Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Can Iraqi Kurdistan Survive Itself?

Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s Chief of Staff, General Jamal Mohammad (left 3) briefs Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (C) and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani (right 3) on the on going battle against IS, in Erbil, Iraq, 8 January 2017. Photo Anadolu Agency

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had the potential to be one of the Middle East’s most exciting political evolutions. A resource-rich, self-ruling enclave in Iraq, with a multi-party, somewhat multi-ethnic parliamentary system, born in the early 2000s and enjoying broad international support in the shadow of a genocidal campaign of repression, the KRG’s future looked bright. Although the autonomous region has survived much of the violence that has consumed Iraq since 2003, and experienced widespread social development, the KRG has descended into a quagmire of historical rivalries, political nepotism and increasingly autocratic rule.

Since the Islamic State’s (ISIS) Blitzkrieg across Iraq in 2014, the KRG has struggled with the jihadi menace on and within its borders, tense relations with Baghdad and falling oil prices that have decimated its once booming economy. Yet the prospects of Iraq’s Kurds are far from bleak. ISIS’s advance and the collapse of Iraq’s army allowed the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces, to annex land the KRG has long considered its rightful property, including the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk, the “Kurdish Jerusalem”. Now sitting atop what would be the world’s tenth largest supply of oil, if and when stability returns in the wake of ISIS’s retreat, the KRG, the darling of Western and particularly local powers, holds enviable advantages if it can get its own house in order.

Political rot

Although the KRG has a democratic political system, increasingly this seems to be democratic in name alone. In Baghdad, four men have held the post of prime minister since 2004, while in Erbil, where authority lies with the KRG president, there has only been one: Masoud Barzani. Originally elected for a two-year term, Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), refused to step down at the end of his latest stint in power in August 2015, and demanded that the Judicial Council prolong his tenure. Barzani’s term had already been extended for two additional years in June 2013, despite the two-term limit imposed by the draft Kurdistan constitution.

In the summer of 2015, the debate over extending Barzani’s mandate for a further two years exposed the political tensions now at the heart of the KRG. Barzani’s rival sought to make the establishment of a parliamentary system a condition of acquiescing to Barzani’s demands. Such a change would neuter the presidency to a degree, granting more power to the elected parliament and, in turn, the smaller parties like the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and the reformist Gorran (‘change’) party. The KDP and Barzani, incensed at any attempt to unseat him, have insisted on his right to remain in office until a successor is elected. This election has been held up by the KDP, which has refused to accept any of the power-sharing concessions proposed by its opponents. In August 2015, the party ordered its MPs out of parliament, preventing a quorum that could have seen a new president eventually elected. In the meantime, and with the spectre of ISIS a convenient distraction, Barzani remains on his throne.

It is such competition, and even civil conflict, between the KDP and PUK, the two main political camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, that has moulded KRG politics. But perhaps more worrying than Barzani’s autocratic moves is the fact that both these forces are riddled with nepotism. In the KDP, Barzani’s nephew holds the post of prime minister, his oldest son Masrour heads both the Security Council and intelligence services, and his second son is a general in the Peshmerga. Additional close relations control the main mobile phone company.

The PUK is little better. The Talabani dynasty holds sway over much of the party’s crucial infrastructure. The family patriarch, Jalal Talabani, as co-founder of the PUK, currently sits atop the party hierarchy, while his wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, controls both the PUK’s media and its business empire. Their oldest son is the commander of the PUK anti-terror forces and their younger son – a car mechanic still in his 30s – has been gifted the position of deputy prime minister. On both sides of the political divide, it appears that Kurdish politics really is a family affair.

Feuds and fiefdoms

The KDP-PUK rivalry is at the very heart of modern Iraqi-Kurdish history. Formed out of militia groups and interests that fought against Saddam Hussein, tensions have simmered since the very first days of autonomous Kurdish rule. However, in 1994, these boiled over into civil war, as violent clashes erupted between the parties over sharing customs revenues, power and territory. The KDP, under Barzani, called on Saddam for military support against the Iranian-backed PUK, drawing accusations of treason that still rankle today. Four years later, an American-brokered peace deal brought an end to the fighting, but despite a facade of unity, the KRG remains divided to this day, with the PUK lording it over its sphere of influence in Sulaymaniyah Province, and the KDP jealously guarding its own in Erbil and Dohuk.

Yet the KRG’s divisions are not limited to territory. Since the civil war, the Peshmerga have been marked by divided loyalties. Today, half the front line facing ISIS is manned by PUK-aligned units, whereas the rest are loyal to the KDP. Conventional wisdom suggests that army building is a prerequisite for nation building and efforts to unify the military continue. ISIS’s advance has provided the greatest impetus thus far, with parliament decreeing on 23 July 2014 that within six months the Peshmerga should be brought under a single military command. Two and half years later and there is little sign of progress. Not content with men-at-arms, the PUK and KDP also command their own counter-terror and Asayish intelligence branches. With the rise of the Gorran party in 2009, such military backing has proved its worth.

Little brother

The Gorran party won 25 of the 111 parliamentary seats in the July 2009 Kurdistan elections. Created only months earlier, Gorran’s main goals were to delink the KRG’s bureaucracy from the political parties, end corruption and transform the military wings of the KDP and the PUK into a nonpartisan state military. Yet even with strong grassroots support, the party found itself side-lined without substantive military backing, leading to an alliance with the PUK that has upset the last decade’s delicate balance of power.

In May 2016, the PUK and Gorran announced a new political alliance, aimed at uprooting the KDP. According to the deal, the two will merge in parliament and run on a joint ticket during the next elections. The alliance was facilitated by the KDP’s humiliating treatment of Gorran. In October 2015, after protestors attacked KDP offices in Sulaymaniyah, Gorran’s stronghold, the KDP prevented Gorran’s Yousif Mohammed Sadiq, speaker of the Kurdistan parliament, from entering Erbil to carry out his duties. That same month, the KDP also dismissed five Gorran ministers in a cabinet reshuffle. In what was seen as a dig at the KDP, ex-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visit the PUK and Gorran following their political alliance. Al-Maliki has close ties with Iran, a key PUK backer, raising the stakes even further in the three-way struggle for control of Kurdish politics.

Even so, attempts at negotiations to mediate the presidential deadlock have yielded few results since mid-2015. The KDP have said the party aims to resolve the crisis by March 2017, with elections to be held in September 2017 if no solution is found. Barzani will reportedly not run again.

Happy families

Despite their animosity, the PUK and KDP have enjoyed instances of union. In the wake of the US invasion, Kurdish ambition in the new Iraq saw the two parties form a united front, winning 85.2 per cent of the vote in the 2005 Kurdistan elections and bringing Barzani to power. Another period of instability – ISIS’s 2014 advance – also saw renewed cooperation. As the Peshmerga descended on Kirkuk to drive out ISIS (and in turn claim it for the KRG), there were hopes that a common threat could finally unify the KRG political scene. However, with the prize of Kirkuk’s oilfields in the balance, competition for the city was almost terminally dangerous for Erbil, as troops were pulled from around Mosul to garrison Kirkuk. ISIS took full advantage of this and was only stopped from sacking Kurdish areas by last-minute airstrikes from the US-led coalition.

The oil curse

The lure of oil has also held sway over politics. The PUK and KDP remain divided as to how oil revenues should be shared with Baghdad and regional neighbours. The KDP champions an independent oil policy, freeing the KRG to use ‘its’ resources to further Kurdish interests. Angry that the KRG is not receiving its fair share, Barzani has deliberately withheld oil revenues from Baghdad, ratcheting up tensions when a global dip in oil prices has already left the Iraqi economy in a downward spiral. The KDP was also linked with a reported secret deal to give Turkish firms access to northern Iraqi oilfields for $5 billion, and to pipe oil to Iran, all without any recognition of Baghdad’s authority over such agreements. In contrast, the PUK and opposition parties voted in favour of a 2016 budget to ensure the salaries of KRG employees were paid, preferring a more cooperative approach to relations with Baghdad, as the KRG remains an Iraqi region. Although seemingly satisfied to shelve plans for secession, in his quest for ever greater Kurdish independence Barzani is unafraid to tread his own path, regardless of the wishes of his fellow Kurds.

An uncertain future

The KRG has continued to grow in stature and international standing, even as ISIS has harassed its borders and threatened its very existence. But the greatest threat to a prosperous future remains an internal one. The demon of internecine strife has not disappeared and, while the fault lines of Kurdish politics continue to undercut the region’s potential, any talk of truly stable and steady progress remains just that: talk.

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