Halabja, Symbol of Iraqi Suffering, Waits For Its New Beginning
It's been almost two years since it was decided that Halabja, site of a 1988 chemical weapons attack, should be a province. But its only a province on paper – and it's the Iraqi government that is holding things up.
To be or not to be a province: The deal is done but Halabja has yet to gain official recognition as Iraq's 19th province. (photo: زيار محمد)
It's been almost ten months since politicians in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan voted on how the administration of Iraq's newest province, Halabja, should be run. In early February the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament met in the city of Halabja itself to pass a bill that would provide the legal framework for the Halabja Provincial Council. A governor and deputy governor were also chosen for the brand new province.
Almost a year earlier, it had been decided that Halabja should become a province. This was partially because Halabja has become such a symbol – because of the former Iraqi regime's chemical attacks against the city and of Kurdish resistance. And the new province is comprised of the central district, Halabja, as well as three sub-districts, Sirwan, Khurmal and Bayyarah. Three other sub-districts were not added to Halabja because the people living there were against the idea, and the sub-districts were allowed to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be part of the new province or not.
The decision, in 2014, made Halabja Iraqi Kurdistan's fourth official province – the others are Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk - and should have made it Iraq's 19th. However, while the Iraqi Cabinet in Baghdad voted for the idea, the Iraqi Parliament has yet to agree and officially recognise the province.
And the locals here are upset about this. Today if you meet someone from Halabja and ask which province they are from, they will immediately say “Halabja”. Yet on their identity card, you will see Sulaymaniyah. License plates on cars in Halabja also still carry the code for Sulaymaniyah and the province doesn't have its own telephone prefix. Nor does the fledgling province have any department that deals with passports or residencies. Locals say Halabja lacks all of these things because Baghdad has yet to recognise the area, home to around 120,000 people, as a province.
“We are still waiting for the Iraqi Parliament to recognise Halabja as a province,” Ayoub Abdallah, chairman of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament's Committee on Internal Affairs, Security and Local Councils, told NIQASH. “I believe we are waiting because the Iraqi government doesn't have the budget for a new province. It was supposed to support Halabja with a special budget but it has not.”
The Iraqi government had previously decided to allocate US$2 billion to Halabja and this was stipulated in the draft federal budget for 2016. However the draft budget was contested in Parliament in Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurdish MPs in Baghdad say they have tried their best to push the issue forward.
“The topic has been discussed many times,” says Muthana Amin, a senior member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, who's also an MP in Baghdad. “But they keep saying it is a decision that the Iraqi Kurdish government should make. The Iraqi government can only respect that decision. So our aim in asking for a special budgetary allocation was to make sure that Halabja was mentioned in official documents, as a new province.”
“Most of the other parties don't have a problem with making Halabja a province,” adds MP Faryad Roandzi of the Political Union of Kurdistan, who is also Iraq's Minister of Culture. “But at the same time they want to make deals and they have their conditions: They too have districts they want to see become provinces. As Kurdish politicians we can submit the topic to the Prime Minister and ask him to put it on the agenda. But we should prepare for this properly. We only have three Kurdish ministers in the Iraqi Cabinet,” Roandzi added.
The spokesperson for the Iraqi Kurdish government says that they believe the ongoing financial and political problems between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad have nothing to with the delay in recognising Halabja as a province.
“Halabja is a province – that has been settled,” says Safeen Dizayee, the spokesperson for the government of Iraqi Kurdistan. “And the reason why the government here has not built any new departments or offices in Halabja are simple: There is no budget for this.”
Iraqi Kurdistan, just like Iraq, is currently experiencing a financial crisis that has meant civil servants have not been paid for months and development projects have stalled.
“Kurdish MPs in the Parliament have done the best they can,” Dizayee says. “And I don't think the problems between Baghdad and Erbil have anything to do with the delay in recognition either. Halabja is a symbol of suffering and sacrifice for all Iraqis.”