The Plight of Iraqi Kurdistan

Spearhead Analysis – 26.12.2017

By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The legion of escalating protests and furious demonstrations that have kicked off in Iraq’s Kurdish-held regions is emblematic of a long-running political crisis that has long been brewing in an embattled Iraq. ‘The Kurdish Spring’ that most Iraqi Kurdistan sought within the new emerging construct of a post-ISIL Iraq has been served a reality check. On December 18, Kurdish demonstrators attacked the headquarters of all five of the region’s main political parties. This included the ruling Kurdistan Regional Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose collective 26-year reign over Iraqi Kurdistan is noted as the cause behind the unrest that is sweeping the region. Accusations of mass alleged corruption within the Bureaucracy and State institutions, were initially spearheaded by key opposition strongholds in the Western Sulaimaniyah governorate. These have gained traction with the public, urging the Establishment –  the regional government headed by the KDP – to tender its resignation, immediately. The Kurds stand, yet again at a precarious juncture for the survival of their autonomous state and this time, the crisis is one of their own making.

It would be an oversimplification to state that these tectonic shifts in KRG’s political climate ensued from former President Masoud Barzani’s call for the 25th September independence referendum, which backfired. In hindsight, the failure of the referendum within post-ISIL Iraq only appears to have revived Kurdish patriotism amongst the masses rather than fueling secessionism, as was feared initially. The current protests are striking in their transition from being grievance-based rhetoric against the Establishment, to more politically-conscientious demands for better and more democratic governance. Inherent in these protests is anger and frustration fuelled by Kurdish pride and a loss of one-fifth of Kurdish territory on October 16th when the Iraqi forces swooped in to claim large swaths of Kurdish Peshmerga lands under federal control. The protestors claim that beyond the obvious failure of the government to adhere to democratic transitions and the rule of law, and an inability to institutionalize Peshmerga and security forces, the epicenter of these issues lies in the historically embedded tribal and dynastic family politics that have plagued Kurdish politics for decades.

In an earlier referendum, public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of the idea of Kurds being in a position of strength to negotiate a better deal with Baghdad over KRG autonomy. The magnanimous contributions of the Kurds in the war against ISIL had helped. The then head of the KRG misread the result of the referendum. Subsequently the KRG lost one fifth of its territory to Iraqi and Iran-led Shiite forces within 15 days. Also lost was the oil rich city of Kirkuk and its nearby oil fields. This created economic difficulties for the KRG. When Iraq’s US trained counter-terror forces achieved a swift decisive victory the internal strife between the KRG—the KDP and PUK—was evident and a chasm opened between the Kurdish people and the leadership that was seen to have betrayed the Kurdish cause. Widespread protests followed and continue.

Economically, the regional government has been in financial straits since 2014. Baghdad reduced funding to the region when the KRG decided to bypass the central government and unilaterally moved ahead with plans for a Kurdish-controlled pipeline to carry oil from Kirkuk to Turkey. With its oil revenues halved as of October, KRG has a resounding estimated $20 billion in debt, and its reliance on previously amassed loans in 2015 and 2016 to offset its huge budget deficits has placed it in an economic quagmire. The economic case against the secession referendum too rested largely on oil. Since gaining its de facto autonomy in the early 1990’s under the US imposed no fly-zone, the KRG managed to create a sustainable state body that was focused on the strengthening of its administrative institutions like its civil service, ministries and the army. In the midst of administrative reforms, the government overlooked economic viability. A growing dependence on a single revenue source – oil – meant that day-to-day functioning of the entire region rested on government revenue generated through oil pipes that accounted for up to 90% of KRG’s revenue.

This dependence directly translated to stifling of incentives to diversify and sustain other sectors of the state such as development of its mineral rich lands for agricultural or manufacturing purposes. The KRG’s Ministry of Agriculture, for example,  had twice devised five-year plans to boost the sector – in 2009 and in 2015, but these plans failed to meet their goals due to lack of sufficient funding from the Iraqi government.

In their nationwide demonstrations, the Kurdish protestors have united against the failure of a government that they believe lacks a strategy to run the autonomous region. Frustration emanates from the lack of basic services such electricity and healthcare; widespread corruption; and the non-payment of 1.2 million state salaries. Iraqi Kurdistan is in an uproar. Kurds appear no longer willing to accept the illusion of reform in the post-ISIS crisis of authority.  ISIS is no longer a viable excuse to unite the population under the banner of war-drums or to be used to deflect attention away from the myriad of issues that the government has been unable to tackle. For once, even Baghdad cannot be fully blamed for the plight of the Kurds. A timeline of KRG’s financial deterioration traces back to before a pre-ISIS 2014, as outcomes of audits never reached the public, despite annual promises of transparency. Instead, estimated loans of $500 million at interest rates of 12% were taken by the Barzani/Talabani coalition without approval from either the parliament or their respective political parties. KRG owes $700 million every month to its staff and teachers, who have only been paid half their salaries for the past 20 months. 

There is palpable fury among the protestors, who are  now aware of the immense potential of the region and how they have been cheated out on. The air of discontent has been fueled by the response from  the government forces, which has responded in a most autocratic fashion. Preventive measures to maintain stability by the KRG saw armed KDP and PUK forces, with US-provided Humvees in tow (essentially part of US military aid to the Peshmerga to fight ISIL terrorists in the region), come forth to push back protestors and fight or arrest, when threats of escalating violence seemed imminent. Four offices of political parties were set on fire by protestors in a symbolic display of growing disillusionment with government’s ability to deal with the catastrophic economic and social crisis at hand. These included: two offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan(PUK), offices of the current ruling KDP, and the Kurdistan Islamic Union, all part of the current five-member coalition government, the KRG. 

Interestingly, a nation that a mere two months ago was united in a 92% strong vote as an initiation to its long-preserved, ancestral dream of an independence project, is today in a dismal state of turmoil. A cursory glance over recent events will find that little incitement was in fact needed for the Kurdish community to come out in droves in consecutive days of deadly protests in the provinces of Sulaimaniyah and Halabja. The latter famously known as the ‘City of Peace’ and both cities cited as the political stronghold of Gorran and the PUK. Kurdistan’s largest opposition party, the Gorran movement, was amongst the leading voices that called for the people of the Kurdistan Region to go on “nationwide strike” to put pressure on the Kurdish government to resign, following the party’s own decision to withdraw from the KRG cabinet and the resignation of its speaker in parliament. As with the 2011 protests in Sulaimaniyah, which had similar undertones to the current anti-government protests, there is little hope that this time around, the situation would lead to the re-birth and strengthening of any new political party. There is little hope in any kind of politics to quell the pent-up resentment and within the first three days of protests, reports of five deaths and more than eighty injured have been noted. In this regard, the KRG government has failed to note that its clamp down on its citizens is counter-productive. Fire begets fire.

The crackdown on media and the press by the regime has solicited even more attention. The KRG’s Ministry of Culture, in a controversial misstep invoked global condemnation by organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, when it closed down NRT media outlets. It is one of the largest Kurdish media networks based in Sulaimaniyah, and allegations cited that the network was complicit in inciting civilian violence. Videos have emerged on social media of Sulaimaniyah security forces (Asayesh) storming in and shutting down the media house NRT’s headquarters without a warrant. With measures such as these seen as direct attacks on free speech and the voice of the opposition, the KRG government is being called to be held accountable by protestors, for employing unethical tactics to curb the growing dissent among its people. Clearly, there is a large discrepancy between public perception and the ground reality. The demonstrators immediately denounced the message of the KRG press release earlier this week, which aimed to project a public front of a government that advocates and encourages a fundamental right to peaceful protest. Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan have both silently deteriorated in rankings put out by the 2017 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders. This is because of mass arrests and warrants for the arrest of professors and civilians reported widely by the social media and denied by Asayesh.

The view of heightened political turbulence being exploited is largely backed by those pro-regime voices who argue that the KRG government is being tested by foreign ‘agendas.’ They argue that the narrative of what initially started out as peaceful and legitimate demonstrations of discontent against the government have been hijacked and eschewed to form a violent, anti-establishment, ‘anti-Kurd’ uprising that attempts to derail the entire cause of Iraqi Kurds and their independence aspirations.

This paranoia is not shared by the estranged ruling parties or their supporters. A statement issued by PM Abadi to ‘not stand by idly if citizens in Kurdistan are attacked’ was interpreted by nationalist leaders and bi-partisan political observers, as a primer of divisive opportunism that might be employed as an excuse to storm Kurdish territory under the guise of protecting protestors from a despotic government. Analysts fear that the crisis may trigger measures to further victimize the Kurdish people. Following from the events of October 16th, when Baghdad forces stormed into Kurdish territory, it has been the civilians that have faced the brunt of forced evacuations, wide-scale displacements and disruption of life, and not the sprawling fortresses of the ruling parties. Any other transnational military incursion, by either Baghdad or by Iran, with the latter increasingly being viewed as having potent influence in this domestic quagmire, would only reiterate and heighten the plight of endangering civilian lives.

Indeed, reports of  military buildup by the Iraqi forces in Makhmur, about 60 km southwest of KRG capital, Erbil is an alarming development, reminiscent of post-referendum clashes between Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi forces that resulted in Baghdad employing federal control over previously Kurdish held territories. 

As of December, the KRG leadership, PM Nechirvan Barzani with deputy PM Qubad Talabani and other government leaders are in Europe, to explain the stalemate between Erbil and Baghdad to world leaders and press for negotiations with Baghdad within the framework of the Iraqi constitution. They have called for a pressing need to revisit Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution and a normalization of areas it refers to as disputed, to be followed by a referendum on whether or not those regions want to be part of the Kurdistan Region. The freezing of the outcome of the September 25th referendum by former President Barzani, now appears to be a move that will prove fruitful in allowing the Kurds to be seen as being the ‘bigger person’, and offering a political concession despite being reprimanded by many in Kurdistan as putting the 92% voting Kurdish population in a compromised position before the world. The KRG is now willing more than ever, to negotiate with Baghdad, a move that puts it back in the good books of key world states such as the US and France, whose support or disapproval, is paramount. Indeed, a stronger presence in Baghdad and repairing its alliances after the referendum’s fall-out would guarantee Kurds a chance to better their constitutional rights. Negotiations with world leaders would also allow KRG leadership to mount pressure on PM Abadi to re-configure the crippling budget cuts on an already frail Kurdish economy whose revenue has halved since the October blockade and the takeover of its oil pipelines.

However, there is a pressing need to first redefine where Kurdish national interest stands. PM Barzani seems to be tackling the domestic crisis by zooming far out of a picture that must be tackled with due sympathy, concessions and appeasement of an incredibly charged Kudish public. A public whose relentless demand is for a regime change, and not a re-incarnation of those tried, tested and failed strategies. Economic woes aside, the protests witnessed in the past week are symbolic of a larger, more potent trust deficit that plagues the relationship between those viewed as representatives of long-standing family dynasties and those they wish to rule over. Early elections in 2018 will offer some legitimacy to the KDP, and the fairness and transparency of the vote count will be a face-saving measure for the political leadership that hopes to win back Kurdish trust. The Kurds, as these protests have shown, are not willing to be played or sidelined yet again.