Iraq’s Kurdistan region is pursuing two separate paths to the future, one as part of Iraq and one as an independent state, said senior Kurdish officials who met with Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Wednesday in Washington.
But even if a suitable government is formed in Baghdad — for Kurds, one that does not include Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — “we are not ready to go back to pre-June 9,” when Islamist militants began their advance across the northwest part of the country, said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
“We are not willing to go back to the previous formula of Baghdad to control and dictate,” Hussein said. While Iraqi government troops ran from the militants, Kurdistan has been protected by its own troops, called the pesh merga.
Barzani has called for a referendum on Kurdish independence.
Kurdistan, which long has sought greater autonomy, no longer has a border with the remnants of the Iraqi state ruled by Baghdad, Hussein said. “There is a new state between us and Baghdad, ruled by a terrorist group,” he said.
“In the end, we believe in self-determination.”
Kurdish representatives were among those who walked out of a meeting of Iraq’s new parliament in Baghdad on Tuesday, arguing that neither the Shiites nor the Sunnis were prepared to nominate new candidates to form a government. Hussein and Kurdistan Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir, who traveled to Washington with him, said Kurds would attend the next scheduled parliamentary session on July 8, but they expressed little optimism.
The hard line being pursued by Iraqi Kurds is doubtless a disappointment to the Obama administration, which has been depending on its good relations with the relatively stable Kurdistan region to help in what it has called the urgent task of forming an inclusive Iraqi government.
The administration has sent hundreds of troops to advise the Iraqi military and protect U.S. interests in the country, and said it is considering Baghdad’s request for airstrikes. But President Obama has indicated that such intervention would be pointless without a stable Iraqi government to lead the fight against the Islamic State fighters who have claimed territory from the Syrian border to within a few dozen miles of Baghdad.
Hussein said Kurdish officials have asked the United States for economic support that the Baghdad government has not provided. In a dispute over oil exports and revenue sharing, he said, Baghdad has not paid the Kurdistan region its share of overall government revenue for six months, running up about $6 billion in arrears.
Before the recent Islamist gains, the Kurdistan regional budget was about $1 billion a month. Hussein said that with increased deployments of pesh merga troops and a million refugees coming in from areas under militant control, regional budget needs have increased.
“We desire our fair share from the Iraqi government,” he said.
Like the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan’s main revenue source is oil, and Hussein estimated that the region is exporting about 125,000 barrels a day through a relatively new pipeline to Turkey. At market prices, that would cover about a third of the region’s budget needs. Hussein said the Kurdish government hopes to export 400,000 barrels a day by the end of this year and 600,000 barrels a day next year.
But that oil isn’t fetching international market prices because of politics. The Baghdad government has appealed to international governments to block the sale of the first tankerful of oil that went through the new pipeline. International governments cooperated, partly in an effort to pressure the Kurdistan region into reaching a budget deal with Baghdad. The tanker floated around the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean before its load was sold to Israel at a deep discount of roughly 50 percent, according to industry sources.
The Obama administration has opposed the Kurdish sale of oil without Iraqi government approval.