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The Kurdish Role in Iraq: Interview with Renad Mansour

Our Partner Magazine Distilled inter­viewed Renad Man­sour, Ph.D can­di­date at Pem­broke Col­lege (Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge) and assis­tant research direc­tor at the Iraq Insti­tute for Strate­gic Studies. The inter­view was taken by Bram De Rid­der on the 25th of March .This Article first appeared on distilledmagazine.com.

On 19 March 2003, now 10 years ago, the United States and Britain started their war against Iraq and Sad­dam Hus­sein. Pre­ceded by mas­sive airstrikes, the first troops already crossed the bor­der of South­ern Iraq by the next day. From there on they rushed towards Bagh­dad, which fell on the 9th of April, allow­ing Pres­i­dent Bush to declare on the 1st of May ‘the end of major com­bat oper­a­tions’. As we all know now, this con­fi­dent dec­la­ra­tion only sig­nalled the begin­ning of the real fight for the coali­tion troops.

But besides the surge through south­ern Iraq, another front was opened dur­ing the open­ing period of the war. One week after the start of the inva­sion, Amer­i­can units were dropped into North­ern Iraq where they pre­vented Iraqi troops from rein­forc­ing the south. In their fight, they met with an often unmen­tioned ally: the Iraqi Kurds, who had been de facto inde­pen­dent since the 1991 Gulf War. With Turkey refus­ing to aid the coali­tion, the Kurds rose to the occa­sion and cap­tured the impor­tant town of Kirkuk one day after the fall of Bagh­dad. But since then, the fate of these peo­ple got buried under the stream of bad news relat­ing to the wide­spread chaos that ensued fol­low­ing the first months of the war.

Today how­ever, Dis­tilled Extra poses the ques­tion about the Kur­dish role and posi­tion within Iraq. They were involved in the largest war so far fought in the 21st cen­tury, and due to their posi­tion on the bor­ders with Turkey, Syria, and Iran they remain very much a part of regional high pol­i­tics. Rea­son enough for us to speak to Renad Man­sour, Ph.D stu­dent at Pem­broke Col­lege, Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge, and assis­tant research direc­tor at the Iraq Insti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies. As his doc­toral research focuses on the ques­tion of Iraqi fed­er­al­ism and the Kur­dish attempt to draft a sep­a­rate for­eign pol­icy, Mr. Man­sour was able to draw a clear pic­ture of their often for­got­ten influence.

Map of the area Inhab­ited by Kurds
Areas Inhab­ited by Kurds (Wikimedia)

Although the Iraqi Kurds were par­tic­i­pants from the start, their role was far from pre­de­ter­mined before the begin­ning of the actual fight­ing. In early 2003, the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity was rad­i­cally divided over the Amer­i­can plans for inva­sion and accord­ing to Man­sour the Kurds also pon­dered about the course they should fol­low. ‘Sad­dam Hus­sein was a great antag­o­nist to their national strug­gle, which came to geno­cide in the 1980s. So although they had achieved de facto inde­pen­dence under the no-fly zone since 1991, com­ing up to the war in 2003 the Kurds obvi­ously would rather not have a Sad­dam in power. But they were also wor­ried. First and fore­most they did not want to lose the pro­tec­torate they had estab­lished in the pre­vi­ous decade, which seemed to be jeop­ar­dized by the Amer­i­can plans for a reuni­fied Iraq. They did not want to be put again under some sort of Arab government’.

Although this ini­tial fear even led to some talks with Sad­dam Hus­sein, the Kurds ulti­mately decided to get involved with the Amer­i­cans as soon as the inva­sion plans became con­crete. ‘Very quickly they became aware of the fact that it would be bet­ter for them to take charge of the process, and to direct it to their inter­ests’. And those inter­ests meant that they would fol­low a strat­egy of fed­er­al­ism rather than inde­pen­dence. ‘A decen­tral­ized Iraq with a weak Bagh­dad was the objec­tive’, con­firms Man­sour, ‘and it was this idea of fed­er­al­ism that the Kur­dish lead­ers defended at the pre-war meet­ings of the Iraqi oppo­si­tion in Lon­don and New York’.

The next big step for the Iraqi Kurds was of course the inva­sion itself. And here an impor­tant fac­tor was the Turk­ish deci­sion not to sup­port the plans of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, which allowed the Kurds to come to the fore. ‘The Turks were not going to be allowed to go into Kur­dis­tan’, says Man­sour, ‘mean­ing that the Amer­i­cans had to come them­selves. What hap­pened next was that when the US troops did go into Iraq, the Kurds were already there, pre­pared to fight along with them’. This led to joint oper­a­tions, sup­ported by a very coop­er­a­tive atti­tude from the Kur­dish lead­ers. Key exam­ple of this was their posi­tion regard­ing Kirkuk, a much dis­puted city which was returned to an Arab admin­is­tra­tion as soon as the Amer­i­cans made the demand.

‘Basi­cally, the strat­egy at that point was to use their new-found alliance with Amer­ica as well as the erupted antag­o­nism between the US and Turkey to gain lever­age’ states Man­sour, ‘ and dur­ing this period of rearrange­ment they strongly ben­e­fited from the fact that they were the only group that was decently orga­nized, bring­ing in experts such as for­mer US diplo­mat Peter Gal­braith and Pro­fes­sor Karel Soltan to lobby on their behalf’.The objec­tive was to get as much as pos­si­ble out of the polit­i­cal scheme that was soon to be drafted, and much of the results of this tac­tic can be seen in the 2005 Iraqi con­sti­tu­tion. ‘Kur­dis­tan has a lot of auton­omy, its own for­eign pol­icy and tax­a­tion, and the Iraqi army is for­bid­den to enter the region. They are as autonomous as a region can get’.

But as time pro­gressed, it became also impor­tant that Kur­dis­tan man­aged to sur­vive Iraq’s descent into chaos rather unharmed. ‘It remained a rel­a­tively sta­ble region, and keep in mind that since 1991 they were gov­ern­ing their own affairs. There was a group related to Al-Qaeda, Ansar-al-Islam, but regional anti-terrorism units quickly kicked them out’. This sta­bil­ity also came with major advan­tages, as it allowed the Kurds to use the prob­lems of other parts of the coun­try to their advan­tage: ‘When the Sunni and the Shia were fight­ing in Bagh­dad, the Kurds were ready to be kingmakers’.

To some extent how­ever, these suc­cesses back­fired after 2010. ‘The Arabs in the coun­try sim­ply saw it as too much. If you look at oil for exam­ple, which is a national resource accord­ing to the con­sti­tu­tion, the Kurds have invited inter­na­tional com­pa­nies such as Exxon­Mo­bil, Chevron, Gazprom and Total to exploit their own regional oil­fields. Even though Bagh­dad has explained to these com­pa­nies that this is ille­gal’. Such actions led to a reac­tion from the Arabs of Iraq as a whole, which was nev­er­the­less not directed against fed­er­al­ism as such, but much more against the fact that if it were allowed to progress too far in favour of any actor it threat­ened the very cohe­sion of the country.

And yet, Kurds and Arabs have found them­selves together in a dif­fer­ent strug­gle. ‘The big issue in Iraq now is the rise of a new despotic power in Prime Min­is­ter Nouri Al-Maliki. Inter­est­ingly enough, this has brought together a cross-ethnic alliance organ­ised by influ­en­tial Sunni, Shia, and Kur­dish lead­ers to go against him’. And accord­ing to Man­sour, the Kurds for their part are mainly involved in this because they do not wish to see a new threat arise against their auton­omy: ‘They do not want Iraq to have a strong leader’.

Added to the issue of Bagh­dad cen­tral­ism is the Kur­dish depen­dency on fed­eral money, with 90% of the resources of the Kur­dish Regional Gov­ern­ment com­ing from the cap­i­tal. ‘This has prompted them to find alter­na­tive eco­nomic arrange­ments, one of which is the idea of a pipeline from Turkey through Kur­dis­tan’. So all in all, it seems that after a very advan­ta­geous period Kur­dis­tan is increas­ingly involved in a game of care­ful bal­anc­ing between the dif­fer­ent forces in the country.

Mov­ing to another field, there is the obser­va­tion that the Iraqi Kurds are con­nected to more issues than the national ones. Cou­pled to their national engage­ment is the fact that they are play­ing a proac­tive role in inter­na­tional pol­i­tics, and Man­sour believes they do so much more than before. ‘In the 1990s they were entirely depen­dent on the US and the UN as an exter­nal guar­an­tor. At least security-wise they can han­dle their own ter­ri­tory now, and this has allowed them to be more involved in Bagh­dad pol­i­tics’. But still, Amer­i­can pro­tec­tion is very much wel­come, which has led them to offer the US a per­ma­nent base near the Iran­ian bor­der, although this idea was con­tested within Kur­dis­tan itself.

The gen­eral atti­tude towards the Ira­ni­ans seems indeed very hard to describe, as it is fuelled by the antag­o­nism between Tehran and Ankara: ‘There are dif­fer­ent seg­ments within Iraqi Kur­dis­tan that have dif­fer­ent rela­tions with their east­ern neigh­bour. Iran is a trad­ing part­ner and some Kur­dish Islamist par­ties have close con­nec­tions with the coun­try, but other groups are more closely related to Turkey. As a whole, Iraq is becom­ing a coun­try where these two coun­tries have some sort of a middle-eastern Cold War, and you can observe this as well in Kurdistan’.

Regard­ing their west­ern fron­tier and the Syr­ian civil war, Man­sour stresses that there are many for­eign poli­cies in Iraq and that the Kurds are only one of the groups that have tried to for­mu­late one of their own. Impor­tant for them how­ever is that they have to con­sider their rel­a­tives across the Syr­ian bor­der, which have been granted a lot more auton­omy as Bashar al-Assad wanted to retal­i­ate against Turk­ish cri­tiques. ‘The con­se­quence was that both Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds now work together to refor­mat the polit­i­cal pro­gram of the Syr­ian Kurds to one of non­vi­o­lence, includ­ing a renounce­ment of PKK strate­gies. And as long as they do that they will be fine’.

But of course, it is impos­si­ble to pre­dict how the sit­u­a­tion will evolve for the Iraqi Kurds. It are uncer­tain times for every­one involved in Iraq and pes­simism pre­vails in Euro­pean and North-American media. But accord­ing to Man­sour, there are signs of hope: ‘The pic­ture of Iraq right now is very grim, and is hard to see, at least in the near future, some shift towards demo­c­ra­tic gov­er­nance. But that is not to say it is a com­plete dis­as­ter, and when you talk to many Iraqis they know that the sys­tem is cor­rupt but there is also some opti­mism, much more than in the West. And they have to be opti­mistic: not for noth­ing Iraq has a his­tory of cross-ethnic relations’.

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Distilled Magazine

Distilled Magazine is our partner magazine. Instead of relying on a permanent staff of professional journalists, it aims to share the real-life expertise of writers from a variety of backgrounds: politics to academia, business to development, pop culture to high art.