US diplomacy leaves Kurds adrift
By Mohammed A Salih
WASHINGTON - The indefinite postponement of a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan's
controversial draft constitution just days after a visit by United States Vice
President Joe Biden has given rise to speculation that Washington may have
played a role in the delay.
Despite initial expectations that the charter would be put to a vote on July 25
amid Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections, just a few days after
Biden landed in Iraq, the country's Independent High Electoral Commission
(IHEC) said it was impossible to hold the vote on that date.
While there has been no official confirmation of Biden's possible role in the
delay, a series of events and statements strongly
indicate possible behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the US to prevent new problems
from emerging as the Barack Obama administration desperately lobbies for
Biden, who was appointed by Obama to oversee the administration's Iraq policy
on June 30, arrived in Baghdad on July 2 to push Iraqi leaders for "political
progress that is necessary to ensure the nation's long-term stability", a White
House statement said.
After his visit to Iraq, Biden told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that he had
been asked by Iraqi officials in Baghdad to "communicate to the Kurdish
leadership, who I have a close relationship with, that their passing a
constitution through their parliament in Kurdistan was not helpful to the
process that was under way".
The Kurdish draft constitution had heightened tensions between Kurds and other
ethnicities in the country such as Arabs and Turkomans, as well as the Iraqi
The major source of contention was provisions declaring oil-rich Kirkuk and a
number of other areas deemed disputed territories to be "historically" and
"geographically" part of the Kurdish homeland. Those areas are currently
outside the jurisdiction of the Kurdish government.
Although Biden had planned to visit the north to meet with senior Kurdish
leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, a severe sandstorm prevented his
plane from taking off. But after returning to Washington, the vice president
called Barzani and Talabani to press "the need to reach a resolution on Iraq's
outstanding reconciliation issues", according to a statement from Biden's
office on July 7.
A statement posted on Barzani's website, in turn, described the "outstanding
issues" as territorial disputes, oil and gas legislation and political
But it was Iraq's Shi'ite Arab Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who gave near
confirmation of the US influence. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal
published on July 9, Maliki said Biden had promised him to urge Kurdish leaders
to delay the referendum. The prime minister added that he and Biden had both
agreed that the proposed Kurdish constitution was bound to "make a lot of
trouble and create a lot of differences".
Following Biden's visit, the IHEC took many in Iraq by surprise when it
announced on July 7 that it could not hold the referendum. The IHEC cited
technical reasons as well as concerns that its "integrity and credibility"
could be tainted if it yielded to immense pressure from Kurdish leaders to hold
Many inside Kurdistan had also criticized the draft, but on different grounds.
Kurdish critics believed the constitution granted too much power to the
president of Kurdistan and had called on the IHEC to postpone the vote.
The document was seen mainly as an artifact of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic
Party and Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Barzani is the president of
the Kurdistan autonomous region, while his longtime rival and now "strategic
ally" Talabani is the president of Iraq.
But, ignoring domestic calls, the Kurdish leadership rushed to pass the charter
as quickly as possible. They were optimistic that the IHEC would heed their
demand to hold the referendum on July 25.
Tariq Sarmami, an advisor to the Kurdish parliament speaker, told the Kurdish
official news agency AKnews on July 1 that the IHEC "had shown readiness to
prepare grounds for a referendum on the constitution" on the presumed July 25
Nevertheless, Kurdish officials' efforts were for naught as the IHEC rejected
Two days after the IHEC's rejection, on July 9, enraged lame-duck Kurdish
parliamentarians had to give in to the fait accompli. They voted to
delay the referendum but did not set a new date, raising speculation that due
to outside pressure they may not want to pursue it for a while to come.
During the session, Kurdish parliamentary speaker Adnan Mufti voiced his
suspicions of interference in the IHEC's work by Maliki's government and
implicitly accused the US of playing a role.
More signs of US involvement are emerging as Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military, visited Kirkuk on Monday with the
aim of urging Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans there to reach a power-sharing
agreement. The US had been widely criticized in the recent months for not doing
enough to settle disputes among Iraqi factions, especially Kurds and Arabs.
Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group (ICG) believes that
unilateral decisions by Kurdish leaders such as the draft constitution were
partly due to US reluctance to throw heavier diplomatic weight behind efforts
to address the ethnic problems in the country.
But Biden's very new central role to steer US policy in Iraq, he says, shows
that "Obama's administration means business".
"And his visit to Iraq is a sign that the US is serious in its efforts to
broker a deal [on problems between Kurds and Iraqi government]," Hiltermann
told Inter Press Service in a phone interview from Jordan.
However, as attempts to forge an agreement intensify, the key question is what
kind of a deal is possible and sustainable.
"We proposed a grand bargain on this issue in our most recent report that
combines territory with oil and sharing powers between Baghdad and Irbil [the
Kurdish capital]," said Hiltermann, referring to a July 8 ICG report. "These
issues cannot be resolved in isolation, they have to be combined as they are
really on the ground."
Upcoming polls may further complicate ethnic relations in Iraq. In addition to
regional Kurdish elections due in a few weeks, Iraq's national elections will
be held next January. If the current deadlock is to be broken, some argue,
politicians in Iraq need to avoid inflammatory remarks and think outside
"The game so far is to drag their feet and appear uncompromising but at the end
there is a realization that things need to be brought to the negotiation
table," said Scott Carpenter, an expert at Washington Institute for Near East
Policy. "They know if problems aggravate, there will be real difficulties and
that will not be in anybody's interest."
Carpenter believes the Balkans should stand as a stark lesson to Iraqi
"People need to look at Sarajevo and what happened in Serbia and Bosnia," he
said, referring to the bloody ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the
1990s. "You don't want this and if you really believe that way, then leaders
have to stand up and avoid more tensions."