Iraq has been rocked by anti-government protests for more than five weeks now, with the violence and anger steadily escalating. What began as peaceful mass marches has exploded into the country’s biggest political crisis since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
It has also become a geopolitical mess with regional implications. The protesters have focused on deep-seated resentment towards neighbouring Iran’s influence in the country, and Iran has been engulfed in nationwide protests after the government announced fuel rationing and price increases, triggering calls to oust the regime.
Nobody is quite sure where the protests in Iraq are headed, but what is clear is that last month in Iraq was a combustible one and that the uprising could reshape the country.
Thus far, the protests have taken place in Iraqi cities and provinces with Shia majorities. To date, the country’s Sunnis and Kurds have played no role, effectively denying the uprising the opportunity of becoming a nationwide Iraqi Spring.
Unlike other areas in Iraq, where anti-government demonstrations have gripped the country, the streets of the Kurdistan Region have been calm and life has carried on as normal.
While the country’s Sunni areas remain tightly governed by the Shia-led authoritarian central government in Baghdad, the Kurdistan Region is a semi-autonomous enclave with its own political system.
The Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) and the main ruling parties in the region have taken a firm rhetorical stance, saying that the protests in Baghdad and in the south are not their concern.
The Kurdish political leadership has put its weight behind Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and stood against the protesters’ demands for political reforms including rewriting Iraq’s constitution.
First and foremost, the Kurds want to maintain the political gains they have made since Saddam’s downfall that have made their enclave semi-independent.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s strong-man leader Masoud Barzani has warned that changes in the post-Saddam constitution could undermine Kurdish rights in the document.
“Any amendment should be according to the law and should not be at the expense of democratic principles or undermine the rights of the Kurds or other [minority] communities,” he tweeted.
KRG President Nechirvan Barzani also flew to Baghdad to show solidarity with Abdul-Mahdi. He later said that Abdul-Mahdi needed more time to deliver the changes pushed for by the protesters.
The Barzanis and other Iraqi Kurdish leaders have long recognised Abdul-Mahdi as being more sympathetic to the Kurds and even a personal friend since he served as the representative of the anti-Saddam Shia groups in Kurdistan in the 1990s.
Relations between the KRG and Baghdad have improved since Abdul-Mahdi took office in 2018, and under his leadership Iraqi Kurdistan has been able to export hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil, circumventing central government control.
“He [Abdul-Mahdi] is a safety valve for Kurdistan,” Kurdish politician Mulla Bekhtiyar said of the Iraqi prime minister at a seminar held in the town of Duhok last week.
On the ground, the KRG has banned Kurdish political activists from holding planned strikes and sit-ins in support of the protests in Baghdad and Iraq’s southern cities.
Yet, there has been some solidarity with the Iraqis protesting in Baghdad and the south. Some Kurdish intellectuals have signed a statement in which they said they believed the Iraqis had good reason to be out on the streets.
However, it is no surprise that the Kurdish politicians and political parties oppose the protests against the government in Baghdad.
They believe that the protesters represent a movement that threatens the rule of their allies in Baghdad and could also serve as an inspiration for Kurds disgruntled with corruption and dysfunction in their own government.
Kurds in the region face similar problems to those that have driven the protests in Baghdad and the south of the country, including rampant government corruption, mismanagement, a lack of basic services and unemployment.
The continuation of the protests in Baghdad and the south of Iraq could stoke unrest in the KRG, given its precarious situation and the hostile public attitudes to the Kurdish political leadership that has imposed its heavy-handed rule over the region for nearly three decades.
The main Kurdish cities have witnessed mass protests against the Regional Government and ruling parties in recent years, demanding political freedoms and a better government.
Protests in the KRG’s capital Erbil and in the second-largest city of Sulaimaniya were cleared by riot police who charged the crowds and used tear gas to disperse the protesters.
The Kurdish leadership also has other reasons to hate the protests in Baghdad and the south of Iraq since they could carry huge political risks for Kurdish autonomy.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been autonomous since 1991when the United States and Britain imposed a no-fly zone on the area to protect it from Saddam’s military. Following the US-led invasion in 2003, the new administration recognised the existing Kurdish Regional Government.
A new constitution also defined Iraq for the first time as a federal country and established the Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq as a self-ruled federal region.
But the Kurds also made considerable political, economic and other gains by securing shares in the central government and in national resources such as oil and gas.
The KRG adopted a strategy backed by cunning tactical and long-term planning to maximise Kurdish gains and use Baghdad to push its independence agenda forward.
Today, the KRG’s leaders are concerned that the protesters’ demands to abolish the quota-based power-sharing system among the country’s ethnicities and rewrite the constitution and election laws could limit the region’s gains.
The KRG’s leadership fears that the current uprising in Iraq by stirring up patriotism and reviving Iraqi nationalism could make their quest for independence more difficult.
While Iraq has remained gripped in sectarian conflicts and turmoil, the Kurds have continued to gain strength and build their national enterprise in pursuance of their dream of independence.
The KRG even held an independence referendum to break away from the rest of Iraq despite furious Iraqi and regional objections. The move ended in failure and amounted to a national humiliation when Baghdad, Iraq’s neighbours and the international community refused to accept the outcome.
On another level, many of the KRG’s top leaders and political parties have made personal and family gains through their control of the region’s natural resources, in particular oil and gas, funding coming from central government, and graft.
Now they fear that the Iraqi protest movement might succeed in imposing stringent transparency and anti-corruption measures that would curb money flowing freely from resources under their control.
But by showing their anti-uprising sentiments, the KRG leaders are risking creating a greater divide between the Kurds and the protesters and their supporters in Shia-dominated southern Iraq.
Many protesters are outraged by the KRG leaders’ attitudes and have threatened to make oil-grabbing and other corruption accusations against the KRG issues in their demands.
The KRG leadership’s antagonism to the uprising is short-sighted and could be counter-productive in the long term. The demands by the protesters are against the country’s corrupt political class, and the KRG has no moral or political ground to oppose them.
If Iraqi Kurdistan’s political elites feel that they are threatened by the collateral effects of the uprising in Baghdad and the south and fear that the protests will spread to Kurdish cities, it would be better for them to reconsider their alignment with the corrupt Shia political groups and start addressing the needs and concerns of the Kurdish population.
The Iraqi Kurds in general should recognise that the uprising has ushered Iraq into a new phase of civic and national awakening that is targeting vested political and economic interests.
The protesters, who are demanding an overhaul of governance in all of Iraq and the country’s national revival, are not threatening the foundation of the country’s federal system or the Kurds’ political and other gains.
As for the protesters’ demands to rewrite the Iraqi constitution and election laws, this should lead to progressive reforms that address the political, social and economic issues that have been at the centre of Kurdish grievances.
There was a time when the KRG’s leaders talked about the imperfection of these documents and of amendments that could serve the wider purpose of creating a civic state in which all Iraqis would be treated as equal and guarantee Kurdish aspirations.
One thing is crystal clear: if the uprising in Baghdad and southern Iraq fails, it will threaten to take all Iraqis from all communities down with it.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.