ERBIL, Iraq – Ever since President Obama authorized American airstrikes in Iraq on Thursday, the nighttime noise in the Kurdistan region has been almost deafening. Not from fighter jets dropping 500-pound bombs on the radical jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but from the nonstop beeping horns and fireworks signaling the relief of a jittery population that knows it nearly came nose-to-nose with its worst nightmare.
The celebrations are likely to be short-lived, unlike the airstrikes — as Obama announced Saturday. If anything became clear this past week in Iraq, it is that the Kurdistan region is not ready for independence, and that the best and safest way forward for all Iraqis is to stand together, whether they want to or not.
I visited an encampment of 60,000 Yazidis who fled Sinjar to a town just outside Duhok the other night, before Obama announced the airstrikes. One middle-aged man, who said he was a lawyer, pulled me aside and said, “We need help. We don’t need blankets or sheets. We need safety.” The peshmerga, the Kurdish militia charged with providing that safety, had failed them, retreating from Sinjar and other places in the so-called disputed territories just outside the legal boundaries of the Kurdistan region. Anger and disappointment was everywhere. As recently as two weeks ago, many Kurds imagined themselves on the road to independence, with the peshmerga leading the way. Not anymore.
There is a dangerous and cynical political game being played in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to have waited until the last possible moment to request help from the Americans. It is difficult to see this move as anything but a reminder to the Kurds that they are as reliant on Baghdad as they are on the United States. On Wednesday, one of Maliki’s advisers told Turkey’s news agency that the Kurdish leadership “is starting to pay the price for the negative positions it took toward the federal government.”
Maliki may be overplaying his hand in the last days before his coalition in Parliament announces its candidate for prime minister. He reportedly sent a text message to the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, asking him to “end your involvement in the political process and the choosing of the prime minister” in response to a posting on Sistani’s website that obliquely called on Maliki not to seek a third term. How the political wrangling will end is anyone’s guess, but all the turmoil may not be the end-of-Iraq crisis many are proclaiming, and instead an opportunity for Iraqis to move forward, more or less together, with a relatively clean slate.
Gone now should be any notion that Kurdistan can separate safely from the rest of Iraq. Real security cooperation between a revitalized peshmerga, a reinforced Iraqi army, and Iraq’s allies, is the only way they all will stave off the threat posed by the Islamic State.
Maliki seems increasingly likely to go, in favor of a less-divisive figure who will have little choice but to listen to grievances and include other voices in government, lest ISIS recovers or another violent opposition surfaces. And if Maliki stays, it will be only because he has made the types of concessions to Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities that will begin to restore their stake in Iraq.
There already is an example of the type of governance Iraq needs sitting in plain view. Kirkuk, the contested city and surrounding province often referred to as the Little Iraq, has been quietly transforming since the 2011 election of Najmaldin Karim as its governor. Three months after he took office, Karim made a deal to purchase 200 kilowatts of power from a private company in Erbil, instantly increasing Kirkuk’s government-provided electricity from 10 hours to 20 hours per day. Since then, the city has been a nonstop construction zone of new bridges and roads in all neighborhoods, one of the more recent projects being a 200-bed hospital in Hawija, an almost exclusively Arab district. Karim is a Kurd who is widely believed to have drawn many Arab votes in his recent reelection.
Not so long ago, Kirkuk was considered ungovernable because of its contentious mix of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, and the extreme ethnic partisanship of its leaders. Kirkuk still is no paradise, but it is a more hopeful place, standing as a beacon and a lesson in politics that the rest of Iraq would do well to follow.
Thomas Hill is a clinical assistant professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.