There was an earthquake in the Sulaymaniyah area in late January. But the effect of this was negligible compared to the political earthquake that began to develop in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan during the same month. This earthquake of a different kind was sparked by a strongly worded statement issued by one of the major opposition parties in the government of the state – Iraqi Kurdistan has its own military, its own economy and legislation and a government that is able to act somewhat independently of federal authorities in Baghdad. Which is why it also has its own internal political crises.
On Jan. 29, the opposition party, the Movement for Change (also known as Goran) issued a statement demanding that the local parliament be dissolved and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan be dismissed. The Movement for Change party had broken away from the main political parties in the region in 2006, demanding an end to corruption and nepotism among the current leaders. And in January, it seems, they had had enough.
The statement was inspired by the Arab Spring protests taking place elsewhere in the region but it came at a particularly troubling time for Iraqi Kurdistan’s government. Generally power is shared between two major parties in the region - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – and at the time that the Change party made their bold demands, relations between the two ruling parties were tense. In practice the region is basically split into two separate zones of influence, with local administrations in Erbil and Dohuk controlled by the KDP and the Sulaymaniyah area mostly administered by the PUK.
Even a plane crash at Sulaymaniyah airport in early February, which saw a small plane carrying seven passengers burn up, killing all aboard, didn’t distract from the political drama. And on Feb. 17 the people of Iraqi Kurdistan took to the streets of Sulaymaniyah to protest against their government.
The demonstrations started in the middle of Sulaymaniyah in the marketplace and at first, the protestors were simply demonstrating their support and sympathy for the people of Egypt and Tunisia, who were also on the streets protesting against their regimes.
However eventually the Kurdish protestors began to march toward the headquarters of the KDP and to throw stones. Armed guards outside the political party’s offices reacted disproportionately, firing into the crowd and killing a local teenager, Rizwan Ali, 17. The headquarters of the opposition Change Movement in both Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and in Dohuk, were also set alight.
However none of this dissuaded the protestors and every day, over a period of around two months, they tried to hold anti-government rallies. These were most successfully held in the Sulaymaniyah and Karmayan areas whereas the protests largely failed to gain traction in Erbil and Dohuk.
The situation developed into a game of cat and mouse between security forces and protestors. For example, on Feb. 19 while protestors were trying to block main roads with fires and tires so that they could protest the following day, the premises of independent broadcasters, a television channel NTV and a radio station, Dang, were attacked, set alight and had their equipment stolen. The two broadcasters had been some of the only news media reporting independently on the anti-government protests in the region.
In the meantime the casualty count was also rising. Over a thousand locals were wounded and there were around 10 deaths. The protests did eventually motivate local politicians and several special meetings were held, including one where local government survived a no confidence vote and another which gathered the two most powerful parties, the KDP and the PUK, together with several important Islamic parties. Promises were made, both of reform and for power sharing, although most have yet to be fulfilled in any way. And the last meeting between the various political parties on April 27 achieved about as much as all the other meetings had.
Eventually Iraqi Kurdistan’s version of the Arab Spring came to an end, with the major protests repressed and crowds dispersed through the heavy use of local troops toward the end of April. The result was an uneasy peace as local Peshmerga troops were deployed to prevent the protestors from regrouping.
As the year went on, the political focus shifted from internal issues to external.
In July, a major concern was the cross-border incursions and bombing runs conducted by both Iran and Turkey just inside in Iraqi Kurdistan. The neighbour states said they were hunting down Kurdish dissidents who were launching terror attacks into their countries from Iraqi Kurdistan. Casualties, displacement and death resulted for the Kurdish civilians living in border areas.
Tensions between the government of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq’s federal government in Baghdad were also rising. The problems arose because of long standing issues between the two, namely the impasse over a national oil and gas law and conflict about which state several disputed territories belonged to.
Iraqi Kurdistan has formulated its own legislation around natural resources like oil and gas whereas the federal government has not; and the latter says the Kurdish laws are unacceptable.
In terms of disputed territory, there are several areas that Iraqi Kurdistan feels belong under its authority. This is because, no matter what the ethnic makeup of the population now, or whether the demographics indicate the area is mainly Arab or mainly Kurdish, Iraqi Kurdistan believes some regions are intrinsically Kurdish. The government in Baghdad disagrees. This conflict peaked in mid-August when both governments sent troops into the Diyala province.
Late in September, dialogue between the various political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan seemed to get another chance when the President of the region, Massoud Barzani, met with the head of the Change Movement, Nashirwan Mustafa. The meeting was the first for five years; Mustafa had resigned from the PUK in 2006 to form the opposition party.
Rumour had it that Mustafa’s group had been invited to join the government of Iraqi Kurdistan and when coupled with a decision to postpone the overdue appointment of a new prime minister – usually allocated on a power sharing basis between the PUK and KDP - political analysts speculated that the KDP was buying time to convince opposition parties to join its government.
Recent reports indicate that a number of opposition parties were in the process of forming an alliance against the KDP/PUK dominated government. And analysts said the current government was trying to get them to join it instead, so that there wouldn’t be a repeat of the political crises and protests from earlier in the year.
However the most recent events, during which early December riots saw the state authorities face off against Islamic political parties, indicate that a widely popular government would be hard to form in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Meanwhile the very last days of 2011 have seen more serious crisis take precedence. One of the current vice presidents of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashimi, has had an arrest warrant issued against him on charges of terrorism. Al-Hashimi, a senior member of the opposition Iraqiya bloc, has denied the allegations, saying that they are politically motivated.
At the time that the warrant was being served, al-Hashimi was on his way to Iraqi Kurdistan. He was allowed to continue on his journey and presently he is still there. Al-Hashimi has asked that he be trialled in Iraqi Kurdistan while the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has asked that he return to Iraq to stand trial in Baghdad.
This has put the government of the semi-autonomous state in something of a difficult position. They may be seen as mediators or they may be seen as taking sides. Both of Iraqi Kurdistan’s leading politicians – Massoud Barzani, regional President and leader of the KDP and Jalal Talabani, President of Iraq and leader of the PUK – have taken a friendly tone toward al-Hashimi. Talabani has also suggested a national conference for all involved parties in order to resolve the problem, which has left the Iraqi parliament deadlocked.
As Dec. 31 draws near, it seems that the end of the calendar year won’t see the resolution, symbolic or otherwise, of the various crises that arose in Iraqi Kurdistan at the beginning of the year. Telephone calls between Mustafa of the Change Movement and Talabani have yet to achieve anything realistic, the Islamic parties and the KDP are still in dispute and in Iraq, the apparently sectarian tension between the Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim leaders in Baghdad continues to rise and may see Iraqi Kurdistan dragged into the situation.