As he settles into his new role as president of Iraq, Barham Salih will preside over a host of challenges, including soothing Arab-Kurdish tensions and maintaining cordial relationships with Iran and the US, writes Rudan Balay.
Barham Salih, the newly elected president of Iraq, the eighth in the post-Saddam Hussein era, is a political moderate, which has raised hopes in some quarters that he may be able to ease relations between Baghdad and Erbil that have been strained since a Kurdish independence referendum last year.
The presidency in Iraq, which is largely ceremonial and does not have executive powers, is allocated to the Kurdish community under a 2005 agreement that also grants the premiership to a Shia and the parliamentary speaker to a Sunni. Salih, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), won the presidency after receiving an overwhelming 219 votes against Fouad Hussein, the candidate of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) who received 22.
“If the Kurds thought they would be rewarded with greater autonomy by Baghdad for their performance against ISIS, they were wrong”
Salih takes office at a time of tension between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) following a referendum in September 2017 which recorded an overwhelming 93 percent of Kurdish participants voting for independence from Baghdad. The referendum, instigated by then KRG President Masoud Barzani, came on the heels of the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Iraq, a campaign in which the Kurdish Peshmerga militia played a key role. But if the Kurds thought they would be rewarded with greater autonomy by Baghdad for their performance against ISIS, they were wrong. Baghdad took control of the Kirkuk province — which had been liberated from ISIS by the Peshmerga – and continues to run the oil fields in the province which had previously been under the control of the Kurds. Similarly, all the KRG’s airports are under Baghdad’s authority. Rather than the referendum serving as a catalyst for positive change in the Kurdish region, it resulted in the setback of all efforts that had previously been made by the KRG.
The aftermath of the referendum also heightened tensions between the two rival Kurdish parties – the PUK and Barzani’s KDP. These tensions were reflected in the grueling five-month bickering over who would be nominated by the Kurds as their choice of president.
With Fouad Hussein holding ministerial rank as the chief of staff to Barzani, Salih supporters in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan view him as an extended hand of the KRG president. Salih supporters believe that if Hussein had won the Iraqi election, the power both in the Iraqi federal government, as well as in the autonomous region, would lie in the hands of KDP, and by default, Barzani.
Similarly, KDP supporters worry that Salih and PUK’s strong relations with Iran could be detrimental to the region. According to Salih, maintaining strong ties with Iran is part of his agenda to alleviate any further conflict and reinforce security and stability in both countries. The KDP however, has criticized Salih’s Iran agenda as they believe Salih’s relationship with Tehran could jeopardize relations between the Kurds and the US. Nevertheless, possibly the real reason for the KDP’s opposition toward Salih’s stance on Iran is a result of its own pro-Turkey agenda. The relationship between the KDP and Turkey has flourished since the creation of the new, post-Saddam, Iraq. Over the years, Barzani has built bridges with Turkey in recognition that it is one of the strongest Sunni players in the region and a powerful neighbor to Iraq. From trade deals to political campaigning, the relationship between the KDP and Turkey remains strong.
“Salih not only has good ties to Iran, his relationship with the United States is also in strong standing”
Salih not only has good ties to Iran, his relationship with the United States is also in strong standing due mainly to his role in the 1990s as the KRG representative in Washington. The US, specifically Brett McGurk, Washington’s anti-ISIS envoy, has voiced its support for Salih’s new tenure.
Yet, the PUK and KDP are so wary of each other that Salih’s first presidential visit was to the predominantly PUK province of Suleimani, rather than visiting the KRG’s capital (and predominantly KDP) city, Erbil. During Salih’s visit, he emphasized the importance of the Iraqi constitution in creating peace and stability in the country. Salih stated that he will protect the Iraqi constitution in order to solve issues that have been depleting Baghdad-Erbil relations. However, Salih’s optimism, however, has only led to continued mistrust among KDP Kurds as they believe his intentions are not to strengthen the Kurdish region but rather to unify Iraq as a whole. His reference to the Iraqi constitution may be considered offensive by the KDP in light of the failed referendum in declaring an independent Kurdistan under Barzani’s rule.
With Salih’s new presidency, Kurds and Iraqis are hoping for peace and stability in the region. But Salih’s task is more important now than ever as he is under pressure to satisfy both Iraqi Arabs — who want a unified Iraq – as well as the Kurds — who want a decentralized Iraq and independence.
Rudan Balay is based in Washington and works with the Youth for Human Rights International Organization to provide a platform for human rights education in Kurdistan.