The National’s foreign correspondent Hugh Naylor speaks to us from Erbil, the capital of semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
* This transcript has been lightly edited
The National: The last time you were in Iraq, ISIL had just taken over large Sunni areas of the country. They were pushing towards Kurdish territory. Now, the US has bombed ISIL and the Kurds are on the offensive. Can you tell us what has been the Kurdish reaction to this international coalition that has been slowly coming together to fight ISIL? How important are the Kurds to that coalition?
Hugh Naylor: I think the Kurds are an important element to the coalition. Relatively speaking, they are allies of the West, they always have been, particularly the United States. They supply a huge amount of oil. So their stability is very important for the West. And for the Arab world. So the Kurds are an important, an integral part of this coalition. And their peshmerga forces are also fairly well trained and armed and they are capable of fighting hard against ISIL.
But what I’ve noticed in terms of the change since the first time I reported here, which was in June, during the initial ISIL onslaught in which they captured Mosul, is that this time around, when ISIL almost captured Erbil, this exposed big deficiencies in the ability of the Kurds and the peshmerga to defend themselves. It sort of blew away the notion that these Kurdish forces were invincible and that they were the only force that could fight ISIL.
They are battling against ISIL now, with help from the international community. And they are inflicting losses on ISIL. But ISIL surprised them during their attack in early August. And it demonstrated serious deficiencies in peshmerga power organisation and their ability to defend Kurdish areas. So this idea that the Kurds are invincible in terms of fighting ISIL has been vanquished.
It also set back their advances and calls for independence, which had been escalating after the initial ISIL attacks in Iraq in June. Now the Kurds realise that they are very dependent on international support and that support hinges on this coalition, which also hinges on support from Baghdad.
So that means that Kurdistan has be more respectful and beholden to the interests of Baghdad, despite wanting more autonomy and in the end independence. They just do not appear to be in a position to ask for that now.
The National: You’ve just published a story about Kurdish Islamists facing some backlash after the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. The Kurds are generally known for being fairly secular and nationalist so can you give us an idea of who the Kurdish Islamists are and what role do they play in northern Iraq?
Hugh Naylor: These Kurdish Islamists which are political parties that hold about 17 seats in the local parliament in Kurdistan. They represent, I believe, a yearning among a number of Kurds, who, like the rest of the region, are religious, and see Islamists politics as their prefered sort of choice for political rule, for governance. Just like in Egypt, obviously before the removal of Mohammed Morsi last year, and also in the region.
Kurdistan is 95 per cent Muslim. And a society that appears to becoming more religiously observant, despite the strong secular, nationalist political movements that have historically been dominant in this area. So despite, the dominance of those parties, you do have a society like the rest of the region that has become more religiously observant and in some areas more conservative. An example of that is how, two or three decades ago, you used to have strong leftist, Communist, Marxist, movement in Kurdish society. And nowadays, those individuals and parties hold far less sway than they used to it. That’s sort of a phenomenon that you also see in the Arab world.
But that said, I think the political system in which these Islamist parties, which reject violence, they condemn ISIL, the political system in which they operate in does not provide much room for maneuver. And does not provide much room for them in terms of having a large impact on governance here. So, their influence is somewhat marginal.
The National: So just to draw this all together, does this mean that some of the more Islamist Kurds might face some kind of backlash in northern Iraq because of the presence of ISIL to the south.
Hugh Naylor: After the ISIL assault on Kurdistan that began last month, there was a drumming up in the local media here, and in general every day criticism, of the Islamist parties. They were accused of not condemning ISIL. And they were accused of not supporting the Peshmerga forces.
In fact, these Islamist politicians did condemn ISIL. They are providing support to the Peshmerga forces. But they see this and political observers see the criticisms being levelled at them as a result of internal politics where because ISIL was able to stage a shocking advance that brought the group within reach of Erbil, there were huge military failures on the part of the Peshmerga forces, which are controlled by the two main secular nationalist parties.
So the theory is that these two parties are looking to throw around the blame and are therefore directing criticism at these Islamist parties as a distraction for the failures that were on full display during the ISIL attack.
These Kurdish Islamist party parliamentarians say, A: ‘We condemn ISIL’. B: ‘We actually support the Peshmerga forces by providing aid to them in terms of food and water and money etc’. And they actually sent their own bodyguards to fight alongside the peshmerga - these parliamentarians’ personal body guards. And what they’ll tell you is the two dominant secular nationalist parties prevent the Islamist parties from fielding their own peshmerga forces. So they have a hard time directly participating in the fight because they can’t access the arms and organise like the two large political factions do.