The Kurdish regional government's top diplomat says his people will not bow to U.S. and international pressure to put off a controversial vote on independence from Iraq that would start the process of breaking away from what he calls a "failed" central government.
"Unity cannot be imposed from Washington," Falah Mustafa Bakir, the foreign relations minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government, told U.S. News in an interview at the end of his weeklong trip to D.C. to meet with White House staff, diplomatic officials and members of Congress ahead of the Kurds' binding referendum scheduled for September.
"As friends, allies, and partners, we want the U.S. to support this process. We do believe that the U.S. did invest a lot in Iraq, they have invested lives, treasure, resources, time, energy in order to build the federal democratic Iraq that we wanted. Unfortunately, it did not work, and it is not the U.S. to be blamed," Bakir says. "Since one-Iraq policy has failed, let's try a different route. There can be no different outcome." The Kurds, who have long sought independence, secured some legal autonomy in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion through the new Iraqi constitution, which recognizes Kurdistan's regional government and grants it the ability to pass its own laws, provided they don't conflict with the central government. They also agreed to a revenue-sharing arrangement with Baghdad to facilitate the sale of oil from the region, with the share of the funds a near-constant source of tension between the Kurds and the central government.The U.S. has opposed independence, fearing the move would essentially mean the breakup of Iraq and that it would unsettle the region. But a growing sense of inevitability has accompanied talk of independence since Kurdish militias, known as the peshmerga, emerged as an irreplaceable force in the U.S.-led effort to retake ground from the Islamic State group. Still, even those in Washington who are optimistic about the chances of independence believe now is not the right time to begin the process, particularly as Iraq is still piecing itself back together while battling the remaining Islamic State group havens.
Independence, however, is far from certain, even if a majority of the population in Iraq's Kurdistan region vote in favor of separation in the Sept. 25 referendum. Some, like Nouri al-Maliki, the ousted prime minister currently serving as a vice president, believe such a break would be illegal.
It's unclear what lands would become a part of a Kurdish nation, though Bakir says his government would negotiate with Baghdad. Clashes are all but certain, as the boundaries of Iraq's Kurdish regions have been in flux in recent years.
Bazir acknowledges that Kurdistan has claimed territory that the central government also believes is theirs. He says using the peshmerga to retake Kurdish land forcefully is off the table, and he says they will not use military force to defend any territory that's not rightfully theirs. He also rules out potentially withholding peshmerga participation in future U.S.-led operations against the Islamic State group as a bargaining chip.
The minister believes his government is capable of negotiating a firm and lasting peace with Baghdad if the Kurdish people were to vote for independence. He's confident they could produce "a peaceful separation, a velvet separation, or split."
"We do not want to go there," Bakir says of using military force. "We want to show the rest of the world there has been enough leadership and maturity from both sides … to end this relationship that did not work in this way but start to build a new relationship."
Since the Sykes-Picot agreement more than 100 years ago first defined the Middle East's arbitrary borders, Kurds have laid claim to areas within three Iraqi provinces.
The largest point of contention could center on the province of Kirkuk, whose capital sits at the intersection of Iraq's ethnic fault lines. When the Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of the Islamic State group onslaught in 2014, peshmerga forces with U.S. air support occupied much of this territory and earlier this year took the bold step of raising their flag over the disputed city.
The central government in Iraq has indicated it won't let the Kurds secede in large part over concerns about access to vast oil reserves within this territory. Analysts have suggested the Kurds could use Kirkuk as leverage for negotiations with Baghdad that would either further the cause of independence or bring a larger share of oil revenues.
For the minister, however, the referendum signals there's no turning back.
"It's irreversible," Bakir says. "The train has left the station. We hope the U.S. will be with us through this process."
The minister does not have answers to questions about how he would address Baghdad's concerns over territory or simply the idea of the country fracturing, nor to those about how an independent Kurdistan would affect its regional neighbors. Almost 7 million Kurds live in neighboring Iran, causing fears in Tehran that an independent Kurdish state next door would prompt its own population to demand independence or to seek refuge there. The Turkish government continues to wage war against separatist elements among its 14 million Kurdish citizens, some of whom fight for the PKK, a group Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist network.
Turkey has so far offered military and material aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, with reports of Turkish forces operating in support of the peshmerga. Ankara has also provided the Kurds with an outlet for their oil, allowing them to send from the land-locked region to the open market through a pipeline that ends at a Turkish port, bypassing the central government. Nevertheless, Turkey has strongly indicated now is not the right time for Kurdistan's independence.Bakir believes his government can separate its ambitions from those of fellow Kurds nearby, adding that an Iraqi Kurdistan may even contribute to regional peace. Even though Washington has not traditionally supported the Kurds' breaking away, an autonomous Kurdistan would likely become one of the closest U.S. allies in the region, after Israel.
"For us, we are clear. When we talk about an independent Kurdistan, we talk about an Iraqi Kurdistan. We do not talk about territory beyond the Iraqi border.
"We have been a factor for stability," Bakir adds, "and we have been for building bridges and building ties with the governments of these countries. We acted very responsibly in ensuring these borders are respected. We were never a threat, and we never tried to interfere in the internal affairs of these countries."
After Baghdad, Bakir says, Irbil will engage with Turkey and Iran, as well as other neighboring countries.
"This would not have a negative impact, it will only have a positive impact."
Others believe differently.
Maliki, the disgraced former Iraqi prime minister who may run again for his country's top seat in next year's election, in a recent interview with Russian news service Sputnik called Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani "a dreamer" for believing his people could secede, and he anticipated an attempt to break away would incite violence.
"The official state borders are drawn in blood. He knows peshmerga did not play any role in the fight against ISIS, that Irbil would have been given up to ISIS if it were not for the help of Iraqi, Iranian and U.S. aviation. They have no real force," Maliki said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.
Bazir references the long history in Iraq of brutalities against the Kurds, including Saddam Hussein's brutal massacres of Kurdish people using poison gas in the years leading up to the 1991 Gulf War. Since the first U.S.-backed parliamentary elections in 2005, the Kurds don't believe the central government has fully followed through on its pledges to grant Kurdistan autonomy.
"We were expecting more from the federal government and we were expecting more after the fall of the [Hussein] regime," Bazir says.
"It's not about ceding territory," he says. "It's about achieving justice."