In the wake of its Sept. 25 independence referendum, Iraqi Kurdistan is at its weakest since 2003. Turkey severed its relations with Kurdistan. Iran closed the Kurdistan border. Iraqi ministers cut financial ties, halted international flights to and from Kurdistan, and even threatened to expel Kurdish members from the Iraqi parliament who voted “yes” for independence.
Baghdad objected to the referendum in general but specifically warned against disputed areas participating, especially Kirkuk. As an oil-rich province between Iraq and Kurdistan, Kirkuk is a flashpoint for conflict: Everything about it is contested – its security, its oil, even its mixed demography. The referendum was held anyway. Baghdad saw this as a brazen attempt to absorb Iraqi territory that Kurdish Peshmerga took from the Islamic State (IS) post-2014. For that, Iraqi forces took Kirkuk and are sweeping Kurdistan’s newly acquired areas.
“Invaders” is what Kosrat Rasoul, the Kurdish region’s vice president, called Iraqi forces in Kirkuk. The tension between Iraq and Kurdistan is so great that Baghdad issued an arrest warrant for Rasoul. Yet, his comment pierces Kurdish memory of the last Iraqi invasion; the 1988 Anfal Campaign resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The closer Iraqi forces come to Kurdish territory, the more people fear.
As of Oct. 20, Iraqi forces forcibly took Altun Kupri, a sub-district marking the border between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and disputed territories. Destruction lies in their wake; Iraqi and Peshmerga forces have both incurred casualties, and more than 100 houses in one city, Tuz Khurmatu, were reportedly burned. Fear and firefights have displaced thousands from Kirkuk; Iraqi forces are only 25 miles from the KRG capital of Erbil.
Iraq and Kurdistan must compromise before the situation spirals out of control.
There is one figure in Iraq who can stop the violence and guide Kurdistan in negotiations with Baghdad: Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Iraq’s highest-ranking Shia religious leader. He is the only person who is simultaneously neutral, influential and respected by all parties to the conflict.
Sistani is considered impartial because he strives to separate religion and politics. Yet, in times of severe crisis, Sistani straddles these spheres for the good of the nation.
Sistani’s influence in 2006 prevented a clash between Muqtada al Sadr’s militia and U.S. forces in Najaf. Sistani’s fatwa in 2014 inspired Iraqis to rise against ISIS. Yet again, Sistani’s influence convinced Iraq’s Da’wa party to replace Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki after eight years of inefficient and near-authoritarian rule.
Without a strong mediator, Iraq and Kurdistan cannot compromise – pride and electoral pressure will not let them change tact. Prime Minister Abadi cannot allow the Kurds to control Kirkuk or assert their independence; it would lose him the national election next April.
Likewise, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling party in Kurdistan, cannot renounce the referendum – it would destroy President Masoud Barzani’s quest for independence, a legacy meant to fuel his general election campaign. This stubbornness is apparent in his actions to date.
Iraq, Iran and Turkey all tried to punish Kurdistan, yet Barzani hasn’t budged. Rather, he’s said he would “prefer to die of starvation before living under the oppression” of others. Even when KDP Peshmerga withdrew from Kirkuk, he blamed this loss on a faction of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), KDP’s political rival, and reaffirmed the Kurdish desire for independence.
But Sistani has something more valuable in Iraq than material clout: respect and credibility. His power is derived not only from his influence over millions of Shia Iraqis but also from his genuine peacekeeping efforts. This has won him the respect of Iraqi Arabs and Kurds alike.
KDP and PUK members have both turned to Sistani for help. Mala Bakhtiar, who recently left PUK, called on him to prevent violence between Kurds and Shia. In return, Sistani called all parties to adhere to the constitution and ensure that “principles prevail over the sword.” Crucially, both sides of the conflict welcomed Sistani’s words; Abadi specifically praised his wisdom and “emphasis on the unity of Iraq.”
Yet, even with a mediator, Iraq has another problem: Baghdad has no negotiating partner because the main Kurdish parties are divided. The post-referendum crisis has only deepened the KDP-PUK rift, the crux of which is President Barzani. After two terms as president, he has refused to step down and is considered by many to be an illegitimate ruler. The PUK itself is also divided; this was apparent when PUK members made conflicting statements about its position on the referendum – some for, some against. It is unclear who can speak for this one party, much less the whole region.
But just as Iraq has a neutral mediator, Kurdistan also has one neutral figure who could lead a delegation to Baghdad, if called upon: Barham Salih.
Previously the KRG prime minister and Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Salih is liked by Arabs and Kurds alike. He remained neutral in the pre-referendum dispute and was thereby untainted by the KDP-PUK divide; Salih even left the PUK and established his own Coalition for Democracy and Justice. Furthermore, he is someone whom Baghdad respects.
Now that Iraqis control Kirkuk, Baghdad is ready to talk. Abadi called for a dialogue “based on Iraq’s national constitution.” Salih also called for a transitional government and dialogue between Kurdistan and Baghdad. Sistani, too, has expressed a desire for peaceful negotiation, but his comments have been too general.
Given how fast the crisis is progressing and how drastic the human costs could be, this is the moment for Sistani to speak directly. He could privately, if not publicly, support Salih’s call for dialogue and identify him to lead a delegation to Baghdad.
Ayatollah Sistani’s past actions demonstrate he can fulfill this role, just as Barham Salih’s demonstrate he can be a unifier. Together, they may be able to bridge the Kurdistan-Iraq divide.
Mohammed Fatih is a researcher at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani’s independent Institute of Regional and International Studies and Kashkul, a research, preservation and translation collaborative. Tori Keller is a researcher at SREO Consulting in Erbil, Iraq, and Istanbul, Turkey; she previously was a staff writer for The Stanford Political Journal specializing in Middle Eastern politics and American foreign policy.