Iraqi Kurds frustrated with the federal government dream of independence for their autonomous region, but for now they want widely disliked Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki out of office.
Maliki’s “policies against the Kurds were not good”, said Mohsen, 38, after dusting off sunglasses for sale in front of his shop in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil.
Instead, Mohsen wants a premier who “treats all of the (ethnic) components of the Iraqi people equally”.
Maliki, a Shiite Arab vying for a third term in Wednesday’s parliamentary polls, has repeatedly clashed with the three-province Kurdistan region’s leadership in disputes over territory, resources and power-sharing, making him a prime target for Kurdish ire.
Massud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has frequently spoken out against Maliki, accusing him of monopolising power.
He has voiced fears Maliki would use F-16 jets ordered from the United States against the Kurds, and called for his removal from office.
– ‘Not beneficial for anyone’ –
“Maliki has not been beneficial for the Kurds or any Iraqis,” and it is time for a new prime minister, Tariq Jawhar, a Kurdish parliamentary candidate, told AFP.
Jawhar, from federal President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said the premier’s policies and government had raised tensions between Kurds and Arabs, and also between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Jawhar likened Maliki’s actions to those of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein, reviled for launching military operations against Iraqi Kurds that killed tens of thousands of people.
“Saddam Hussein was ousted, but (his) methods and legacy still exist in the mindsets of many Iraqi leaders,” Jawhar said.
“Saddam resorted to military options against the Kurds” while Maliki “resorted to economically sanctioning” them, he said.
Kurdish politicians have in recent months criticised what they say have been delayed and insufficient payments to the region this year that have caused financial difficulties and seen salaries go unpaid.
“So long as the threat of economic sanctions remains over Kurdistan, the viability of Kurdistan’s independence… becomes more a reality,” Qubad Talabani, a senior Kurdish official and one of the president’s sons, told AFP in the city of Sulaimaniyah.
Kurdistan has repeatedly been at odds with the federal government in a series of long-running disputes, including over a swathe of northern territory he region wants to incorporate against Baghdad’s wishes, and the clashing interests of federal desire for control and Kurdish assertions of autonomy.
The region’s decision to sign contracts unilaterally with international firms to develop its energy sector is another point of contention, with Baghdad insisting that all such deals — and any oil exports — are its exclusive purview.
Jawhar said Baghdad’s treatment of the Kurdistan region ultimately contributes to dividing Iraq, and that Kurds are increasingly “willing to be independent”.
– ‘Split from the Arabs’ –
Kurds interviewed in Arbil were almost unanimously in favour of at least eventual independence for the Kurdistan region, and against Maliki remaining in office.
Bestoon, a 35-year-old member of the Kurdish peshmerga security forces, said he wanted “the independence of Kurdistan” and “to be split from the Arabs”.
“It was always the Arabs who suppressed us,” and they might try to do so again, said Bestoon, dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying an assault rifle, with extra magazines at his waist.
And Tarza, a 25-year-old university student, said she thought the federal government was mistreating the Kurds, and that she too was in favour of independence.
“I don’t feel part of” Iraq, she said.
One of the main obstacles to Kurdish independence is economic. The region would need to produce enough oil to cover the revenue from lost federal funding, which it does not currently do.
“We have to obtain economic independence before political independence,” said Jutyar Adil, a parliamentary candidate for Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the main party in the region, while making clear he was not advocating independence at this time.
At night, convoys of cars drove through Arbil flying political flags, horns blaring. But not everyone is as enthusiastic about this week’s election.
“I don’t expect lots of change,” said Zhilwan, a 38-year-old who teaches at Salaheddin University.
Referring to widespread corruption, he said: “It’s only a different group of people who become rich.”