Last year, relations between the Iraqi central government and the Kurds reached what was possibly an all-time low when the Kurds held an independence referendum in which 93 percent of voters opted to secede. The timing was no coincidence: Iraqi forces had retreated from Kurdish territory in 2014 as the Islamic State (ISIS) marched on the area. In turn, Kurdish forces went on the offensive. The Kurds seized one of Iraq’s biggest oil fields, in Kirkuk, from ISIS and started selling the oil themselves. Then, in 2016, they drove the terrorist group out of the Kurdish region. The pieces of statehood, it seemed, were falling into place.
There were a couple of problems, however. For one, the Kurdish government in Erbil could not pay its military forces or civil servants. Until 2014, the territory had been receiving a share of funds from the Iraqi national budget. Baghdad stopped those payments, however, on the grounds that the Kurds had started keeping the revenue brought in by local oil deals. Focused on defeating ISIS, the United States stepped in with money to pay the salaries of the security forces, called the Peshmerga. Erbil still had problems, however, making up the difference with the civil servants (government employees have not been paid full salaries in two years). And it was an open question how long U.S. largess would last: U.S. President Donald Trump’s budget request for 2018 included a line for Iraqi troops as a whole, without specifying what would go to the Kurds. Another issue was that the Kurds couldn’t hold on to their territory. After the independence referendum, the Iraqi army swiftly retook Kirkuk, taking away much of the oil that the Kurds had been expecting to sell.
Baghdad, one imagines, could have left Erbil swinging in the wind. Instead, on Tuesday, Iraqi politicians announced a breakthrough in ongoing negotiations with the Kurds. Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi had signed off on sending $268 million to Erbil for the salaries of Kurdish civil servants and security forces, with the understanding that the Kurds would have to foot the bill for the rest. Airports in Kurdish areas were again opened, and Abadi delivered a Kurdish New Year’s greeting in Kurdish — a small gesture, perhaps, but an important one.
And Baghdad’s rapprochement with Iraqi Kurdistan is not the only encouraging sign from Iraq. The Economist reports that a Saudi charm offensive is succeeding at diminishing, to at least some extent, Iranian influence over Iraq’s domestic politics. I wouldn’t say Iraq is destined for success, but there are encouraging signs that its central government is capitalizing on ISIS’s defeat.