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opinion

Zheger Hassan is adjunct professor of political science at King's University College in London, Ont., and co-director of MENARG at the University of Western Ontario

After a failed independence referendum and subsequent military clashes with Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan is lobbying the international community to intervene in an ongoing dispute between it and the central government in Baghdad. At the 2017 Halifax International Security Forum, Falah Mustafa, one of two Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representatives, implored Ottawa to intervene in Iraq.

The political and military crisis in Iraq raises two important questions: First, what accounts for the deterioration in relations between the Kurds and Baghdad? After all, the Kurds have played an important role in Baghdad and until recently they and the Iraqi army were jointly fighting the Islamic State (IS). Second, could Canada mediate the conflict?

The crisis is rooted in long-standing quarrelling over Iraqi Kurdistan's demands for increased autonomy and Baghdad's willful disregard for Iraq's constitution vis-à-vis the Kurds. The immediate spark for the conflict was Iraqi Kurdistan's independence referendum, which garnered more than 92-per-cent support. Although that referendum asked voters whether they wanted an independent state, independence was not the real objective.

Prior to the vote, Masoud Barzani, then president of Iraqi Kurdistan, declared that the "referendum is not for defining borders or imposing a fait accompli. We want a dialogue with Baghdad to resolve the problems, and the dialogue can last one or two years." Mr. Barzani believed that the referendum would furnish the Kurds with leverage in extracting political and economic concessions from Baghdad.

Specifically, Mr. Barzani and his close advisers – Mr. Mustafa one of them – believed that the referendum would strengthen Kurdish autonomy and legitimize the annexation of Kirkuk, which the Kurds had captured in 2014 when IS invaded Iraq. The strategy was a costly miscalculation.

The vote was met with disapproval from the U.S., the UN, and Iraq's neighbours. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed neither support nor disapproval.) Against these protests, the Kurds invited Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi Prime Minister, to renegotiate the terms of Iraqi Kurdistan's relationship with Baghdad. Mr. al-Abadi refused.

Instead, Baghdad imposed a blockade on Iraqi Kurdistan's airspace and deployed the Iraqi army and the controversial Shia militias to reclaim disputed territories and to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity. Baghdad successfully seized these disputed territories, including Kirkuk. Following two weeks of skirmishes, Baghdad and the Kurds find themselves in a stalemate.

Tasked with enlisting international intervention, Mr. Mustafa came to Canada to lobby Ottawa to mediate between Kurds and Baghdad. But Mr. Mustafa does not truly represent the KRG. It would be more accurate to describe him as the representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party's (KDP) foreign relations department. The KDP dominates the KRG and claims its interests represent all of Iraqi Kurdistan. This is inaccurate. Its main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has a different vision for Iraqi Kurdistan and has pursued its own policy. The PUK supported the referendum publicly, but privately it voiced strong opposition to a referendum it argued was untimely.

But the PUK itself is divided into three factions. The most powerful and influential faction is led by Hero Talabani, wife of recently deceased Jalal Talabani (former president of Iraq), and her two sons, Qubad and Bafel. Bafel is responsible for holding unilateral negotiations with Mr. Abadi in an effort to assuage Baghdad's indignation over the 2014 Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk and now the referendum. Bafel has been labelled a traitor for withdrawing the PUK's peshmerga forces from Kirkuk and co-ordinating its handover to the Iraqi army.

It is in this context that Canada is being asked to intervene. Given this environment, what could Canada do to de-escalate tensions between the Kurds and Baghdad? Not much. Canada does not possess any influence over Baghdad. In fact, Canada's involvement may be counterproductive if it exacerbates the divisions within Iraqi Kurdistan and between Kurds and Baghdad. And these Kurdish divisions will undo any agreement reached with Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurdistan's economy is mismanaged and its political and military institutions are divided between the KDP and the PUK. This is where Canada could make a difference. Canadian officials can work with the Kurds to unify the parallel administrations currently governing Iraqi Kurdistan. Before resolving disputes with Baghdad, the Kurds must get their house in order.