Amid rising regional tensions and international opposition, Iraqi Kurds voted in a controversial secession referendum in September, setting off a chain of events that resulted in a military confrontation between Erbil and Baghdad.
Central government troops quickly regained control of Kirkuk, home to more than one million people and the hub of a major oil-producing area. Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from the city, which had been in their control since 2014, and government troops also pushed the Peshmerga out of Nineveh and Diyala provinces.
Baghdad has since deployed troops along the semi-autonomous region’s borders, in a move Kurds describe as unconstitutional.
Kifah Mahmoud, an Iraqi Kurdish political analyst and former Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s media adviser, spoke with Al Jazeera about the ongoing conflict and the ultimate fate of Iraq’s Kurds.
Al Jazeera: What are the difficulties you face as Masoud Barzani’s adviser?
Kifah Mahmoud: On a personal level, I do not refer to challenging times as difficulties. Rather, I would say my job entails a lot of pressure from the media for several reasons.
We’re regularly asked to give interviews, and during these media appearances, we have to maintain a certain narrative and level of dialogue. President Barzani is a national leader, and for years he managed to be an influential figure both regionally and internationally.
Al Jazeera: Given the recent backlash – both locally and internationally – do you think that it was too soon to hold a referendum on Kurdish secession?
Mahmoud: Quite the contrary. In fact, I think we were very much delayed in our decision to carry out a referendum on secession. Personally, I had been advocating and fighting for this step since the United States toppled [late Iraqi] President Saddam Hussein’s regime back in 2003.
This step should have been taken directly after April 2003, instead of having gone to Baghdad to negotiate. We’re still paying the price for opting to negotiate.
Al Jazeera: What are the main challenges facing the Kurdish region now that the oil-rich city of Kirkuk has been retaken by the central government?
Mahmoud: Kirkuk will not be gone forever. For more than four decades, Saddam Hussein’s government and his predecessors tried to change the city’s demographics, but it was reclaimed by the Kurds in a matter of four hours.
Among our biggest challenges at the moment is Baghdad’s lack of faith in the power of dialogue, and its inclination to deal with the Kurdish question through military force. This has been the case with previous governments as well, but they fell, and we remained.
Al Jazeera: What are the main existing internal divisions within the Kurdish parliament that may hinder potential negotiations?
Mahmoud: The Kurdish parliament is not divided; it is actually practising democracy by the mere fact that it is facing real opposition. The fact that the majority party has its opinions and views, while other parties also have their opposing positions, reflects a healthy and diverse process adopted by the regional parliament.
Al Jazeera: Do you hope to see a successful Kurdish secession in the near future?
Mahmoud: Independence is a notion that stems from the minds and hearts of the Kurdish people. Manifesting this on the ground has come in the form of policies pushed by the parliament and the Kurdish judicial body. The notion is a reality that cannot be disputed among any Kurd in the [Iraqi] region.
If there is one thing that the Kurdish people and the government are not in sync with – I would say it is merely the means of executing this, or perhaps a matter of timing. I am optimistic because the referendum proved the will of the Kurdish people and their determination to make secession a reality.
Al Jazeera: In your opinion, what steps should the central government in Baghdad adopt moving forward?
Mahmoud: Today, the central government does not have much of a choice, except to speed up the dialogue process and stop its punitive measures against the Kurdish people. It also needs to pull out its armed troops from along the Kurdish region’s borders, as their presence has violated various articles of the constitution.