Eighteen years since the regime change in Iraq, and sixteen since the Iraqi constitution was passed, the constitutional framework of relations between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remains unfulfilled. Baghdad-Erbil relations are not defined by a constitutional legal framework, but rather by a frequently shifting balance of power. Over the past eighteen years, the disputes between Erbil and Baghdad have gone through different phases and taken different forms, resembling relations between a highly autonomous region and a weak central government (2003-2014), state-to-state relations (2014-2017), and regional-federal relations (late 2017 to the present). Nevertheless, recent developments in both Erbil and Baghdad have changed the dynamics, with the potential to finally clarify and regulate regional-federal relations based on the constitutional framework.
Kurdistan’s decision to hold a unilateral referendum for its independence in September 2017, and the lack of the international support it received, effectively provided Baghdad with unanimous support to take punitive actions against the KRG, including deploying the Iraqi Security Forces to replace the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, in all areas disputed between the KRG and Iraqi federal government, notably the oil-rich region around the city of Kirkuk. These actions reverted the Kurdistan boundaries to those drawn in 2003, a punishing political blow against some of Kurdistan’s hard-won gains.
After the referendum, the Kurdish leadership soon realized it was impossible to return to the territory’s pre-referendum status. The fight for the consolidation and protection of the constitutional entity of Kurdistan replaced the previous moves, undertaken over many years, towards de jure independence. While Kurdistan’s autonomy has decreased, it has demonstrated its survival, proving it is not simply an ephemeral phenomenon that will collapse on its own. This has reinforced two perspectives: Erbil’s, which considers that engagement with Baghdad is synonymous to its political sustainability; and Baghdad’s, which recognises that Kurdistan is here to stay. Kurdistan’s engagement strategy with Baghdad was also guided by the fact that, with the loss of Kirkuk in October 2017, the KRG’s monthly income decreased from $565.5 million a month to $337.4 million. Consequently, the KRG was unable to provide many public services and the salaries of its 1.2 million public employees, resulting in widespread violent protests in late 2017 and early 2018.
The KRG’s willingness to compromise after the referendum, including allowing Iraq’s federal government to audit the biometric registration of KRG employees, shows that Erbil is willing to compromise some of its powers, if this will protect and sustain the constitutional entity of Kurdistan. In another example, while the KRG officially agreed to Baghdad’s authority over the Erbil and Sulaimaniyah airports following the international flight ban against Kurdistan until March 2018, Kurdistan’s separate visa regime, a symbol of de facto power, continued. While the pragmatic approach has not yet produced a comprehensive settlement between Baghdad and Erbil, the KRG regained much of the international support it had lost with the referendum and, importantly, it maintained its powers and autonomy without provoking disputes with any of the major parties in Baghdad. Protecting and consolidating the entity’s autonomy and cooperation with the Iraqi government has become a new strategy, as the Kurdish leaders realized that Baghdad now represents “the strategic depth of Kurdistan”.
The turn of the KRG’s dominant party the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) towards Baghdad has been critical for the restoration of the relationship between Erbil and Baghdad. Reflective of the post-referendum tensions, during the 2018 parliamentary elections the KDP decided to boycott the elections in some disputed territories, particularly Kirkuk, to protest Baghdad’s control over them. However, illustrating the new strategy, the KDP has invested heavily in campaigning in disputed territories during the current elections, and even included Arab candidates on its own electoral list from the heart of Arab cities outside Kurdistan, including the symbolic Shia city Karbala. The KDP has understood the benefits of forming alliances with the power players of Shia Iraqi politics, such as the Sadr Movement. Erbil has thus not just turned towards Baghdad, but rather it has embraced it with open arms, attempting to become once again a major player in Iraq’s politics and the process of government formation.
Changing Governments and Dispersing Power in Baghdad
The results of Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections allowed different parties to emerge as victors, further dispersing and fragmenting power within the Shia political house. The former Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, who led the fight against Erbil in October 2017, was defeated, setting the stage for the return of the KDP to Baghdad. The three most powerful blocs – the Sayirun (54 seats), the Fatih (47 seats), and the Nasir (42 seats) – were each unable to form a government alone, leading them to reach out and negotiate with different parties, including Kurdish parties. Fragmentation of power among the Shia community has thus strengthened the Kurds’ position in Baghdad, as different political powers had to negotiate with them in order to create a bloc.
Over the past three years, two governments have been formed in Baghdad, led in turn by Prime Ministers Adil Abdul-Mahdi (2018-2019) and Mustafa Al Kadhimi (2020-present). Both governments pledged to solve the disputes with Erbil and began to build strong relations with Kurdish leaders. This has contributed to building a good degree of understanding and strengthened the KRG’s relationship with Baghdad. Some Arab and Kurdish politicians have even described these years as a “golden period” in Baghdad-Erbil relations. Based on its current course, the Kurdish leadership in Erbil is expected to show an ever-greater desire to work with Baghdad, without independence on the agenda.
Towards Establishing a Regional-Federal Arrangement
Today, when the KRI President travels to Baghdad, he travels as the leader of a federal region of Iraq, not the President of a different state. Since October 2017, the former Prime Minister and current President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Nechirvan Barzani, has visited Baghdad several times, while former President, Masoud Barzani, visited Baghdad only once from 2014 to 2017. This not only demonstrates a new balance of power and era in Baghdad-Erbil relations, but also a transformation in the nature of the relationship from one that resembled a state-to-state relationship to a more cautiously functioning regional-federal relationship. The change in Erbil’s rhetoric towards Baghdad, and the changing of power dynamics in Iraqi Shia politics, have allowed Erbil and Baghdad to establish the necessary understandings to work within this new framework. Importantly, the once-prominent anti-Kurdish — or anti-KRG rhetoric — has not significantly featured in the current electoral campaign among candidates in Baghdad and the south. These positive changes present a significant opportunity to the Kurdish and Iraqi leaders to address the disputes and issues between their governments, such as disputed territories, budgets, management of natural resources, border control, and the status of the Peshmerga forces.