Until recently, the leaders of Iraqi Kurds showed their pride in being in the forefront of their community and a guiding light in the national-liberation movement in Greater Kurdistan that extends through Iran, Syria, and Turkey.
The Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq that they rule was also basking in the glow created by a friendly media in the West, which termed it a “Middle Eastern Switzerland” and an oasis of calm, freedom, and prosperity in a tumultuous region.
Today, this is certainly no longer the case as the autonomous region sinks deeper into political infighting and economic troubles and remains enmeshed in chaotic policies and faces increasing threats from its powerful neighbours.
Iraqi Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) is grappling with the worst crisis it has known since it became a federal region of Iraq after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, resulting in a political impasse. There is barely a citizen of the region who has not felt the bite of the catastrophic meltdown.
The region has long been beset by divisions between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The two groups, which have long fought for political supremacy, remain determined political rivals.
The KDP, led by the Barzani clan, controls the presidency along with Irbil, Kurdistan’s provincial capital, and Dohuk, while the PUK, led by the Talabanis, retains its grip on power in Sulaimanya and large swathes of Kirkuk, which remains outside the KGR’s authority.
The latest dispute between the two centred around the election of a new president for Iraq, a post allotted to the Kurds and held by a PUK leader since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The KDP has attempted to take over the largely symbolic post.
An unofficial agreement divides political power in the northern Kurdish enclave between the KDP, which maintains the presidency of the region as well as some ministries in Baghdad, and the PUK, which controls Iraq’s presidency.
After the elections in Iraq last October, KDP President Masoud Barzani pushed to give the post to one of his associates, sharpening the divide between the two rival parties and plunging the region into further turmoil.
In another sign of friction, the two parties have been engaging in a new squabble over the regional elections in Iraqi Kurdistan due later this year, with the PUK and several other parties demanding a new voting law that they hope will trim the KDP’s monopoly on power.
The KDP, which controls 60 seats in the 111-member Kurdish regional parliament, has been blocking attempts by the PUK and its allies to overhaul the region’s election law by replacing the current one-district voting system to one using multiple districts.
The KDP’s opponents also want to name a new independent election commission in the region.
As a result of KDP objections, the parliament’s speaker, a PUK member, has been refusing to call the assembly to session, virtually leading it to a standstill.
The squabble comes amid an acute economic crisis in the region despite an increase in oil prices and an expansion in energy production and exports in addition to further revenues coming from lucrative customs dues and the Kurdish region’s share of the Iraqi federal budget.
The Kurdistan region has a population of more than five million people, some 1.3 million of whom are employed by the government. Many families suffer badly when the government fails to pay its employees for several months.
The economic hardships suffered by the Iraqi Kurds are in sharp contrast to the accumulated wealth and overseas properties that the region’s oligarchs, including Barzani family members, own or have hidden in secret accounts abroad.
Widespread corruption, cronyism, mismanagement, a lack of public services, rampant unemployment, low pay, falling living standards and poverty have continued to trigger public protests.
The demonstrations have swept through the region, with protesters demanding an end to corruption, the paying of salaries to employees and pensions to retirees, and the opening of an investigation into the wealth of members of the two main parties in the region.
Some of the protests have become violent, with people setting fire to government buildings and the offices of political parties. While the security forces have used excessive force against the demonstrators, the government has responded to criticisms of its response with intimidation, restrictions on free speech, and arbitrary arrests.
Meanwhile, the crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan is forcing thousands of Kurds to seek refuge in places as far away as the UK, braving dire conditions in their attempts to reach them, with many drowning en route and others being rescued just minutes from death.
Many of the 27 men, women, and children who lost their lives in the English Channel in December as they tried to cross from France to the UK in an inflatable dinghy are believed to have been Kurds from Iraq. Others have also died in recent months on the border between Belarus and Poland, while hundreds more are still trying to get into Europe from Turkey.
Numerous external interventions, some by invitation, are also contributing to the instability. Iran’s relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan is complicated, but in a general term Tehran has built strong bases for influence in the region.
Iran attacked Irbil last month with a barrage of ballistic missiles in an assault on the region’s capital. Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard claimed responsibility for the unprecedented attack, which it said was against an Israeli “strategic centre of conspiracy” in the city.
Pro-Iran Shia militias have occasionally targeted US diplomatic mission in Irbil and facilities of the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Iraq.
On the other hand, Ankara maintains ties with Iraqi Kurdistan and especially the KDP as junior and compliant allies and partners in its war against the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
Turkey’s army routinely carries out incursions into the mountains that straddle the Turkish-Iraqi frontier to attack bases of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebel group there. Escalating hostility from both Iran and Turkey are main sources of instability and are believed to be driving displacement from border areas and emigration abroad.
However, instead of taking action some Iraqi Kurdish leaders have chosen to put the blame on international politics and the federal Iraqi government in Baghdad for their failure to deliver on their promises.
Their favourite game is to harp on national sentiments whenever they face criticisms of their incompetence and leadership failures.
Last week, Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said that the region’s problems stem from what he termed “foundational issues” such as the “arbitrary” drawing of Iraq’s borders after World War I and “the decision-making process in Baghdad” that he said was “not truly independent.”
He told an audience of experts and journalists at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, that Iraq should be declared “a confederation” instead of continuing with its current system which gives the Kurds autonomy under a federal government.
After the address, Bafel Talabani, the leader of the rival PUK Party, gave his vision of a Kurdistan region still divided politically, geographically, and linguistically. Talabani referred to the KDP-controlled provinces as Badinan, an old name for the area, in contrast to the provinces under the control of his PUK Party, known as Soran.
As the in-fighting escalates amid the many disappointments and missed opportunities, there is plenty at stake in Iraqi Kurdistan. Its leadership’s miscalculations have overshadowed the mythical “oasis of calm” and prosperity supposedly represented by the region.
Shasawr Abdul-Wahid, the head of the New Generation Movement in Iraqi Kurdistan, made a passionate appeal to the international community to intervene in Kurdistan.
One way he thinks the world could help is by assisting the Iraqi Kurds in holding free and fair elections. “Without those, there are no guarantees of peace and stability in a situation that is moving towards explosion,” he said in a statement.
In the absence of such help, “we will be forced to take other steps to defend freedom and democracy and the rights of our citizens,” said Abdul-Wahid, whose movement is seeking to break the two-party establishment that has dominated politics in the region for decades.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.