Iraq Punishes Kurds, Plans End to Independent Rule for Key U.S. Ally

Iraqi Kurds take part in a demonstration outside the U.S. consulate in Erbil, the capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, on October 20, to protest against the escalating crisis with Baghdad. SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of a series of lightning victories over Kurdish forces in recent weeks, Iraq's leaders plan to press their advantage and effectively dismantle Kurdish regional autonomy in the north of the country, ending decades of independence for the ethnic group in Iraq.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi outlined his government's plans in an interview with The Independent Monday. He said that by taking back authority over Iraqi Kurdistan's borders, absorbing the Kurdish security forces into the Iraqi military and reestablishing control over the regional government's oil exports, Baghdad would take steps to curtail powers the regional government in Erbil has enjoyed for 26 years.

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"All border crossings in and out of Iraq must be under the exclusive control of the federal state," Abadi said, explaining this included management of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline that crosses into Turkey at Pesh Khabur. The new powers for Baghdad over the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) would also extend to airports and the issuing of visas.

Abadi explained that he wants to see Kurdish security forces—known as the Peshmerga—drastically reduced in size to work as a small local force or absorbed into the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Prime Minister has accused Kurdish leaders of exaggerating the number of fighters at their command and claimed the Peshmerga is corrupt, withdrawing salaries without reporting for duty.

"I am prepared to pay those Peshmerga under the control of the federal state. If they want to have their local small force—it must not be that large—then they must pay for it," Abadi said. He added that he would not allow the KRG to become a "bottomless well" for payments from Baghdad.

Following Kurdish forces' loss of the ethnically mixed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk in mid-October, along with swathes of oil-rich territory across the southern border of the KRG, the autonomous region's leader Masoud Barzani announced Sunday that he would be stepping down from his position as president.

The Peshmerga stalwart and 12-year leader of the KRG has been seen to have overextended himself in calling for a September referendum on Kurdish independence.

After the clashes in Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields between Iraqi and Kurdish forces—both U.S. allies in the coalition against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS)—Washington refused to be drawn in support of either side.

"We're not taking sides, but we don't like the fact that they're clashing," President Donald Trump told journalists in Washington as the fighting continued. He emphasized that the United States hoped to maintain good relations with the Kurds and Iraqis.

At the same time neighboring Iran and Turkey have said they will deal only with Baghdad when it comes to the Kurdish question. Both have sizeable Kurdish populations they do not wish to see emboldened by a strong Kurdish independence movement in Iraq.

"We got the international community on our side," Abadi said of the recent clashes in Kirkuk. "We made it very simple: we said the unity of Iraq is very important for combating terrorism," he added.