Unable to pay its employees for two months and grappling with the threat of a cross-border attack from Iran, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq is facing what its leaders acknowledge is one of the most challenging periods since its establishment in 1991.
Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, in a symbolic gesture, rang the bell at a high school in the regional capital, Irbil, on Wednesday to mark the first day of the school year in the Kurdistan region.
While the government footage of the ceremony showed smiling faces and energetic students, the scenes outside spoke otherwise as many schools in the region remained closed because of a widespread strike called by the teachers’ union to protest unpaid salaries for July and August.
Doctors and nurses have taken the same action at many hospitals.
“I thank our teachers for their perseverance,” Barzani said at the school courtyard, where he announced an imminent visit to Baghdad. “We want to visit Baghdad so that we can resolve our issues peacefully. Our perseverance is not a sign of our weakness, but it's our commitment to prevent the problems taking another turn.”
The visit is part of a prolonged negotiation between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments regarding Kurdish rights and responsibilities and the distribution of revenue under Iraq's budget.
The two governments seemed to have opened a new chapter in their relations on April 4 when Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani announced a deal to resume Kurdish oil exports via Turkey. The exports had been halted in late March when an international arbitration panel ruled in favor of Iraq in a dispute over independent oil exports by the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG.
Under the deal, Iraq's state-run SOMO company was given the authority to export Kurdish oil. The KRG, in return, was allocated 12.6% of Iraqi revenues.
However, the agreement has not been implemented. While the Iraqi government says the obstacles are merely technical, the Kurds say that they are political, and that Iran is to blame.
“The problem is [the] Iraqi budget was approved in Baghdad, but its implementation is in Tehran,” said Soran Omar, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, speaking to local news outlet Rudaw.
Omar said that Iran was seeing the Kurdish desperate need for revenue as a rare opportunity to reduce the KRG’s autonomy.
Home to large Kurdish populations, both Iran and Turkey have for years been troubled by the growing power of Kurds in Iraq. The two countries supported Baghdad in 2017 when the KRG held a controversial referendum on independence.
In an interview with VOA last week, KRG spokesperson Peshawa Hawrami spoke of “an intent to punish and downplay” the KRG. “The Iraqi government treats the Kurdistan region [as] less than a province,” Hawrami said.
Haval Abubakir, the governor of Kurdish Sulaymaniyah province, similarly warned of an effort “to end the Kurdistan region entity.”
Kurds say that Iran is using the perceived weakness of the KRG to push deeper into Kurdish territory in northern Iraq — justifying its actions as a response to the presence in the area of Iranian Kurdish militants.
“I think the target here is the Kurdistan region itself. … The budget issue, stopping oil exports and not paying the Kurdish salaries are all Iranian and Turkish policies," said Hassan Rahman Pana, the deputy secretary of the Kurdish political group Komala, in an interview with VOA.
Iranian officials in recent weeks have escalated their threats of military action should Iraq fail to implement a mutual security agreement signed in March. The deal calls for Iraq to disarm and relocate Iranian Kurdish exiled groups located in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The exiled groups, believed to include thousands of fighters and their families, have for decades campaigned for Kurdish independence in western Iran, where more than 10 million Kurds are believed to reside.
Iran says the groups pose a threat to its security and has demanded that they be disarmed and relocated by September 19.
On Wednesday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein visited Tehran and met with high-ranking officials, including President Ebrahim Raisi. Hussein announced ahead of the visit that Baghdad has started to disarm and transfer the Iranian Kurdish opposition to refugee camps far from the Iran-Iraq border.
Meanwhile, according to Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, a Norway-based Kurdish rights group, Iran has begun a military deployment to its borders with Iraqi Kurdistan.
"Iran has moved a large number of troops from Hamadan, Zanjan and Tabriz to the border areas of the Kurdistan region,” Arsalan Yar Ahmadi, a member of the organization, told VOA.
Pana, the Komala deputy secretary, said he does not expect Iran will begin a cross-border operation anytime soon. He suggested the deployment is intended to prevent instability ahead of the September 16 anniversary of the death of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini, which sparked widespread protests last year. Amini died in police custody days after she was arrested for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code.
“The atmosphere in the cities is militaristic and some activists have been arrested,” Pana told VOA. “The internet has been turned very slow, and the electricity is weakened in some Kurdish cities. They are afraid that the revolution will resume on the anniversary. They want to mislead the Iranian people.”
Fabrice Balanche is an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2 and a fellow at the Washington Institute. He suggested in an interview that the Kurds are facing increased pressure from regional powers because they are no longer considered strategically important for the West in the fight against Islamic State.
“What you see in the Middle East today is that the West is weak. I don’t think that the U.S. wants to reinvest in Syria and Iraq. My opinion is that for the U.S., this is lost vis-a-vis the Iranian axes,” Balanche said.
“Unfortunately, the Kurds are not anymore useful in the fight,” Balanche said. “They don’t want to support them again. That is why you see Turkey and Iran using this weakness to destroy the Kurdish autonomy or independence.”
This story originated in VOA's Kurdish Service with contributions from Snur Karim, Diyar Jamal and Dilshad Anwar.