The Folly of Lobbying to Carve Up Iraq

The smooth Kurdish PR campaign.

“It was the Kurds,” wrote Thomas Friedman in 2014, “who used the window of freedom we opened for them to overcome internal divisions, start to reform their once Sopranos-like politics and create a vibrant economy that is now throwing up skyscrapers and colleges.”

This has become the popular story of Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government that has circulated increasingly in Washington and London. According to this narrative, Iraq’s Kurds have been long oppressed, but instead of collapsing into internal conflict as many liberated societies in the region do, they have pressed ahead with democracy.

As one Kurdish official recently noted, the Kurds remain steadfast as the West’s ally of choice against Islamic State (ISIS), patiently building relations with their neighbors despite a venal and corrupt government in Baghdad that sabotages every bid they make for financial independence.

This narrative is more than a contentious historical interpretation—it is a PR invention. It was recently reported that the KRG spent almost $6 million lobbying in Washington since 2010, more than Pakistan has spent with its requests for subsidized F-16s and aid. Now that ISIS is weakening, while Baghdad remains broke, the KRG lobbying effort has reached fever pitch, with no fewer than three articles by officials in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and Britain’s Guardian.

These KRG officials won’t mention that at least a portion of their lobbying budget, if not all of it until the end of 2013, was paid for by Baghdad. This money, along with at least $120 billion in oil revenues since 2003 from the federal government and disputed oil fields, has been used to create a bloated and collapsing public sector, undermining the Kurdish Democratic Party’s claims that the region is mistreated.

In fact, this was never the case, as by 2005 the Kurdish budget had increased from $2.5 billion to $5 billion, all of it in transfers from the central government. So, from the beginning, it has benefited the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) to stay within the federation, biding its time until (it was hoped) independent oil exports could provide financial independence. Arguably, compared to Basra, the KRI has done fantastically well by Baghdad.

Unfortunately, op-eds by KRG officials capitalize on the limited understanding most outsiders have of Iraq. At the head of these efforts is Masoud Barzani, whose mandate to rule ended in August of last year. Therefore, the Kurdish bid for independence is not currently based on democracy.

Kurdish autonomy has long been based on a division of public funds between dynasties, who crowd out reformist opposition such as the Kurdish Gorran Party. This arrangement has its roots in the division of oil smuggling and customs revenues between the KDP and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the 1990s.

Dissent is highly regulated. The KDP has been widely accused by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of arresting and intimidating dissenters, murdering journalists and allowing widespread corruption. In October 2015, Reporters Without Borders accused the KDP of unleashing a “wave of terror” on the media, after TV stations critical of the KDP were attacked.

Of course, Baghdad is not innocent of human rights violations, but an overview of Iraqi media shows a landscape of political satire. In fact, the recent “storming” of the Green Zone (most protesters were peaceful and left when told to do so) contrasts markedly with protests in the KRI and demonstrations under Maliki. Five Kurds were killed in protests in October last year.

At the same time, Iraq is not a perfect democracy. But it is one of the few areas of the region that has achieved a delicate democratic transition with inclusive governments. While under threat in Baghdad, this inclusivity now seems to have halted in the KRI.