On September 22, the Iraqi Parliament voted to withdraw confidence from Iraq’s Minister of Finance, Hoshyar Zebari. He was accused of administrative and financial corruption. In Baghdad, it seems that Zebari is just the next in a growing queue of senior politicians who are waiting to be questioned by Parliament, and then, if they’re unlucky, dismissed. However, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, from where Zebari comes, this is a much bigger deal.
For the Iraqi Kurdish it is a sign that their long lasting alliance in Baghdad is under pressure. Up until now Iraqi Kurdish MPs have always voted together in the Iraqi capital. Despite any differences they may have in their Parliament back home – the region has its own political system, elections and legislature and acts independently of Iraq in many areas – the fact that they are all Kurdish has always trumped any differences in Baghdad. Iraqi Kurdish politicians tended to stress their independence and their desire to stay out of any Shiite Muslim versus Sunni Muslim fights. Until, apparently, now.
In Iraqi Kurdistan two major political parties have ruled the region together. These are the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. Zebari is a member of the former.
The KDP dismissed the Change movement’s finance minister in Kurdistan, now the Change movement have dismissed theirs.
During the vote of no confidence in Zebari, the KDP politicians boycotted the session in protest. In order for the vote to be legitimate a certain number of MPs have to be in the house at the time. However, the PUK politicians, which has the second-largest Kurdish bloc in Baghdad, did turn up, as did members of other Kurdish parties, including the Change movement and Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamic parties. Many of them voted with the increasingly controversial Reform Front, that they had no confidence in Zebari.
This is the first time in a long time that the PUK has not supported a KDP minister in Baghdad. The situation in Baghdad is different these days, Bakhtiar Shawis of the PUK, says. MPs cross the floor more and don’t always do what their faction leadership tells them they should. “The KDP can’t claim that all other Kurdish parties were against them,” Shawis told NIQASH. “They are just saying this because they didn’t expect this.”
“It is clear that Iraq is now divided between two fronts,” Tariq Sadiq Rasheed, the head of the KDP’s bloc in Baghdad, told NIQASH. “The western and the eastern fronts.” By this, he is referring to the Iranian, or Shiite, influence coming from the east and the western influence being Sunni. The KDP has perceived the distance between the two sides growing as the Reform Front, a new group in Parliament ostensibly to combat corruption but more than likely controlled by controversial ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has gained power in Baghdad, Rasheed says. Members of the PUK and the Change movement have sided with the Reform Front. “And their [the Reform Front’s] aim is to overthrow the government,” Rasheed concluded.
An official statement from the KDP was strongly worded, saying that the dismissal of Zebari amounted to a “political conspiracy” and that the KDP would act against those who participated in the plot.
In an interview with the television network, Al Jazeera, after his dismissal, Zebari also made strong statements and he implied that the so-called conspiracy was sectarian in nature. “Unfortunately we have yet to see any Shiite ministers called in for questioning,” he told the interviewer.
This was another unusual incident for Iraqi Kurdish politics. Iraqi Kurdish politicians usually do their best to stay out of Shiite-Sunni fighting in Iraq. The Iraqi Kurdish tend to insist that their cause is a national one, not a sectarian one.
But the split is clear to see. The KDP tend to have better relationships with Sunni Muslim politicians in Baghdad whereas the PUK and the Change movement are closer to Shiite Muslim politicians, and to Iran.
It is also clear though that this split is not just due to the sectarian forces at work elsewhere in Iraq and in the region in general. The two sides have been fighting in Iraqi Kurdistan for some time now and this fight could also be seen as spilling outside of the regional borders.
The Iraqi Kurdish Parliament had all but suspended its work for months due to scrapping over who is supposed to be the region’s President. KDP leader, Massoud Barzani, insists that he be allowed to serve longer while other parties, starting with the Change movement, have said this would be illegal. And now it seems that the Change movement has taken its revenge.
If all the Iraqi Kurdish parties had supported Zebari it would have been difficult to dismiss him, admits Amin Bakr, an MP for the Change movement. However, he insisted, this was not an act of revenge.
“As MPs we cannot support corruption,” Bakr told NIQASH. “Anyway the KDP has not been able to keep the Kurds united, not in Baghdad and not in Iraqi Kurdistan. That’s why the KDP is responsible for this problem themselves. When there are disputes at home, the KDP can’t force other parties to do what it wants in Baghdad.”
Local analyst, Nimah al-Abadi, of the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, agrees. He believes the stresses in Baghdad are due to the accumulation of disagreements back home.
“Any fights that there were, were contained by the equal distribution of positons of power after 2003,” al-Abadi says. “The PUK supports a more centrist stance and it doesn’t agree that Iraqi Kurdistan should be independent of Iraq. But it is also true that the KDP’s stand on the Change movement has accelerated the breakdown in the Kurdish relationship in Baghdad.”
These same divisions are also clearly seen on local social media. KDP supporters tended to see it as an Arab versus Kurd issue. On the other hand, KDP opponents applauded the sacking instead of cursing the Iraqi Parliament for dismissing one of their own ethnicity.
As one social media user wrote: “The KDP dismissed the Change movement’s finance minister in Kurdistan, now the Change movement have dismissed theirs”.