Split? Blood on a Kurdish flag at protests in Sulaymaniyah in 2011. (photo: هيدار عمر)
To deal with Baghdad or not, that is the existential question facing the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. And the answer very much depends on which of Iraqi Kurdistan’s major political parties you are allied with. The answer is also likely to have an impact on the increasingly fractured political situation in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The two major parties there, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, have had serious differences in the past – so serious, in fact, that there was a civil war in the northern region in the 1990s. However over the past decade or so the two have tended to share power, splitting zones of influence between them. But recently political events – such as KDP head, Massoud Barzani, hanging onto the regional presidency and a new power-sharing agreement between the PUK and another party, the Change movement, or Gorran – are reviving old enmities.
The next big argument that the two sides are likely to have will revolve around whether or not Iraqi Kurdistan should continue to be part of Iraq, as one country, and therefore deal with the federal government in Baghdad. Or whether the almost-independent region, which has its own borders, military and parliament, should separate and become an independent state.
The KDP has been plumping for the latter for some time, saying that, thanks to the security and economic crisis in Iraq, there is no confidence in the increasingly powerless central government and that the moment is right for Kurdish independence.
However the PUK and its new partner in power, the Change movement, differ on this, believing that the relationship with Baghdad should be healed and at the same time, that politics in Iraqi Kurdistan also need reform.
Critics suggest that part of the reason the PUK is so keen on doing a better deal with Baghdad is due to a lack of funding. On the other hand, PUK associates say the KDP has been pushing the PUK toward financial ruin, forcing the PUK’s territories into bankruptcy and powerlessness – and that is why the PUK is going back to Baghdad.
“Iraq doesn’t exist in reality,” suggests Ali Awni, a senior member of the KDP. “This is a great opportunity for Kurdish independence. Going back to Baghdad now, under the excuse that there is a financial crisis, is a betrayal of the Kurdish people. There are some parties here who want Sulaymaniyah [one of the PUK’s zones of influence] under the control of yet another dictator: Baghdad. But I am sure the people of Sulaymaniyah wouldn’t accept that Iraqi Kurdistan is divided because of this.”
Critics of the KDP say that party is fostering a debate on independence because it wants focus on this, rather than on internal problems, such as Barzani’s claim on the presidency. The same critics point to the fact that, despite its calls for independence, the KDP has not given up high ranking ministries and senior positions in Baghdad, such as the job of the Minister of Finance.
No matter what either group wants, the KDP also says that the Kurdish should be united when in Baghdad, supporting their own people and dealing with the authorities in Baghdad in a united way. The PUK and the Change movement actually agree with that – but they don’t want the KDP to call all the shots on how that unity works.
“The KDP is making all of these decisions itself, without taking any other opinions into account,” Nawshirwan Mustafa, the head of the Change movement, a political party steadfastly opposed to the KDP, in a speech to members on June 15. “There is no partnership here. And the KDP decided all by itself that it wanted to withdraw from Baghdad.”
In a meeting held between the PUK and the Change movement on June 14, the two sides decided they would make every effort possible to reconcile with the KDP. But they also decided that if the KDP is not amenable to any suggestions, they would pursue a better relationship with Baghdad by themselves.
One of the ways to potentially do this is to seek a closer economic and financial relationship with Baghdad, the PUK and the Change movement have said. The zones under their control would receive their allotted share of the national budget from Baghdad and in return those areas would keep to their agreed-upon constitutional duties.
But of course, this would more or less, split the Iraqi Kurdish region in two, pushing the zones of political influence even further apart. 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 and the political systems in each respective zone. Local administrations in Erbil and Dohuk are controlled by the KDP and the Sulaymaniyah and Halabja areas are mostly administered by the PUK.
Despite this, there appears to have been an increasing number of visits to Baghdad by delegations from the PUK and the Change movement. The governor of Sulaymaniyah, Aso Faridoun, has also made two visits to Baghdad in the past four months. Governors from the KDP-controlled areas of Dohuk and Erbil have not done the same.
Nonetheless politicians from the PUK and the Change movement denied they had any divisive plans.
“The problems with Baghdad should be resolved by regional representation, rather than by visits from partisan delegations,” Shorsh Haji, a leading member of the Change movement told NIQASH, after refusing to be drawn on questions about any potential division of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Our party and the Change movement are working on a project to resolve the differences between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad,” confirms Latif Sheikh Omer, a senior member of the PUK. “But if these discussions fall outside Kurdish unity, there is no plan to move forward with them.”
Just like any other province, Sulaymaniyah has the right to make demands in Baghdad though, Omer added.
However Mahmoud Othman, an influential, independent Kurdish MP, believes that there is already too big a difference in the way the two sides are dealing with Baghdad. “It is disgraceful that one party wants to do one thing and the other wants to do something different,” he told NIQASH. “This situation cannot go on. This kind of separation must cease. All the parties should meet together and make a final decision about how to deal with Baghdad.”
The current situation will have a negative impact on the region, Othman says, because it’s bringing back old antagonisms. “The people of Iraqi Kurdistan lived with this from the mid-90s until 2005 and they do not want to live this way again,” he told NIQASH.