and chaos to the Middle East. The belligerent Superpowers secured military, political and economic influence in the oil-rich states of the Middle East via inaugurating omnipotent autocracies, riding roughshod over fundamental principles of civil rights, and turning blind eyes to violations of human rights by their regional partners. Their greed-driven foreign policies alienated minorities and seeded the grains of mistrust, hatred, extremism, terrorism and, as a consequence, world instability.

By the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Empire collapsed, and the Cold War gave way to a new order. The “Free World”, lead by the world’s only remaining Empire (the United States of America), became engaged in a war of attrition, against former agents and allies turned international terrorists. Fuelled by injustice in the Middle East and funded largely by rich Salafi Saudis, the Sunni Islamic fundamentalists were breeding and propagating within the vast US-sponsored, dictator-ruled, safe havens. The new war also changed the rules for the dictators, who could no longer be relied on to do the bidding of their former sponsors and, if anything, they became both a nuisance and dispensable.

Saddam turned dispensable

By 1990, Saddam had delivered on the West’s prime objectives, namely reducing Iran politically and militarily (at least temporarily) and keeping the arms trade with affluent Middle East partners growing for as long as possible. In the process, Saddam’s regime itself emerged militarily strong, but financially bankrupt and increasingly hostile towards his “Gulf Arab brethren”. Saddam, having fought the ‘Majus Farsi’ enemies of the Arabs, was genuinely convinced of his claim to the “Arab World’s sole leadership”. He was hard to please and demanded financial and political support for completing his nuclear project, which would turn the Arabs a “superpower”. He refused to acknowledge financial “loans” from Arab states, which he considered the price of Iraqi blood sacrificed for the “Pan-Arab interest”. Iraq’s neighbours and Western Governments seemed to agree that Saddam had gone too far and could not be allowed to go nuclear. A series of apparently “Western and Israeli orchestrated” events occurred in 1990, which Saddam considered “conspiracies” prior to hostile actions.

1990, the prodromal phase

The year 1990 was a bad year for Saddam, but a decisive one for the Middle East and an exciting one, to say the least, for the Iraqi opposition. For the first time, cracks appeared between the regime and the Western world. Saddam was publicly criticised for executing Farzad Bazoft, The Observer journalist of Iranian origin who was accused of spying for Israel in Iraq. Bazoft had been invited by the Iraqis to visit various military sites, before he was arrested at Baghdad airport in September 1989, carrying 34 photographs of the Al-Hilla area, together with soil samples from a nearby factory. He was put in front of the TV cameras in November, confessing to be an “Israeli agent”. Following a one-day trial behind closed doors, Bazoft was sentenced to death on 10th March 1990 and executed five days later. The then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was furious and immediately withdrew the British ambassador from, and cancelled all ministerial visits to, Iraq. Similarly, Bazoft's story triggered a general outrage in the West and contributed to international isolation of Saddam's regime.

The Kryton episode

Only two weeks after this, another flare-up with Washington occurred on 28th March, 1990, when Britain arrested five men accused of trying to smuggle US-made kryton switches (nuclear warhead detonators) to Iraq. Three days later, the Washington Post reported that the USA Customs had intercepted a similar shipment of nuclear detonators in the previous year. On 2nd April, 1990, Saddam boasted in a televised speech that Iraq’s arsenal of chemical weapons was on par with that of the United States and the Soviet Union, and swore "By Allah” to “make the fire eat up half of Israel if it tries to do anything against Iraq." Saddam admitted possession of, and threatened (by inference) to use, a special "double chemical" (VX-type nerve gas) against Israel.

Tensions escalated even further in the ten days following Saddam's speech, which inevitably sparked widespread criticism of Iraq. On 5th April 1990, the George Bush Sr. administration had expelled an Iraqi diplomat for plotting to murder a number of Iraqi dissidents who had taken refuge in the United States. Saddam retaliated by expelling an American diplomat from Baghdad and by delivering a speech on 7th April, sharply criticizing the American President personally.

The Supergun scandal

Concurrently, Saddam’s Supergun project “Babylon” was infamously disrupted when the Israeli Mossad assassinated Gerald Bull, the Canadian artillery inventor, on 22nd March 1990. Bull was the indispensable brain behind the development of a series of powerful and highly sophisticated artilleries build for the Iraqis since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war. His final, and most ambitious project, was to develop the ultimate Supergun (150 meters long, 2,100 tonnes and 1000 mm calibre) that is potentially capable of firing a 600 kg projectile to a range of 1,000 kilometers, or a 2,000 kg rocket-assisted projectile into orbit. Bull had successfully built a smaller (Baby Babylon) prototype in 1989, and installed it in Hamryn Mountain, for testing. Construction of the individual sections of the new Supergun started in England at Sheffield Forgemasters and Matrix Churchill as well as in Spain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Fatally, Bull had later agreed to develop Iraq’s longer ranged Scud missile-based (Abbas) project. This was a step too far, and Bull was shot by (most probably by an Israeli agent) five times in the back of the neck while opening his apartment door in Brussels. Although the Iraqis continued their collaboration with Bull’s company, Project Babylon was finally abandoned when the gun’s key parts were seized by Customs in the United Kingdom in November 1990, and most of Bull's staff returned to Canada. The smaller test gun was later broken up after the Kuwait war.

Kuwait, the scapegoat

Taken together, Saddam was certain of a concerted USA, UK, Israeli and Arab collaborators attempts to undermine his regime. Growing increasingly desperate, he singled out Kuwait as the thorn in his back. He accused her of acting on behalf of his “enemies” by waging a devastating economic war (via reducing oil prices) against Iraq. Kuwait, being vulnerable and increasingly concerned, was encouraged by the West, including the UK, to stand up to Saddam.

Earning $13 billion and spending $24 billion (in 1989), Saddam demanded new money from Kuwait in direct compensation for “stolen Iraqi oil” taken out of Ratga, the Kuwaiti end of the gigantic Al-Rumaila oilfield. The Saudis were prepared to call their $80 billion loan to Iraq a “gift to the Iraqi people”, whereas Kuwait demanded its $40 billion, partly given in oil. Saddam threatened (on 17th July) that “if words do not give us sufficient protection, then we will have no option but to take effective action to put things right”. Saddam had his eyes not only on Al-Rumaila’s oil money, but on Al-Rumaila itself, as well as the Bubiyan and Warba islands, which Iraq had long claimed. The Kuwaitis remained dismissive, until Saddam very rapidly mobilized up to 30,000 troops to the border with Kuwait.

The US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, met Saddam on the 25th of July, 1990, to discuss the border, oil and sea disputes with Kuwait. She clearly underestimated the volatility of the political and military situation and, probably unwittingly, gave Saddam the green light he needed. At the Presidential Palace, Ambassador Glaspie started by saying to Saddam: “I have direct instructions from President Bush to improve our relations with Iraq. We have considerable sympathy for your quest for higher oil prices, the immediate cause of your confrontation with Kuwait…..” She ended her conversation with Saddam by saying: “we have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary (of State James) Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960's, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America”. Saddam smiled at the end of this last sentence, and took it as the green light he was seeking.

Placating Saddam

At OPEC, the members agreed to placate Saddam and raise the oil price from $18/barrel to $21 and limit production to 22.5 million per day. This, however, was not sufficient to calm Saddam down. Instead, he boosted the troops on the boarder to 100,000 men. Saddam successfully manipulated Hosni Mubarak, Yasir Arafat, Benazir Bhutto (then Prime Minister of Pakistan) and other negotiators and used them to reassure the Kuwaiti authorities. Mubarak asked him directly whether he would invade Kuwait. Saddam answered “no, but do not tell the Kuwaitis”. Mubarak went straight to Kuwait and told them exactly that. Arafat met Kuwait’s Crown Prince (Sa’d Abdulla Salim Al-Sabah) and nearly persuaded him to change tone with Iraq, however, at that very moment Mrs Margret Thatcher called the Crown Prince and urged him not to wobble. Mrs Bhutto, however, made a costly mistake and warned Saddam of the US intention to send troops to Kuwait, some time in August. Furious at her behaviour, James Baker later (early August) sent Robert Oakly, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, to meet President Ishaq Khan and have Mrs Bhutto dismissed from her post. And so he did on the spot.

Adding insult to injury

It appears that Saddam, as he promised Glaspie, was to the last minute prepared to negotiate with the Kuwaitis. He sent his deputy, Eizzat Ibrahim Al-Douri, his cousin Ali Hassan Al-Majid and his trusted diplomat (Sadoun Hamadi) for a last minute negotiation with Kuwait’s Crown-Prince in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They met on the 31st July, and had discussions all day long without reaching a conclusion. The Kuwaitis showed no interest in compromising. On the next day, 1st August, Al-Majid reminded Al-Sabah that Iraq defended Kuwait from Iranian threats. Al-Sabah said: “Why don’t you just drink from the sea?” This sparked an upheaval that required the Saudi guard’s intervention. Al-Majid then said that due to the war fought on behalf of Arabs, Iraqis now do not have enough to feed themselves. This is when the Crown Prince added insult to injury and shouted: “Why don’t they send their wives out onto the streets to earn money for them”. This was taken as a direct reference to old rumours about Saddam’s illegitimacy. Not surprisingly, Saddam was furious when he received the news later that day, and said that the “The Emir will not sleep in his palace tonight”. His decision, shared only with his innermost circles, was to take the whole of Kuwait instead of just the disputed lands. The invasion began at 2am, on 2nd August, 1990, and within a few hours, Kuwait city was in Iraqi hands and the Emir was stateless in Saudi Arabia.


To Kuwait’s rescue came George W. Bush Sr., who rallied a broad mixture of likely and unlikely allies from 34 countries, including some of Saddam’s closest Arab neighbours. The assembled coalition forces consisted of more than three quarters of a million troops. Saddam was, for the first time, portrayed internationally as the “Hitler of the Middle East”. Significantly, before ‘Operation Desert Storm’ started on 17th January 1991, President Bush called on the "Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands" and rise against Saddam’s regime. By the time Saddam’s troops were evicted from Kuwait on 1st March, 1991, world opinion had been well prepared to accept regime change in Iraq. The willing and sacrificial Shi’as and Kurds were poised to respond to the Emperor’s call. Even Saddam was expecting such an outcome and had his escape routes planned.

Popular and spontaneous uprisings erupted on 1st March in Basrah and cascaded within days to include the entire southern Shi’a and northern Kurdish provinces of Iraq, although bypassing the Sunni Triangle. Taken aback at the sight of Shi’a clerics’ portraits and the Iranian infiltration of the uprising in south Iraq, Bush hesitated and ordered General Norman Schwarzkopf’s fast-advancing troops to bring their march towards Baghdad to a halt. He allowed the Iraqi regime to use ground and Helicopter-lifted gun power to crush the rebellion, while denying the vulnerable rebels access to captured Iraqi weapons. Under the watchful eyes of the American administration, Saddam’s elite Republican Guards, who escaped the “Mother of All Battles” intact, suppressed the uprising with accustomed callous, calculated and criminal brutality. Thereafter, it was a chicken shooting exercise with a predictable outcome - the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi’a and Kurds, and restoration of the status quo. The rebellious Shi’as had nowhere to escape to and faced the full brunt of the fire; the Kurds ran for their lives in their millions towards the Turkish and Iranian borders.

The mass exodus leading to self rule

Initially, President Bush and his chief allies refused to “interfere with internal affairs of a sovereign member of the United Nations” and protect millions of civilians from the threat of certain death from fire, cold, hunger and disease. The sheer image of the man-made disaster and intense media and public pressures eventually weakened the British, and then American, politicians’ resolve. An Allied-sponsored “Safe Haven” was created in April 1991 under the no-fly zone, north of the 36th parallel, to reassure the Kurds and allow them to return home. Furthermore, Saddam withdrew his military, police and civil administration from Erbil, Dohuk and Suleimany (officially recognised as the Kurdistan Autonomous Region) in September 1991, only to impose a severe internal blockade on the Kurds to further deepen their plight.

The vacuum of power in the region, and the availability of the Allies’ protection, turned the tragedy into an opportunity for the Iraqi Kurds to establish their first, and lasting, self-rule. The Kurdish political parties, united under the “Kurdistan Front”, soon agreed a constitution and elected their first Parliament in May 1992 and inaugurated the first Cabinet of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Despite their lack of a UN mandate, international support and financial resources, the KRG established its authority and was set to build the foundations of a modern and democratic nation.

Brothers at war

Building from scratch a structure for a long-dreamed nation was exciting to support, but painful to watch. In the election of 1992, neither of the two major but rival parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP, lead by Massud Barzani), and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK, lead by Jalal Talabani) secured an outright majority. They agreed a 50:50 split of the KRG posts and parliamentary seats. The first coalition cabinet was formed by the PUK’s Fuad Masum.

The conduct of the PM and that of each of his Ministers was carefully monitored, and frequently hindered, by ever present deputy PM and deputy Ministers, who were invariably from the rival party. Masum, a known moderate, had to strike a balance between the two mutually distrusting coalition partners, while lobbying for the transfer of power away from the political parties into the Cabinet of the KRG. This proved impossible. Barzani and Talabani could not agree a workable solution and refused to hold official KRG posts, or hand over decision-making power to the Cabinet. Internal conflict within the PUK ranks further undermined the already weak coalition Government. Eleven months into its inauguration, and much to the KDP’s disappointment, Masum was effectively overthrown with Talabani’s blessing by his radical Politburo colleagues. Masum was apparently accused of not taking full advantage of his PM position to secure immediate gains for the PUK (at the KDP’s expense). He was replaced by Kosrat Rasul, whose strong military role earned him his high profile, and his previous approach to handling the KDP was more radical and confrontational.

Rasul formed the second, but most problematic, coalition cabinet. Alarmed by the unwarranted PM swap, the KDP demanded explanations, concessions and a new mechanism to counter the new PM’s possible attempts to disadvantage the KDP. Power was shared on an equal footing between the PM and his deputy, and between each Minister and his/her deputy. This failing mechanism, combined with the ever growing distrust between the KDP and PUK, proved to be a recipe for disaster. Fueled by the enemy within and without, an impasse was reached and the inevitable occurred. An agonizing and protracted internal war broke out which cost the Kurdish nation dearly.

The relentless internal fighting continued from 1994 until 1998, during which regional powers (Iraq, Iran and Turkey) contributed physically, politically and financially to the war efforts. The Kurdistan Region capital province Erbil, and Suleimany, changed hands a couple of times before borders were drawn between KDP- and PUK-held territories. The KRG followed the divorce, and split accordingly, in 1996, into KDP- and PUK-lead administrations in Erbil and Suleimany, respectively. Fortunately, these fights were not in the US interest, and President Clinton’s administration (more specifically, his Secretary of State Madlin Albright) eventually intervened, putting an end to internal military rivalry and establishing some form of political stability that lasted until regime change in Iraq.


The 2000 USA elections brought about a new era. A new Emperor, President George W. Bush Jr., with a neoconservative mandate to change the world and the World Order, was inaugurated. His “doctrine” was to change the way the Empire was run, and the war on terror was inaugurated. Disseminating Western-style democracy was core to the doctrine, the Middle East was the theatre for its first implementation and Iraq (for strategic and possibly sentimental reasons) was the perfect place to start.

The idea of regime change in Iraq was apparently conceived months, possibly years earlier and a plan for toppling Saddam was already in place prior to the 2000 elections. Bush’s “crusade” was unleashed as soon as a pretext (9/11) presented itself. ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, began in earnest in March 2003, and was hailed a success. Iraq was invaded, Saddam was removed from power and “mission” declared “accomplished. The US chose to declare herself as the “belligerent occupant of Iraq” under international law and practice, and Bush appointed Paul Bremer as Iraq’s Viceroy, in charge of establishing democracy in the country.

Not long after President Bush declared on 1st May 2003 that "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended”, Iraq descended into internal chaos leading to an international quagmire, with several civil and military wars on-going simultaneously. Bremer left Iraq in haste, leaving his job undone - Iranian-backed militias not dealt with, Sunni insurgents not diminished and democracy not delivered. If anything, Bremer formalized Iraq’s sectarian divide at all political, legislative and executive levels.

After Bremer the decline continued, with violence escalating under Ayad Allawi, leading to an all-out civil war under Ibrahim Jafari. Under Jafari, the Iranian influence and interference in Iraq deepened, with Iranian-sponsored militias holding actual cabinet offices and executive powers. Muqtada Al-Sadr, once targeted by the US, became a king-maker, commanding a greater number of MPs and Cabinet members than President Talabani or Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Despite all efforts and intentions to reverse the trend, the scene is now set for a total disintegration of Iraq. The United States and its “Coalition of the willing” are refusing to publicly recognize the civil-war and Iraq’s de facto fragmentation, but they are in essence dealing with it, albeit half-heartedly.

Iran, the only beneficiary of the “Iraq liberation” so far, is essentially in charge of Baghdad and the entire middle and southern provinces of Iraq, and is influencing decisions at all levels. Iranian allies, some of whom are still on the Iranian payroll, are holding cabinet or lower offices. She has a complex network of alliances with Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish political and militia groups who are capable of inflicting fatal blows to any Iraqi institutions as well as US plans. Iran is draining southern Iraqi oil, promoting a civil war, organizing chaos and is effectively in the process of annexing the South of Iraq to Iran, politically and economically.

Saving the Empire

The United States is now at a crossroads. The Bush neo-con doctrine has all but failed to deliver a stable democracy to Iraq, let alone the Middle East. Such odds, when stacked up, can defeat even the Emperor. Whether the Bush administration admits it or not, the neoconservative philosophy is now a lost cause, at least for the foreseeable future. Four and a half years after the “liberation”, Iraq still lacks a real Government with the true sense of the word, and the US is still fire-fighting. Having implemented too many half-baked policies and half-hearted military strategies, the Bush administration is now lost for ideas for an exit strategy. Veteran politicians James Baker, Lee Hamilton and their likeminded colleagues, in an attempt to save face for the US administration and greater US interests, offered the administration recommendations for a way out. However, their plan B, per se, was defeatist in its own right. With Cold War mentality, they tried to reintroduce Realpolitik into the President’s mind, failing to recognise the new realities of the Middle East and the rules of the war on terror.

Nevertheless, Bush partly adopted plan “B-H” (reference to Baker-Hamilton’s Iraq Study Group recommendations), but also decided to go the extra mile as a last throw of the dice. He initiated the “surge” and sent more troops to Iraq, perhaps to stabilize the country in time before the forthcoming US elections (or in preparation for an attack on Iran!). He needed to demonstrate to his numerous foes (abroad and at home) that all was not lost. Clearly, the US can not afford to loose it all, because defeat in Iraq will be a major historic landmark that could be followed by a gradual decline of US power worldwide.


Defeat, however, is certain for as long as the US fails to tackle head-on, the mastermind behind Iraq’s and Middle East’s destabilizing forces -Iran. The war is now between the US and Iran, more so than between the West and Al-Qaida. A US defeat in Iraq is by definition an outright victory for Iran in the first place with Al-Qaida playing a secondary role. Iran is pulling the main economic, military and intelligence strings in Iraq, and parts of Lebanon and Palestine. She is poised with determination to defeat the US in all of the Middle East.

Trust between the US and Iran is non-existant and their agendas can not easily converge. There will be no win-win scenarios between the two in Iraq or over the nuclear issue. Iran will not give up its nuclear ambitions and Israel will never allow a fundamentalist Islamic regime with anti-Semitic principles at its core, to go nuclear, or to continue to grow military influence in countries as close to Israel as Palestine and Lebanon. Reasoning with Iran will not persuade her to retreat, and short of going into an all out war, she will not be reduced easily. It is now, more than ever, in the interest of the US and Israel to eliminate the nuclear and military threats of Iran and the export of its revolution. Failing that, by 2010, Israel will forever remain insecure. Iran may play delaying tactics, waiting for the forthcoming US elections in 2009, or a major shift in US policy, however, no future US administration can afford to withdraw totally from Iraq, to allow Iran to march undeterred, to abandon Israel, or to loose sight of the long term impact of a US defeat in Iraq.

The Iraqi theatre: what is next?

By default and by design, Iraq has become ungovernable. A return to dictatorship is not acceptable. Iraq’s partition along sectarian and ethnic lines is now formalized and virtually enshrined in the constitution. Apart from sharing the spoils of the oil revenue, there is nothing to keep the various Iraqi groups together. Kurdistan is a de facto state, moving increasingly towards full independence. The Shi’as in the south have a strong desire to follow suit. The Sunnis, apparently disadvantaged, fear for their future and are still dreaming of re-centralisation of power and the return to the ‘good old days’. However, neither the constitution, nor those who run Iraq, will ever again allow Baghdad to regain power over the rest of the ‘federal’ entities (provinces or groups of provinces).

The Al-Maliky Government is the best current Iraq can expect under the circumstances and for the foreseeable future. The central ‘Federal’ Governments will always be a hotchpotch coalition of self-centered, ill-focused, disinterested and largely corrupt interest groups who represent diverse political parties and/or foreign-sponsored militias. These allies are at best distrustful of each other and at worst arch enemies. In the presence of dominant extremist Shi’a and Sunni groups, Baghdad will never be stable and rivers of blood will continue unabated as they have done over the past five decades. Whether Iraq is dismembered or held together, in reality it will become increasingly fragile and fragmented. Iraq, the way the Sunni’s or the sentimental exiles describe it, is now history. The only workable, stable and manageable Iraq that the US, the Iraqis or their neighbours could hope for is a federation in which four or more entities would be only loosely united. Such an outcome was, and still is, not acceptable to most. However, another decade of chaos, civil war and total pandemonium in Iraq and the Middle East will help all parties concerned agree to this as the ultimate solution.

The Kurds: since 2003

From 2003 the Kurdish political parties gathered momentum and made the most of the post-Saddam opportunities. They emerged as Iraq’s strongest, most coherent and increasingly influential pressure groups. They acquired the power of veto over every critical issue that related to the country’s constitution or government. They now have unprecedented access to Iraq’s wealth and decision-making process, and have entered the international stage at the highest possible level. They certainly served their cause well and secured excellent deals in Baghdad.

The new political atmosphere in Iraq and the KDP-PUK shared strategic interests brought these two rival parties closer together than ever before. Their complementary and synchronized collaborative political acts, at Iraq and world stages, brought them mutual rewards. Soon after the referendum on the Iraqi constitution, in October 2005, the KDP and PUK realized that, if they were to make the most of the newly available opportunities in Baghdad, they would have to put their divided house in order. This, combined with immense internal and external pressures, lead to steps towards unification of the Erbil and Suleimani administrations, which was achieved at the Cabinet level.

A bipartisan deal was struck and a united (coalition) Cabinet was sworn-in in 2006. Under the agreement, the KDP was offered the posts of the KRG’s President and Prime Minister, with PUK-nominated deputies. In return, the PUK was offered the post of Speaker of the regional Parliament (with a KDP deputy) and for Talabani to become the KRG-sponsored candidate for the Iraq Presidency. The terms of this arrangement was designed to be for two years, at the end of which (December 2007) the posts of the PM and Speaker of Parliament will be swapped between the two parties.

This anomalous, and unusually diluted (40 member) coalition cabinet, lead by Nechirvan Barzani, was welcomed as a major milestone achieved. The Government did achieve progress on several fronts, such as breaking ice between the two parties, establishing the unified KRG’s authority and improving their collaborative efforts at the regional and national (Iraqi) Cabinet level. However, they failed on institutionalization of the KRG and establishing transparency, accountability, social justice and the rule of law. They failed to formulate a constitution for Kurdistan, empower the regional Parliament, transfer power from the parties (and their organs) to the Government, improve services, attract significant inward (foreign) investment and win the trust of the people of Kurdistan. The KRG is now weaker than it has ever been. Importantly, the unification has lead to a near-collapse of the formerly PUK-governed administration, with most of the major construction and service projects brought to a near standstill and their funds unaccounted for.

Intriguingly, despite these problems, Kurdistan is now a stable entity, destined to last. Soon, the US, Europe and Turkey will come to realize that no one can afford to lose Kurdistan to another war or an all out chaos. Kurdistan reached its current de facto statehood by default, as a consequence of a major change in the World Order, the US policy towards the Middle East and the regime change in Iraq. The Kurds are now major players in Iraq. Their role is likely to diminish in Baghdad in the long term but not significantly so. Fortunately for the Kurds, their lead politicians appear relatively united in Baghdad. They concerte efforts where common interests dictate or allow. Talabani and other Kurdish leaders have played the role of power brokers and negotiators between the Sunnis and Shi’as, and between the US and Iran and Syria.

That said, the Kurdish politicians from different parties are, not as united in Baghdad as they appear. They have not yet been able to agree a common long term strategy for the Kurds in Baghdad, and they continue to fight the battles according to their party instructions. Furthermore, those Kurdish politicians working in Baghdad are torn between their Kurdistani and Iraqi aspirations, and have been criticized for failing to make the most of their positions to enforce the constitution (particularly over the Kirkuk clause).

Independent Kurdistan

The instability in the middle and south of Iraq, combined with the relatively stability in Kurdistan, have given Kurdish politicians a clear advantage, which may not last should Iraq stabilize, at which point the Kurds may find themselves cornered and their influence diminished. Alternatively, if Iraq descends into further mayhem and the Arab Iraqi politicians fail to deliver on the constitutionally-agreed Kirkuk referendum, Kurdistan may choose to go increasingly independent. Independence of southern (Iraqi) Kurdistan may not necessarily be against the interest of the US or Iraq’s neighbours and when the time comes, all the interested parties will have arrived at their own conclusions concerning their self-interest. This topic continues to be debated in the media as a possible threat or unwanted outcome. However, world opinion is increasingly in favour of Kurdish nationhood. If Kurdish politicians play their cards right at home and abroad, win the trust of their people and lobby more effectively against mighty counter lobbies, they could steer the Kurds to independence.

However, independence will not come cheaply or easily. For a start, the leaders have to have a case as well as a cause. They have to demonstrate, among a long list of things, that a) the world would be a better place with a Kurdish state than without it; b) Kurdistan’s independence would not come at the expense of internal minorities’ rights or their neighbours’ stability; c) the land will be governed via a constitutional democracy and the rule of law; d) the principles and practice of the political leadership guarantees transparency and accountability; e) the system in place would promote a thriving open market economy and international trade; and f) the main political parties unite their efforts and share strategies for common goals, rather than engaging in destructive internal conflicts.

None of these were essential for the creation of new member states of the United Nations during the Cold War era or earlier. However, in the modern era, these are fundamental requirements to justify demand for worldwide moral and political support, particularly in establishing an independent state in a troubled region. The track record of the Kurdish politicians so far does not provide any comfort on any of these expectations, and they have collectively failed the Kurds on most accounts. Kurdish politicians have shown that they are no different or better than any other Iraqis when it comes to putting interest before country.

The PUK and KDP could have alternated in Government and opposition, thereby establishing the roots of constitutional democracy in Kurdistan. However, their agreed pact and long-term plans will not allow this. If anything, they have agreed to eliminate any possibility of newly emerging democratic opposition. They watch and monitor each other’s conduct, but not for all the right reasons. They are divided on almost everything, other than sharing the wealth of the nation and keeping the status quo. Corruption within the ranks of both organizations, as well as the KRG administration, is deep-rooted and overwhelming, while the system and services are paralysed. Although the KRG is apparently responding to pressure, there are more words than deeds and little light at the end of the tunnel. The KRG is hoping to attract inward investment on the back of the oil-generated wealth and the vast business opportunities in Kurdistan. However, despite extensive efforts and promotions, they have failed to achieve significant milestones, due mainly to the lack of transparency and accountability. They have failed to demonstrate the will to eliminate corruption or to end party political interference in business and administration.

Having said that, pressure is mounting on the Kurdish leadership to deliver on promises, provide services, establish institutions, protect Kurdish dignity and work for a collective prosperity. True democracy is still non-existent in Kurdistan; however, freedom of expression and outright protest is undeniably present. A free press is emerging and constructive criticism is now tolerated. These may eventually lead to changes, but it is not certain if change will be timely enough.

If Kurdistan fails to win its independence in the next decade or so, it will be largely due to internal rather than external factors and failures. External enemies have always worked to unite the Kurds but the Kurdish parties’ conducts have introduced major cracks in the trust between the people and their leaders, which no doubt will have immeasurable detrimental effects on their chances of success.

The six Iraqi roundtable participants are: