Sherif Elgebeily: Kurdistan – Federalism, sovereignty and independence

Introducing Sherif Elgebeily

Sherif ElgebeilySherif Elgebeily (Washington DC, 1982) studies for a Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law at the American University of Cairo.

Moreover, he is political reporter at Nile TV.

In this interview, he discusses the current position of Kurdistan within Iraq. How much sovereignty does Kurdistan enjoy? How much power does the Kurdish Regional Government have within Iraq? And what are the prospects for an independent Kurdistan? The other part of the interview is Sherif Elgebeily: Kurdistan – Armed conflict or peaceful settlement?.

Interview

Sovereignty of Iraq’s Kurdistan

What is the current position of the federal region Kurdistan within Iraq’s constitution?

The region commonly referred to as Iraqi Kurdistan is recognized as a federal region in Iraqi Constitution under article 117, consisting of the three provinces of Dahuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah. The Kurdish Regional Government, led by Nechirvan Barzani since 2006, exercises legal supremacy and financial autonomy, including taxes and grants, within Kurdistan. There is also a Kurdish National Guard made up of peshmerga forces and Iraqi Kurdistan also has exclusive ownership of its own resources.

Essentially, the KRG has its own ministers, who do not report to Baghdad, their own economy, their own internal border, and they are their only policemen. More importantly, perhaps, the Kurds have their own foreign policy and their government is internationally recognized.

In how far do the de facto sovereignty of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the de jure sovereignty of Iraq’s national government overlap?

This issue revolves around the four disputed regions of Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salah el-din which technically fall under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi government and not the KRG. However, there are significant numbers, sometimes the majority population, of Kurdish residents who, undoubtedly, are allied more naturally to the KRG than to the Iraqi government.

A prime example of Kurdish influence beyond the defined borders is the town of Khanaqin, 16 kilometers into Iraqi territory, where 99% of the estimated 175 000 inhabitants voted for Kurdish parties in 2005. At an even more grassroots level, the Kurdish influence cannot be missed- beyond the conversations in Kurdish, street signs are in their native language and government buildings hang pictures of Barzani in place of Maliki and the Kurdish flag in place of the Iraqi flag. Reports have also surfaced of entry into the town being denied without Kurdish-issued ID cards, which would only serve to aggravate an already precarious situation.

What has been the role of world politics in the power struggle between the KRG position and the Iraq’s national government?

Washington has always been a close ally to the Kurds and one need only look to the recent visit of US Vice-President Joe Biden to Baghdad to note the fact that the situation in Iraq, as a whole, is one that owes much to world politics and the international community, not least the involvement of the US. US diplomatic pressure has been slowly mounting under the Obama administration as US troops begin their pull-out, which coincides with recent renewed efforts by the Maliki government to strengthen their position.

Today, the Iraqi central government is far stronger than it has been in the past- the Iraqi military is stronger, Sunni-Shia tensions are reduced and Maliki is looking to gain support in Sunni Arab areas as a national champion who can unify the Iraqis. Attacks and suicide bombings may have spiked in recent weeks and months, but the core of the Iraqi government is in a far more consolidated position, despite the security risks that still exist.

Nevertheless, one must not forget the path that was taken to reach this point- the international community both regionally and further afield have been on hand with military, economic and political support throughout the periods of interim government up to the modern day democratically elected Iraq.

How much influence does the KRG have outside the federal region Kurdistan?

The role of the KRG per se is not one that extends much beyond the boundaries of the de facto control of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, Kurds living outside of the three provinces clearly feel allegiance to the KRG and this is where the power extends beyond the defined internal boundaries. Where there are large groups of Kurds living outside of Iraqi Kurdistan, sometimes in the majority, the KRG therefore indubitably exerts influence.

The recent attempts to adopt a new constitution are a natural progression to this influence- de facto control over certain areas outside of the KRG’s jurisdiction would be consolidated into an official document that would lead to the de jure control of areas currently under control of the Iraqi government.

Under what circumstances would the KRG consider declaring independence?

I believe that we are still far from a credible and possible declaration of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. Aside from the extreme unrest that the breakaway of the Iraqi federal region would cause, it does not yet seem feasible. The most important element in my view is that of an economic base, which the region simply does not currently have; there are the governmental, security and infrastructure necessities in place for such a declaration to occur, but Iraqi Kurdistan is still financially reliant upon Iraq as a federal entity to survive. For this reason, amongst perhaps others, the Iraqi central government is reluctant to allow Kurdish control of Kirkuk, which would no doubt provide sufficient economic support for independence.

Another obstacle is the political fallout of such an independence; the sovereignty and existence of a state is only as strong as the recognition given it by the international community and Iraqi Kurdistan, whilst widely recognized as a semi-autonomous region, is not yet in the position on the international plane to be seen as a sovereign state. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the US has expressed its opposition to its independence; not so surprisingly, neighbors of Iraq which share borders with Iraqi Kurdistan, such as Turkey, have also shown their discontent with the idea.

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