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2015 In Review:
Same Old, Same Old Problems Plague Iraqi Kurdistan

Alaa Latif
Although Iraqi Kurdistan remains relatively safe, after 2015, those other adjectives that the region used to be praised with – prosperous, boom town, fledgling democracy – no longer apply.
31.12.2015  |  Sulaymaniyah
شباب محتجون في السليمانية (photo: Soran Ahmad)
شباب محتجون في السليمانية (photo: Soran Ahmad)

The last days of 2015 in Iraqi Kurdistan have been marked by an ongoing political crisis that comes on top of a long running financial crisis. While the semi-autonomous, northern region remains one of the safest parts of Iraq, things have definitely not changed for the better here during 2015. Where there was formerly something of an economic boom, now there are stalled building projects and locals struggling to make ends meet. Where there had been hope for a nascent democracy, albeit an imperfect one, after the last elections here, now there is a deadlocked Parliament that cannot do any meaningful work.

Iraqi Kurdistan seems to have come closer to a state of stagnation in 2015. Locals don't believe that things will change much next year either.

Political Deadlock

As the year draws to an end there is one popular political slogan in Iraqi Kurdistan that is getting a lot of play. It goes something like: “We should return to the time before October 12, 2015”.

This is seen as the date that Iraqi Kurdistan's nascent democracy started to fall apart. After months of wrangling over who should be the President of the semi-autonomous region which has its own government, laws, military and judiciary, none of the political parties who had been delicately sharing power in Parliament were able to come to an agreement. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, whose head, Massoud Barzani, is the current President – some say illegally – wants their man to remain in the job whereas almost all the other political parties n the region are opposed to this.

The eventual result: Violent demonstrations that saw five civilian deaths and then, an even more metaphorically violent sundering of the political status quo. This saw the region's most popular party with voters, the KDP, ban members of the second most popular party, the Change movement, from entering the regional capital. There, the KDP's military are in charge and these forces did not allow the Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament, a member of the Change movement, to enter the city.

Since then the Iraqi Kurdish political process has stalled, despite the best efforts of both local and international actors to resolve the problem.

This year has been one that saw Kurdish forces split, says Ribawar Karim Mahmoud, a professor of political science at the University of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. “2015 has shown that our chances of staying together until the end are extremely small,” Karim told NIQASH.

As for 2016, Karim believes there are two things that will have major impact on Iraqi Kurdistan. He believes the map of the Middle East is being redrawn and that the Kurdish people do not have a plan for this. “Secondly there will be more financial problems here because the price of oil, which is the backbone of the country's exports and income, is continuing to fall,” he argues.

A Bankrupt Government

As in 2014, so in 2015 - the Iraqi Kurdish government has struggled to balance its books this year too. The Iraqi Kurdish authorities have been unable to pay, or have been very late in paying, the salaries of government employees for months now.

Local authorities say that the financial crisis is among the most dangerous phenomena affecting the region. And in 2015 a lot of factors came together to worsen this crisis: Ongoing arguments with Baghdad over how much share Iraqi Kurdistan should get of the federal budget, the war against the extremist group known as the Islamic State and decreasing oil prices worldwide all played a part. Add to this the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan's population has grown around 30 percent due to an influx of refugees from Syria and displaced Iraqis from inside the country.

“I don't expect any improvement in Iraqi Kurdistan's financial situation,” says Kurdish MP and economist Izzat Saber, a member of the local Parliament's Committee on Finance and Economics. “And I don't think the government can do anything to change that.”

Saber gave a number of reasons, including the decline in oil prices, the region's accumulated debts and the political deadlock.

“Genuine reform is the only way for Iraqi Kurdistan to end this crisis,” Saber told NIQASH. “And this can only be done by putting an end to corruption, unnecessary expenditure and by following up on those reforms properly.”

A Year of War

During 2015, military forces from Iraqi Kurdistan continued to fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which sparked a security crisis when it took over the nearby city of Mosul in June 2014. The last statement issued by the region's Ministry of Peshmerga said that since the security crisis began in June 2014, 1,288 members of their military had been killed and 7,544 injured; another 62 were still missing in action.

However there is some good news in this area – a variety of Iraqi forces have been pushing the extremists out of parts of the country. The liberation of areas in and around Sinjar were a victory for Iraqi Kurdish forces in particular. And Jabbar Yawar, the official spokesman for the Iraqi Kurdish military, expressed further optimism about expelling the Islamic State, or IS, group completely in 2016.

“The IS group is losing terrain, its fighters are dying in ever greater numbers and they are losing their weapons,” Yawar told NIQASH. “On an economic level the IS group is also losing, as its oil fields are being taken back. The IS fighters are being paid less and less because sources of funding are drying up and the alliance against it is growing larger.”

“We expect that Mosul will be liberated in the spring next year. After that happens the IS group won't have any military bases left in Iraq,” Yawar concluded.

Societal Issues Ignored

Unfortunately in 2015, political and security issues overshadowed social ones – and this included economic and environmental issues as well as women's rights. In the first six months of 2015, records indicate that 24 Kurdish women were murdered, 33 committed suicide, 75 were burned and 96 set themselves on fire.

Bahar Munther, a well known women's rights and civil society activist, doesn't think this will change in 2016. “Women's issues are not considered worthy of much attention,” Munther told NIQASH. “There are no clear plans or programmes to improve the status of women in Kurdistan. In the past we saw old laws amended or new laws being drafted. Nothing like that is happening at the moment.”

Another sector of Iraqi Kurdish society that has not done very well in 2015 was the local media. Journalists working on the front lines of fighting against the IS group were in danger. And political issues in the region saw journalists working for opposing media outlets – many of the outlets here are financed through political parties and work toward those agendas – targeted by the opposing security forces. Two media outlets – the NRT and the KNN – were forced to close their offices in Erbil after October's political fighting.

“Journalists are being tortured, offices are being closed and cameras and equipment are confiscated,” says Rahman Gharib, from the Kurdish media rights watchdog, Metro Centre. “The freedom of journalists to do their work is restricted in many ways and authorities act against the local media with impunity. International monitoring groups have also confirmed this.”

Also impacting on the social fabric of Iraqi Kurdistan are the many new residents in the region who have come here from other more dangerous parts of the country seeking safety. It is estimated that 1.8 million displaced Iraqi Arabs, mainly from the provinces of Ninawa and Anbar, are now living in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as a number of displaced Syrian Kurds.

Many of them do not want to return to the areas they came from because even though those areas may be free of the IS group, they fear the forces who pushed the IS group out and they have concerns about services like water and power, says Diyar Abdul Qadir, who heads the Protection Assistance and Reintegration, or PARC, project working with displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Abdul Qadir worries about what 2016 will bring the displaced locals he works with. “There are a lot of dangers associated with the liberation of Mosul,” he told NIQASH. “A lot of people are going to want to leave that city and come here too.”

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