DOHUK, Iraq — Alaz, a jewelry salesman in the market of Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, has lost his faith in politics.
“These elections do not interest me at all,” he told The Times of Israel. “After what happened last year, we lost the dream of an independent state — along with our self-respect.”
More than half a year has passed since the Kurds in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly for the establishment of an independent state and secession from the central government in Baghdad. But on Saturday, they found themselves taking part in Iraqi parliament elections. Official results were to be posted on Monday.
There is little left of the festive atmosphere I witnessed during last year’s October Kurdish referendum. Then, at least half of the passengers on the flight from Istanbul to Erbil, the capital of the province, decorated themselves with bracelets and scarfs in the colors of the Kurdish flag. The international airport was full of signs and posters calling for “independence for Kurdistan” and every street was covered with giant banners proclaiming proudly that the time had come for a sovereign and independent Kurdish state.
Eight months later on my flight to Erbil, I did not see a single passenger with a flag-colored bracelet, the posters at the airport had disappeared, and no one would have guessed that until recently the locals had hung Israeli flags on their balconies as a sign of appreciation for the country’s support of Kurdish independence.
A tremendous change has taken place in the Kurdistan region these last few months.
The fall of ‘Jerusalem of Kurdistan’
“The situation in the region has not improved since the referendum; it only got worse,” said Daran, who owns a shawarma shop. “We received a few blows, and the most painful thing is that we lost Kirkuk.”
Since the Kurds voted to separate from Iraq, the government in Baghdad has taken a number of military, economic and diplomatic steps to put pressure on Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani to reverse the decision. So far, it has worked.
Initially, the Iraqi government closed the Erbil International Airport and took control of some of the border crossings between Kurdistan and Turkey, shocking the Kurds and dealing a severe blow to freedom of movement and the local economy.
The most significant setback to the Kurds was when the Iraqi army exploited internal disputes between Barzani’s separatist supporters and supporters of Jalal Talabani, linked to the Shiite regime in Iraq and Iran. In a coordinated movement last October that resulted in little violence, the Iraqi army managed to retake control of the city of Kirkuk, “Jerusalem of Kurdistan,” from Kurdish Peshmerga forces, along with its vast oil reserves.
‘We raised the Israeli flags with pride’
“I expected Israel to support the Kurds with money and weapons,” said Sarbas, a taxi driver. “But nothing happened. I’m not angry, but there is a feeling that they abandoned us.”
Many of the Kurds had high expectations of Israeli support. In the days before the referendum they spoke about “Israeli warplanes” in Erbil’s airport “waiting for the order to attack” in the event of a confrontation with the Iraqi army.
They also claimed to have “advanced ammunition depots” that the IDF had transferred to them.
“We raised the Israeli flags with pride. We were sure that Israel would stand by us when we needed it,” said Mahmud, a 75-year-old resident of Duhok, who remembers the Israeli-Kurdish cooperation during the rule of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“But today it is no longer like the period of the ’60s and ’70s, when the Israelis used to cooperate with the Peshmerga [the armed Kurdish militias in northern Iraq],” said Mahmud. “Today, Israeli support is mainly diplomatic.”
Rekan, a 47-year-old carpet salesman, also feels disappointed by the Israeli government.
“The State of Israel has the strongest army in the Middle East, with advanced weapons and one of the best air forces in the world,” said Rekan. “I expected them to use all their strength to stop the Iraqi army. In the end, we know what happened — we lost Kirkuk. Today we are going to elections for the parliament in Baghdad instead of parliament in Erbil.”
The glass half full
The majority of Kurds are not focusing on the lack of Israeli support, and many wish to look ahead rather than parse the mistakes of the past.
“There is no point regretting what happened a few months ago,” said Dozan, a retired teacher. “What the Kurds have to do now is to be united and look ahead. If we are not united, neither Israel nor Allah will help us.”
“The Kurdish people suffered enough. We suffered from the rule of Saddam Hussein, we suffered under the regime of the Shiites who followed them, and we suffered in recent years when Islamic State and all the extremist jihadists came to our area and began to murder everyone,” said Miraz, who owns a small bakery in Erbil.
“We hope that the politicians we bring to the parliament in Baghdad will help the ordinary and simple people in Kurdistan, and that they will not deal with unnecessary diplomacy like the relations between the Kurds with Israel or with other countries that are far from here,” Miraz said.
‘They will turn my life into a living hell’
Those who look to their politicians for courage and candor may be disappointed.
The evening before the elections, The Times of Israel visited the home of one of the top candidates on Barzani’s list. Outside on the street at least 200 people waited for him — friends, family and people from the extended tribe who have come to honor him and wish him success.
I waited patiently with everyone. A few minutes later, the candidate arrived in an entourage befitting any Western prime minister. Close to the front door of the house, my contact introduced us.
“This is the Israeli journalist I told you about,” he whispered to the candidate, who looked me in the eye and shook my hand.
“It’s a great honor that you arrived from Israel,” he said.
We entered a spacious room and sat down at the corner. A young boy served us glasses of water and poured tea.
The politician stressed how much he appreciated the interview from an Israeli journalist, but apologized that he could not allow any photo, audio, or video footage of the meeting, and requested that his name not be revealed.
“In two or three days I will be on my way to the parliament in Baghdad for the first time,” he said. “They will turn my life into a living hell if they discover that I sat down with a journalist from Israel.”
Several attempts to persuade him did nothing to change his mind.
This Kurdish politician, tasked with representing the interests of his constituency, had not yet entered the parliament building and was already afraid of the Iraqis.
The meeting was a wash, but before we concluded, I asked if he thought the Kurds in the Iraqi parliament could serve as a bridge between the administration in Jerusalem and the government in Baghdad.
“It’s very hard for me to picture this happening,” he replied. “The Iraqi politicians are very stubborn when it comes to Israel, but maybe in the next few years.”
Thanking the politician for his time, I left, skeptical that change was on the horizon.