Last week two of the three major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan held a special meeting; it was the first get-together for members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Change movement after they signed a political agreement in mid-May, in which they agreed to unite on key issues in Iraqi Kurdish politics.
On May 17, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Change movement, also known locally as Gorran, issued a statement saying they had signed an agreement that would see them unite their two blocs in the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament.
“The agreement contains solutions to many problems if other parties accept the principles of democracy,” promised Rauf Othman, a senior member of the Change movement.
However this news was not particularly welcome for the semi-autonomous northern region’s other large party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. The political process in the region, which has its own borders, laws and military and operates like a state within a state in Iraq, has been hampered for months now, due to the fact that the three major parties – the KDP, PUK and the Change movement – cannot agree upon who should be the President of their region. The leader of the KDP, Massoud Barzani, has hung onto this position – some say, illegally – for several terms now.
Over the past few days the PUK and Change movement have announced they won’t re-start the stalled parliamentary process in Iraqi Kurdistan because consensus needs to be built.
But it was no real surprise, that just days after the statement was issued by the PUK and Change movement, the KDP announced its opposition to the idea. “We feel the agreement is an attempt to deepen conflicts,” a KDP statement said, noting that they felt the new political bloc had been formed as a dig at them.
The PUK-Change agreement says that the two parties prefer that the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament – the elected MPs - choose the region’s President. The KDP wants the president to be elected by the voters themselves. Before the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament was effectively shut down by this conflict, the powers of the President had already been trimmed.
“This [PUK-Change] agreement will further complicate the political problems the region has,” says Ahmed Kani, a senior member of the KDP. “The Change movement’s opinions come through loud and clear in the agreement and I don’t think the PUK will accept the conditions that they are setting.”
The Change movement wants to see Barzani removed from his current position; they say he is holding the seat of President illegally now.
Things became even more complicated when the attorney general in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and well known as KDP territory, issued an arrest warrant for Nawshirwan Mustafa, the head of the Change movement, on charges of incitement to attack foreign embassies.
In response the PUK and the Change movement started to solicit support for their plan from smaller Iraqi Kurdish parties, including the region’s Islamic parties.
“The new agreement has some good ideas in it and could serve as a starting point for dialogue between the parties so that eventually they could reconcile,” Omar Mohammed, a senior member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, told NIQASH. But Mohammed also admitted that if things went in the opposite direction, the agreement could further pollute Iraqi Kurdish politics.
“The timing of the agreement wasn’t very good,” he concedes, “it came when there were no positive signals between the two parties.”
Kani confirms this, saying, “we are not ready to receive any joint delegations from the PUK and the Change movement to discuss this agreement”.
As for the PUK itself, this political party appears to be stuck in the middle between two apparently implacable foes. At one stage the PUK and the KDP were at war with one another, fighting for control of the Kurdish region. To resolve this, the two parties signed a power-sharing deal in 2007 and the question remains as to what will become of this, given the PUK’s new deal with the Change movement.
A senior politician in the PUK party, Harem Kamal Agha, told NIQASH that the PUK has been trying to broker a peace between the two opposing parties for some time. His party had also approached the KDP with a deal but this was rejected, he noted.
“The agreement between the PUK and the Change movement could have a very positive impact on Iraqi Kurdistan and it could have led to more stability and an opportunity to put the house in order, if the KDP’s reaction had been different,” Agha explained.
“The agreement between the PUK and the Change movement requires that the KDP behave differently,” says Ribawar Karim Mahmoud, a professor of political science at the University of Sulaymaniyah. “But the KDP does not appear to be ready to abandon any of their powers or to share them with other parties.”
If things get worse rather than better as a result of the agreement, Mahmoud suggests, the region might see the administration of Iraqi Kurdistan split in two even more than it is today – currently the PUK and the KDP tend to rule over their own zones of influence. In reality, the semi-autonomous region is split between areas that traditionally fall under each party’s control, dubbed the “green” and “yellow” zones - after the colours of the parties’ flags – and they informally maintain total command over the armed forces in each respective zone.
Mahmoud has more warnings: “There could be a civil war and the two sides might even resort to the foreign powers that support them,” he says. “There are some people on both sides that actually want all this to happen.”
The political division in Iraqi Kurdistan is reflected in international alliances too, with the KDP closer to Turkey and the PUK, Iran. If political relationships break down further in Iraqi Kurdistan that would come at the same time as tensions in all of the Middle East are rising due to enmity between Turkey and Iran, among others.
“With regard to support from other countries, the situation is similar to what is happening with Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” argues Watheq al-Hashimi, the director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies based in Baghdad. “If the two countries – Iran and Turkey – start to interfere, that would make things a lot worse.”