Iraq’s Kurds, Accused of Backing Insurgents, Demand Maliki Resign

The leader of Iraq’s Kurds calls the premier “hysterical” for accusing them of harboring radical Islamists.

Masoud Barzani Joe Biden
President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq greets American vice president Joe Biden at the airport in Irbil, December 1, 2011 (White House/David Lienemann)

The leader of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government demanded Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s resignation on Thursday after the premier had accused the Kurds of harboring radical Islamists who have declared an independent caliphate in the northwest of the country.

Maliki “has become hysterical and has lost his balance”, said a statement from the office of Kurdish president Masoud Barzani. “You must apologize to the Iraqi people and step down. You have destroyed the country and someone who has destroyed the country cannot save the country from crises.”

A day earlier, Maliki had accused the Kurds of supporting the uprising by the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), saying, “We cannot be silent over this and we cannot be silent over Irbil” — the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region — “being a headquarters for ISIS and Ba’ath and Al Qaeda and terrorist operations.”

ISIS militants shocked Iraq’s central government last month when they conquered the country’s second city, Mosul. They now control swathes of territory in an arc from Aleppo in Syria to near the western edge of Baghdad. The group has rebranded itself the “Islamic State” while its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself to be the “caliph” — the historic title of the successors of the Prophet Muhammad who ruled the entire Muslim world.

Less radical Sunni militias and tribes in Iraq have either joined the insurgency or refused to stand in its way, seeing the uprising as an opportunity to wrestle control from their Shia rulers in Baghdad by whom they have been marginalized since Western troops pulled out at the end of 2011.

Kurdish ministers this week said Maliki’s refusal to make way for a less polarizing leader “only served the enemies of Iraq and the terrorists” and announced a boycott of cabinet meetings.

Kurdish lawmakers also joined Sunni representatives in blocking parliamentary proceedings, refusing to give the increasingly dictatorial Maliki a mandate to serve a third term, even as his Shia coalition won a plurality of the seats in an election in April.

As Iraqi soldiers failed to fight back the insurgents, Kurdish peshmerga took over the city of Kirkuk in the north. Surrounded by huge oilfields, the capture of what the Kurds see as their historic capital appears to have strengthened their desire for independence.

While shying away from declaring independence outright, Barzani said earlier this month, “The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future.” He called for a referendum to decide the region’s status.