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Who will be the failed state, Iraq or Kurdistan?

Who will be the failed state, Iraq or Kurdistan?

Contrary to certain claims, any objective analysis comparing former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to Kurdish Prime Minister Nichervan Barzani illustrates that Kurdistan is not destined to be a failed state.

An article published in Newsweek claimed that an independent Kurdistan would be a failed state, stressing that disputes over water, borders and the existence of militias hinder the success of an independent Kurdistan. While I don’t try to minimize the difficulties that the Kurds face in solving water and border disputes as well as the obstacles posed by Turkish and Iranian opposition to Kurdish independence, the fact that they have these problems does not predetermine that Kurdistan will be a failed state. Indeed, the reality of life in Iraq under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki versus life in Iraqi Kurdistan under Prime Minister Nichervan Barzani proves who truly will be the failed state.

Under the rule of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, Sunnis were tortured, raped, abused and even ethnically cleansed. Baghdad went from being 45% Sunni in 2003 to 25% Sunni at the end of 2007. As a result, former Baathists launched a bloody insurgency that included suicide bombings, car bombings, kidnappings and other terror attacks. This led to a civil war that left tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis dead. In an American attempt at damage control, the US sought to have the Awakening Movement, which consisted of Sunni insurgents, to point their guns at Al Qaeda instead of US troops. However, Maliki did not deliver on his promises to them, which left them bitter, unemployed and susceptible to further radicalization. As a result, the Iraqi Army became a largely Shia militia and this worked to undermine Iraqi unity.

After Obama became US President and vowed to end US involvement in Iraq, Maliki began a systematic campaign to destroy the Iraqi state and to replace it with his own personal political party. Professional generals were sacked and replaced with party loyalists. Corruption was also rampant. According to the New Yorker, almost 220 billion dollars had been allocated for some 6,000 projects yet little or no work was done on them. About 70 billion dollars were handed out in government loans that have as of yet to be repaid. In 2010, the Iraqi people were fed up with Maliki’s corruption and he lost the elections to a moderate, pro-western coalition encompassing all of Iraq’s major ethnic groups.

However, even though he no longer had the largest party in parliament, the Obama administration supported him staying in power in violation of the Iraqi Constitution. To make matters worse, Iran offered to start backing Maliki in exchange for control over several government ministries and this sealed him staying in power. As a result, Maliki was given the first shot at forming a coalition, got American forces to leave Iraq on unfavorable terms and remained in power until 2014, which had devastating consequences.

As a result of the 2010 elections, Sunni Arabs, who joined in a coalition together with Christians, Turkmen, Shia Arabs disgruntled with Maliki and Kurds, were outraged that after they had fought against Al Qaeda and won the elections, they could not have a Sunni Prime Minister. And when US forces withdrew and stopped reigning in on Maliki’s excesses, Iran filled the void and Maliki ordered the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq Al Hashemi, which alienated Sunnis even more. Hashemi was forced to flee the country and was sentenced to death in absentia. He is in exile to date.

But Hashemi was not the only victim for in no time at all, Maliki was using his security forces in order to go after all of his rivals. Tens of thousands of Sunnis were rounded up and were held in prison for years without a trial. According to Human Rights Watch, some of the Sunni prisoners were even massacred. It is indisputable that the US backing Maliki staying in power even after his electoral defeat significantly contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq for the Sunnis felt persecuted and lost hope in the political process. This led to their radicalization. Thanks to Maliki, Iraq is truly a failed state today and will remain so despite the eviction of ISIS from Mosul for the sectarian conflict and corruption Maliki nourished still have of yet to be resolved.

In contrast, the Kurdistan Regional Government was thriving during the same period of time. Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Nicharvan Barzani is the man who made the export of Kurdish oil to Turkey and Kurdish-Turkish rapprochement possible. In the beginning, when Barzani stated that he not only wanted to export Kurdish oil but to do it via Turkey, numerous people thought it was an unrealistic dream. But today, Iraqi Kurdistan is a major exporter of oil via Turkey and Barzani has a good working relationship with the Turks. Under his leadership, trade between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan amounted to $8 billion and a former foe of the Kurds was transformed into a business partner.

This happened for a number of reasons. For starters, Barzani prudently decided that he seeks to establish a state only in Iraqi Kurdistan. He does not seek Turkish territory. This helped to calm down the Turks. Secondly, Iraqi Kurdistan under his rule has much to offer the Turks. For example, the Kurdish oil industry has been so successful that numerous major companies like Exxon-Mobile and Chevron prefer to operate from the relatively safe Iraqi Kurdistan, even if it means they won’t be able to operate in Iraq. The fact that Barzani was able to ensure that his region of Iraq would remain the safest and would be free of sectarian strife helped to enable confidence in foreign investors including the Turks. And like everyone else, the Turks need oil and they prefer to obtain it by not operating in an area in the midst of a civil war.

In addition, Barzani’s development projects enriched the entire region and helped to build the foundations of a state, which the Kurds hope will be established after the referendum this fall. Barzani is also working in order to bring corruption to a halt and to bring back money that was wasted by the government. With the help of the UK, Germany and the US, he reformed the Peshmerga and is working to have a strong united army to protect the new state.

By building alliances, turning foes into business partners, ensuring safety for all, protecting minorities, avoiding sectarian strife, developing the region, fighting against corruption and uniting the Peshmerga, Barzani has demonstrated true leadership abilities. These qualities all demonstrate the marks of a statesman who knows how to deal with problems. If he has the will, determination and the skills, there is no reason why he won’t succeed, even if he faces numerous obstacles, such as Iran seeking to sabotage Kurdish independence, Turkish concerns over the referendum, border disputes, water issues, existence of militias, etc. So thus in conclusion, I think we should encourage the Kurds to continue to work hard to build a second Israel in the Middle East, who respects human rights, minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights. We should not predetermine that they will fail merely because they face real struggles.



Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and the editor of the Economic Peace Center, which was established by Ayoob Kara, who served as Israel's Communication, Cyber and Satellite Minister. For close to a decade, she has been an Israel-based journalist, specializing in radical Islam, abuses of human rights and minority rights, counter-terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran, and other issues of importance. Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media," a ground-breaking book endorsed by Former Israel Consul General Yitzchak Ben Gad and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara that discusses how the media exploits the life stories of Palestinian female terrorists in order to justify wanton acts of violence. Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She received her BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.