Iraqi Kurd officials lobbying for independence in Washington

The Wall Street Journal reports: Senior officials from the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan are in Washington laying the groundwork for a formal bid for independence, despite opposition from the Obama administration.

Key aides to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani have met staff from the State Department, White House and Congress over the past two days, describing what the Kurds say is the “new reality” in Iraq. Numerous territories in the west of the country have fallen in recent weeks to the militant group Islamic State, which recently changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

Mr. Barzani is moving to hold a referendum among Iraq’s Kurdish population, after which the government in the Kurdish capital of Erbil could seek to formally secede, his top aides told a gathering of reporters Thursday.

“If we can’t live together, we will go for divorce,” said Fuad Hussein, Mr. Barzani’s chief of staff, who met Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday. “It is now about a new reality.”

A move toward Kurdish independence would represent a repudiation of Obama administration policy, which seeks to maintain a united Iraq. U.S. officials worry that Kurdish independence could fuel secessionist bids by Kurdish territories in other parts of the Middle East, particularly Turkey and Syria. [Continue reading...]

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Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Time reports: The partition of Iraq lurched closer to reality on Tuesday when the head of the country’s already quasi-autonomous Kurdish region publicly declared he would schedule a referendum on independence. Polls and previous votes indicate that the measure is certain to pass, leading, in all likelihood, to an independent Kurdistan on the northern and northeastern borders of Iraq.

“From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Regional Kurdistan Government, told the BBC in an interview. “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people.”

The referendum will come in “a matter of months,” Barzani said. He said the Kurdistan parliament must first establish an independent electoral authority, then establish the date for the referendum that Barzani made clear will end with the creation of a state. [Continue reading...]

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Kurds tell Kerry: ‘We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq’

Rudaw reports: When the US delegation that was arriving in Baghdad asked Iraqi Kurdistan’s top leaders to be there to meet with them, the Kurds reportedly refused.

In that rejection, and the reception they gave to Kerry in their own capital of Erbil on Tuesday, the Iraqi Kurds showcased their newfound confidence, strength and unity.

Knowing full well this was the last thing Washington’s top diplomat wanted to hear, the autonomous Kurdistan Region’s President Massoud Barzani brought up what his people wanted to talk about: independence.

Kerry was in Erbil to urge the Kurds to back the formation of a new, inclusive government in Baghdad, as insurgents that include the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rack up stunning military victories against the Iraqi army and threaten to splinter Iraq.

Barzani told Kerry it could no longer be business as usual. “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.”

And while he did not reject Kerry’s request that the Kurds be part of a new, inclusive government in Baghdad, Barzani insisted that would have to be on Erbil’s terms. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS recruits Kurdish youths, creating a potential new risk in a peaceful part of Iraq

The Washington Post reports: This town near the Iranian border has long been a symbol of Kurdish resistance, and it is best known as the site of a gruesome chemical-weapons attack by Saddam Hussein in 1988.

These days, residents say, it is increasingly known for something else — although few want to talk about it.

Kurdish authorities say a small contingent of Kurdish youths — around 150 in all, about a third of whom are from Halabja — has in recent months joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has seized a vast swath of Iraqi territory.

The young men’s allegiance to the extremist militant group represents a potential danger for the Kurds, who share the jihadists’ resentment of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government but are wary of the extremists now massed on the edge of their territory. The Kurds have hoped to keep their largely autonomous region in northern Iraq from being entangled in the country’s increasingly bloody conflict.

Some Kurdish intelligence officials fear that with ISIS’s gains, more local youths will join the jihadists and that the radical ideology could creep beyond Arab Iraq and into Iraqi Kurdistan, which has so far remained an oasis of calm and order. [Continue reading...]

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Kurdish control of Kirkuk

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Israel accepts delivery of disputed Kurdish pipeline oil

Reuters reports: A tanker delivered a cargo of disputed crude oil from Iraqi Kurdistan’s new pipeline for the first time on Friday in Israel, despite threats by Baghdad to take legal action against any buyer.

The SCF Altai tanker arrived at Israel’s Ashkelon port early on Friday morning, ship tracking and industry sources said. By the evening, the tanker began unloading the Kurdish oil, a source at the port said.

The port authority at Ashkelon declined to comment.

Securing the first sale of oil from its independent pipeline is crucial for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as it seeks greater financial independence from war-torn Iraq.

But the new export route to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, designed to bypass Baghdad’s federal pipeline system, has created a bitter dispute over oil sale rights between the central government and the Kurds. [Continue reading...]

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Conflict shows new, closer Turk-Iraqi Kurdish ties

The Wall Street Journal reports: The military posture of northern Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government to defend itself against advancing Islamist rebels spotlights a reversal in one of the region’s most toxic relationships: Between Turkey and the Kurds.

In previous years, Kurdish assertiveness — even in neighboring Iraq — was often countered by Turkey, which for more than a quarter century was locked in a deadly conflict with Kurdish separatists in its own country before launching peace talks in 2012.

But since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, Turkey has built close ties to the Kurdish government in its regional capital of Erbil, Iraq, expanding bilateral trade and coordinating vital policy issues, including the civil war in Syria.

Underscoring that trend, Turkey has kept mum on Erbil’s mobilization to defend its borders this past week by deploying its Peshmerga troops into the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk. In past decades, Turkey has fiercely objected any Kurdish advances in Kirkuk, maintaining that the city has a multi-ethnic character and a large population of Iraqi Turkmens.

Turkey is itself preoccupied with freeing about 80 hostages captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) when the Sunni Muslim rebel group captured Mosul this past week.

Kurdish officials now agree that the fate of Turkey and the Kurds are entwined, and policy increasingly reflects shared economic and security interests. [Continue reading...]

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How the Kurds may benefit from the ISIS rampage

Foreign Policy reports: Amid the rubble left in Iraq by the rampage of Islamist insurgents, one group seems poised to benefit: the Kurds. Baghdad’s flailing response to the offensive launched by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham opens the door to greater geographical reach for the Kurdish region, greater leverage over the central government, and a stronger possibility of becoming a big energy exporter in its own right.

The Islamist insurgents, known variously as ISIS and ISIL, continued their drive south toward the Iraqi capital on Thursday after having captured key northern cities, including Mosul. No less vigorous has been the Kurdish response: In sharp contrast to the Iraqi military forces, which evaporated despite outnumbering ISIS fighters, Kurdish military forces on Thursday took Kirkuk, an important city straddling the Arab and Kurdish parts of Iraq and the centerpiece of the northern oil industry. The Kurdish occupation, in a matter of hours, of a city that has been a bone of contention between Arabs and Kurds for centuries — and especially during Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq — underscores how dramatically the ISIS offensive is redrawing the map of Iraq.

“This may be the end of Iraq as it was. The chances that Iraq can return to the centralized state that [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki was trying to restore are minimal at this point,” said Marina Ottaway, a Middle East specialist at the Wilson Center.

The contrast between robust security in Kurdish-ruled parts of the country and the security vacuum left by fleeing Iraqi troops could ultimately roll back decades of Iraqi history and put Kurdish leaders in Erbil in the catbird seat, especially when it comes to a contentious tug of war over energy resources.

“The strategic failure of Iraqi forces has really shifted the entire balance of power between the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East director at the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy. “It really allows the KRG to negotiate with Baghdad on entirely different terms” when it comes to a fight over the Kurds’ right to export oil directly.

For years, Kurds in northern Iraq sought to benefit more from the region’s abundant oil and gas resources, but energy exports were centralized in Baghdad, with export revenues shared among Iraq’s regions. Kurdish leaders argued that the deal shortchanged them because they never got the 17 percent of revenues they were promised.

As a result, the Kurds decided — in the face of a barrage of threats and intimidation from Baghdad — to build their own energy-export infrastructure, enabling them to transport oil directly to nearby Turkey. That pipeline opened this year and energy firms operating in the region say that it will be fully operational later this year. Getting the export pipeline up to cruising speed is important for the Kurdish government. It needs to export about 450,000 barrels of oil a day to earn what it received from the central government. By the end of next year, the KRG hopes to be exporting as many as 1 million barrels a day. [Continue reading...]

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Kurdish troops in control of Kirkuk

The New York Times reports: Kurdish officials said on Thursday that their forces had taken full control of the strategic oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, after government troops abandoned their posts there and disappeared, introducing a new dimension into the swirling conflict propelled by Sunni militants pressing south toward Baghdad.

“The army disappeared,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk.
[...]
Unlike the Iraqi national army, the Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, are disciplined and very loyal to their leaders and their cause: autonomy and eventual independence for a Kurdish state. The Kurds’ allegiance to the Shiite Arab-led Iraqi central government is limited, but neither are they known to be allied with the Sunni Arab militants. Many of the tens of thousands of Mosul residents who fled the militant takeover of the city have sought safety in Kurdish-controlled areas. [Continue reading...]

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Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan clinch major energy pipeline deals

Reuters reports: Iraqi Kurdistan has finalized a comprehensive package of deals with Turkey to build multi-billion dollar oil and gas pipelines to ship the autonomous region’s rich hydrocarbon reserves to world markets, sources involved in talks said on November 6.

The deals, which could have important geo-political consequences for the Middle East, could see Kurdistan export some 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil to world markets and at least 10 billion cubic meters per year of gas to Turkey.

Such a relationship would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, when Ankara enjoyed strong ties with Iraq’s central Baghdad government and was deep in a decades-long fight with Kurdish militants on its own soil.

But Turkey imports almost all of its energy needs and growing demand means it faces a ballooning deficit, making the resources over its southeastern border hard to ignore.

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Kurdish rebels declare formal ceasefire with Turkey

Reuters reports: The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group declared a “formal and clear ceasefire” with Turkey on Saturday after the rebels’ jailed leader this week ordered a halt to the decades-long armed campaign for autonomy.

“Since March 21 and from now on, we as a movement, as the PKK … officially and clearly declare a ceasefire,” said Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s field commander, in a video message apparently taped at a rebel holdout in northern Iraq.

His comments were translated from Kurdish in the video posted on Firat News, a website with links to the militants.

Abdullah Ocalan, held in an island prison since his 1999 conviction for treason, called on the PKK to cease fire and withdraw from Turkey in a letter read to hundreds of thousands of supporters in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on March 21, the Kurds’ traditional new year holiday.

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Video: Kurdish group releases captive Turks

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Will there be an independent Kurdistan?

Will the losers in the region’s post-WWI upheavals be the winners of the ‘Arab Spring’?

David Hirst writes: The Baghdad newspaper Sabah published a surprising article a few weeks ago. Its editor, Abd Jabbar Shabbout, suggested it was time to settle the “age-old problem” between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds by establishing a “Kurdish state.” Never before had I heard such a once-heretical view so publicly expressed in any Arab quarter. And this was no ordinary quarter: Sabah is the mouthpiece of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Shabbout went on to suggest a negotiated “ending of the Arab-Kurdish partnership in a peaceful way.”

He called his proposal Plan B, Plan A being the “dialogue” between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq that emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

But Plan A, he said, was getting nowhere. Differences over power and authority, oil and natural resources, territory and borders were so deep that the dialogue repeatedly failed. In December the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga faced off in an atmosphere so tense, according to Shabbout, that hostilities could have broken out at any moment as a result of the slightest miscalculation.

And it wasn’t only Shabbout, but Maliki himself, who warned that if war did break out it wouldn’t be just a war between Kurdish rebels and Baghdad, as it used to be under Hussein, but an “ethnic war between Arabs and Kurds.”

Could it be that the “Kurdish question” has reached another critical stage in its history, one that is intimately bound up with the region-wide cataclysm that is the “Arab Spring”?

The Kurds’ destiny has always been shaped less by their own struggles than by the vagaries of regional and international politics, and the great Middle Eastern upheavals they periodically produce. With World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France promised the Kurds a state of their own, but then reneged. They fetched up as minorities, more or less severely repressed, in the four countries — Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria — among which their vast domains were divided. They repeatedly rebelled, especially in Iraq. But their rebellions were always crushed, the last one, under Hussein with the genocidal use of gas.

But the Kurds never ceased to dream of independent statehood. Their first breakthrough came after Hussein’s megalomaniacal invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when an internationally protected Kurdish “safe haven” was established in northern Iraq, which enabled them to take their first state-building steps in the shape of a regional assembly and a degree of self-government.

Then, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds consolidated their autonomy with broad new legislative powers, control of their own armed forces and some authority over Iraqi oil resources. But from the outset, they made it clear that they would remain committed to the “new Iraq” only if it treated them as an equal partner. [Continue reading...]

Turkey’s new thinking on Iraqi Kurdistan

Semih Idiz writes: The idea of an independent Kurdistan bordering Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, which has been wracked with separatist violence from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for over quarter of a century, would have raised official hackles only a few years back.

During those days, Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani, the current president of Iraq, and Massoud Barzani, the current head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), were objects of Turkish vilification for their alleged backing of the PKK, and its seemingly endless campaign for separation from Turkey in a war that has resulted in over 30,000 deaths to date.

Far from ceasing, PKK attacks have escalated today due to the crisis in Syria and the turmoil in the Middle East. Based on traditional assumptions this should have driven a bigger wedge between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey. Meanwhile, nationalist Turks still believe the Iraqi Kurdish authorities are providing refuge and logistical support to the PKK lodged in the mountains of Northern Iraq.

However, the official position of Ankara towards the Iraqi Kurds has changed so fundamentally that many are left wondering why Turkey did not come around to its current position much earlier. The change in Ankara’s stance is so significant that Massoud Barzani, in his capacity of Kurdistan Region President, was one of the honored guests at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Congress in Ankara at the end of September.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s March 2011 visit to Erbil, the regional Kurdish capital, was a watershed event amounting to recognition by Ankara of the KRG as a separate political entity, and resulting in the rapid normalizing of ties between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. So what was the driving force behind this dramatic “volte-face” by Turkey, which once had 200,000 troops on the border threatening to move into Northern Iraq, and in fact going on to do so on a number of occasions?

An irony during the period of high tension between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds is that this tension never prevented individual Turks or Turkish companies from moving into the region and beginning to invest there heavily. One of the masterminds of this economic cooperation, which today is clearly working to mutual advantage, was KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. [Continue reading...]

Map of ‘Syrian Kurdistan’ releases cautiously marked borders

Al Arabiya reports: The Kurdish Centre for Legal Studies and Consultancy, also known as YASA, released a map of what it described as “Syrian Kurdistan” which marks the borders of the Kurdish territories inside Syria.

According to the map, Syrian Kurdistan, also labeled Western Kurdistan by the Bonn-based center, starts from the village of Ain Diwar in the governorate of Hasakah in the northeast and extends across the Turkish borders till the far northwest near the city of Iskenderun.

The map features major cities in the northern Syria like Dêrik, Rmêlan, Tirbespiyê, Kobanî, and Afrin and the percentage of Kurds, Arabs, and Christians in each of them.

The map does not, however, specify the exact area of Syrian Kurdistan, which, according to the center, is not possible at the moment for security reasons. A second study is tp offer more accurate figures.

Based on YASA statistics, the number of Kurds in Syria is estimated at three million, mostly living in the north together with Arab and Christian minorities.

Obama and the Kurdish question: Drones are not the answer

Kevin McKiernan writes: The role of the Obama administration in suppressing the long-running Kurdish uprising in Turkey is largely unknown. But a few weeks ago a U.S. diplomat dropped an intriguing clue. Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., Obama’s ambassador to Turkey, revealed that the U.S. had secretly offered Turkey what was, in effect, a bin Laden-style assassination of the top leadership of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), the rebels who have been fighting the U.S.-equipped Turkish army since 1984.

“Your enemies are our enemies,” Ricciardone told Turkish reporters at a news conference in Ankara. “The power of the multidisciplinary approach is what got bin Laden in the end, and we would like to share that and exploit that intimately.”

When I heard the ambassador’s remarks, I had just left Syria, where a different Kurdish group is struggling for its own autonomy. I was en route at the time to Mt. Qandhil, one of the highest mountains in neighboring Iraq, where PKK rebels have a sanctuary. I was seeking reaction to news that Turkey was quietly negotiating with Abdullah Ocalan, the notorious PKK founder who was captured in 1999 with U.S. assistance, and who since then, has become a cause célèbre with many Kurds in the Middle East.

The 28-year-old Kurdish uprising in Turkey has resulted in 40,000 deaths, most of them Kurds. The U.S. considers the PKK a terrorist group, but experts say both the rebels and Turkish troops have committed human rights abuses. Today, the struggle goes beyond military conflict. Since 2009, some 8,000 Kurdish civilians have been arrested in Turkey. That includes lawyers and at least 100 journalists — more than in Iran or China.

This fall, some 700-1,000 prisoners went on hunger strike in Turkey, demanding that Ocalan be removed from solitary confinement and that Kurds receive broadcasting rights, education in their native tongue and ethnic recognition in the Turkish constitution. Turkey claims that most of the prisoners have ties to the PKK, but according to Human Rights Watch, many Kurds were arrested in a “crackdown on legal pro-Kurdish politics.”

Against this backdrop came Ambassador Ricciardone’s startling disclosure: the administration’s misguided proposal to target the Kurdish rebel leadership. In fact, the PKK is not al-Qaeda, nor has it targeted Americans — and Turkey wisely rejected the U.S. offer. [Continue reading...]

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Violence dims hope of solution to Turkish Kurd conflict

Reuters reports: Images of smiling Kurdish MPs hugging rebels, rifles slung over their shoulders, at a remote roadblock in Turkey’s mountainous southeast hit a raw nerve.

The embrace, depicted in Turkish newspapers as battles raged with government troops, fed a climate of animosity which is undermining hopes of a revival of secret talks to end a 28-year-old separatist conflict.

Escalating violence could instead now entrench a primarily military response from Ankara to an insurgency that has killed more than 40,000 people. Nine Turkish police and soldiers were killed over the weekend in clashes with Kurdish rebels.

The roadside meeting came as Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels, inspired by the growing influence of an allied Kurdish group in Syria, laid siege to Turkey’s mountainous district of Semdinli bordering Iraq and Iran.

“It is a vicious cycle,” said Soner Cagaptay from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Whenever there is a spike in violence, Turkey’s willingness to consider a political solution becomes weaker.”

Ankara sees the hand of Damascus in the PKK’s new found energy, accusing it of arming the rebels and allowing a PKK-linked party to control parts of Syria to prevent locals joining the 17-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

“The PKK has been excited by the developments in Syria and is trying to prove its worth and credibility by trying to take parts of Turkish territory, however temporarily,” Cagaptay said.

In a show of strength, the PKK has set up roadblocks and kidnapped Turkish officials and is believed to be behind recent deadly bomb attacks on the western coast of Turkey and in the city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border.

“The aim of these acts is to show that no place in Turkey is safe, that they are capable of spreading terrorism to every region…and prove their control and influence,” said retired major general Armagan Kuloglu, an analyst at a think-tank in Ankara.

He said the attacks were aimed to sow discord between Kurds and Turks. The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, had little prospect of drawing Ankara back to the negotiating table with such a strategy.

Talking to the PKK was long unpalatable to Turkish public opinion. While recordings leaked last year from secret meetings in Oslo between the intelligence service and the outlawed group suggested times may have changed, that window for negotiations may be closing. [Continue reading...]

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Turkey: 115 Kurdish rebels killed in offensive

The Associated Press reports: Turkey’s security forces have killed as many as 115 Kurdish rebels during a major security offensive over the past two weeks, the country’s interior minister said Sunday.

Idris Naim Sahin said the rebels were killed in an airpower backed offensive near the town of Semdinli, in Hakkari province which sits on the border with Iraq. He said the offensive began on July 23.

Sahin provided few other details on the ongoing operation but said the security forces were trying to block the rebels’ escape routes into northern Iraq.

Private NTV television said earlier that as many as 2,000 troops were taking part in the offensive and that public access to some roads in the area were blocked.

Earlier Sunday, Kurdish rebels raided three military posts in simultaneous attacks in Hakkari, sparking a clash at one paramilitary outpost that left six soldiers and 14 rebels dead. Two government-paid village guards assisting the Turkish military were also killed.

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Video: Al Jazeera interviews Kurdish president Massoud Barzani

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