ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is testing the limits of his power as the federal government continues to introduce punitive measures against the Kurdistan Region.
While Important European countries, like France and Germany, have protested these Iraqi measures, the US, as well as the UK, have been largely silent. And it is their silence, amounting to tacit approval, that has prevailed so far.
Following the Sep. 25 referendum on independence in the Kurdistan Region and disputed areas, Baghdad declared the vote “unconstitutional” and announced it would impose its federal authority over all of Iraq.
As such, it imposed an international flight ban on the Kurdistan Region and demanded that all international border crossings and oil fields be handed over to the central government.
While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has consistently called for dialogue and de-escalation, the Federal Government of Iraq, led by Abadi, has ramped up its rhetoric, and its actions have followed suit.
Baghdad warned it would deploy troops to the disputed territories in the aftermath of the referendum and held true to its threat: on Oct. 16, Iranian-backed Shia militias and Iraqi forces attacked the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other disputed areas. Clashes continued for 11 days until a ceasefire was declared on Oct. 27.
The Kurdish leadership has denounced the use of military force against the people of the Kurdistan Region as unconstitutional. But Abadi has been pushing the limits of the Iraqi constitution with little resistance from international “honest brokers”—above all, the US and UK.
“It is against the constitution for the Iraqi army to use arms against its own people, which is also exactly what happened, unfortunately,” Mohammed Ali, spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) explained to Al Jazeera.
Indeed, rather than protect the constitutionally-enshrined rights of the Kurdistan Region, the Iraqi Federal Court bolstered Abadi’s position by ruling on Monday that the constitution “did not allow for the secession of any part of the country,” raising the specter of collusion between the court and the central government.
“They cannot reach a decision on whether the referendum was constitutional or not - without even consulting us,” said Sadie Pier, a senior KRG official and member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PUK).
“All the reactions in the post-referendum period have been highly politicized, and it is very unfortunate to see that an entity such as the constitutional court is taking sides,” Ali explained.
Abadi’s government and the measures of the Shia-dominated Parliament have thus far included: issuing arrests warrants for members of the Kurdistan Region’s Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission (IHERC); threatening government employees who participated in the vote with withholding their salaries; blocking Kurdish legislators from certain sessions of Parliament; revoking the licenses of Kurdish news outlets and shutting down their offices in Baghdad.
Now, Kurdish officials argue, they are blatantly violating the constitution.
“The drafting of the budget has been done with a mentality of revenge ... even the budget has been politicized,” Ali said, as he decried the central government's sanctions, including the international air embargo on the Kurdish Region.
A Kurdish lawmaker in Baghdad went as far as to claim these were attempts by the Federal Government of Iraq to dissolve the KRG and deny Kurdish constitutional rights.
“Proceeding with Iraq's [budget bill] and approach translates into the division of the Kurdistan Region and dissolution of the KRG,” said Massoud Hayder, a Kurdish lawmaker for Gorran (Change) in the Iraqi Parliament and member of the Parliament’s finance committee.
Notably, Gorran was the Kurdish party most sympathetic to Baghdad and its opposition to the independence referendum.
“It is a strategy to change the constitution of Iraq and remove articles that protect Kurdish rights. Removing the three provinces [Erbil, Sulaimani, and Duhok] from the framework of the Kurdistan Region would eliminate obstacles to amending the constitution,” the Kurdish lawmaker concluded.
The Kurdish government strongly criticized the budget bill, which went as far as calling the KRG the ‘government of the provinces,’ as well as diminishing the status of its other institutions and ministries to that of ‘provincial authorities.’
Similarly, Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs instructed its employees this week not to refer to the Kurdistan Region when requesting time off for travel and holiday. “Instead, write you that you were in or are traveling within Iraq,” read the official internal memo. Iraqis represent the overwhelming majority of tourists to the Kurdistan Region.
A statement by the Kurdistan Region’s government affirmed that the use of such language violates articles 117 and 121 of the Iraqi Constitution, which officially recognizes the Kurdistan Region and the KRG’s related authorities as a federal region in the country.
Subsequently, Iraq’s central bank ordered private banks to close their branches in the Kurdistan Region “within a week” to avoid a foreign currency ban – namely dollars.
As Renad Mansour, a Chatham House fellow, described these measures, “It's hard to view these as legal matters because it's all politics, so even something like the court is politicized.”
In the face of mounting sanctions and a biased court, Kurds are asking how far Abadi can go before the international community recognizes that a non-binding “unconstitutional” referendum is the least of their worries when it comes to the stability of Iraq?
Laurie Mylroie contributed to this report