Anyone following the statements of Iraqi officials, especially Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, as well as the official Iraqi press, would be surprised at the dramatic change in their language regarding the Kurds. Not so long ago, they spoke respectfully about us. However, for the past three weeks, since Baghdad’s assault on the disputed territories began, their language has grown astonishingly harsh.
Iraq’s 2005 constitution formally guarantees Kurdish rights within a federal state and recognizes the authority of the “region of Kurdistan.” However, since October 16—when Iraqi forces, in concert with Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, seized control of Kirkuk—Abadi, along with Iraq’s official media, instead refer to “our beloved northern Iraq.”
That was the language of Saddam Hussein’s regime—which it used to deny even the existence of a Kurdish people. Such language facilitated Saddam’s brutal repression of the Kurds, including the genocidal Anfal campaign, in which Iraqi forces used chemical weapons; depopulated the Kurdish countryside; and sought to concentrate the surviving population in easily-controlled settlement towns.
Their change in tone is an unambiguous indicator that Iraqi officials do not really believe in Kurdish rights. It also suggests that to the extent they recognized some Kurdish rights, it was only because they were forced to do so. This explains their change of tone—overnight—after feeling the ecstasy of apparent victory!
The Baghdad government now displays an unprecedented level of arrogance toward Kurds, as if Iraqi forces alone had gained control of the disputed areas—and not as a result of Tehran’s support and intervention.
The Peshmerga, known for their bravery and resistance, were not really defeated. What happened was the result of an agreement between a faction of the Talabani family and the head of Iran’s al Quds force, Qassim Soleimani, and the Iraqi government, prompting the Peshmerga to withdraw and show little resistance in Kirkuk.
When Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed militias later attacked the Peshmerga, they were promptly repulsed. The assailants took heavy losses, particularly considering they outnumbered the Kurdish fighters and benefited from better equipment, including US weaponry.
The referendum has only been used as an excuse to attack Kurdistan. In 2013, then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent his guns and tanks into the disputed areas, particularly around Khanaqin. At the same time, he cut the Kurdistan Region’s budget share and the wages of government employees there. No Kurdish official had said a word about a referendum then!
Iraq’s constitution forbids the use of military force to settle internal, political conflicts. Baghdad’s assault on Kirkuk and other disputed territories is a grave violation of the constitution. Nonetheless, the Iraqi government brags about it, encouraging ethnic hatred among Arabs for Kurds, even as there is a strong sectarian dimension to the flames of animosity that Baghdad is stoking.
Iraq’s Arab population is overwhelmingly Shi’ite. Kurds are overwhelmingly Sunni. The ethnic tensions that Baghdad is exploiting are also sectarian tensions, which Tehran exploits as well.
The Iraqi constitution states that the status of the disputed areas is to be resolved through a referendum. That vote was supposed to occur by the end of 2007. It has yet to be held! As the State Department affirmed, “The reassertion of federal authority over disputed areas in no way changes their status – they remain disputed until their status is resolved in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.”
Yet Baghdad ignores that—while the US does little.
Iraqi forces and their militia allies are committing gross abuses of human rights, especially in Kirkuk and the ethnically-mixed town of Tuz Khurmatu. As Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations have reported, those forces have conducted a campaign of looting and arson; arbitrary arrests; and even targeted killings.
Their objective, as the head of Kirkuk’s Provincial Council explained, is to change the sectarian composition of the area: force Sunnis to flee and replace them with Shiites.
Baghdad is also cracking down on press freedoms, inhibiting independent reporting about its atrocities in the disputed areas. A Kurdistan TV cameraman, Arkan Sharif, was brutally murdered at his home outside Kirkuk. His killers left a knife in his mouth, signaling their motive, while intimidating other journalists. Kurdistan TV charged the Iranian-controlled Shiite militias with responsibility for the horrific crime.
Iraq is also pushing for the closure of Kurdistan 24 News Network, after making baseless accusations that we promote violence. If Kurdistan 24 and other Kurdish channels threaten the civil peace, as Baghdad claims, what of the demolition, burning, looting, and kidnapping, after the Iranian-backed militias gained control of disputed territories? What about the murder of some 600 people in those areas, as local humanitarian organizations and the Kurdistan government have reported?
In the face of all this, the US has maintained a studied neutrality. The Kurdish people feel enormous frustration at the US’ silence, as Iranian-backed militias attacked Kurdistan. “America betrayed us” was seen on the streets of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and while they were taken down, the feeling remains.
The US wants to see Abadi reelected. However, it is a pipe dream. Abadi is not so popular among Shiite voters, and it is doubtful he will prevail in the next elections, scheduled for May. And even if he does win, Washington is delusional about Abadi’s ability to curb Iranian influence in Iraq.
Iraq’s record is full of countless violations of human rights. It is a Shiite sectarian regime, dominated by Tehran. If the US continues to do nothing to stop Baghdad’s aggression against its minorities, it will merely facilitate Iran’s further expansion in the region, while setting the stage for continued instability and conflict within Iraq itself.
Noreldin Waisy is the General Manager of Kurdistan 24 News Network. He can be followed on Twitter: @nwaisy