Kurdish referendum rally in Erbil: The dream of Kurdish unity is held dear by many but Kurdish history is littered with political divisions. (photo: موسوعة ويكوبيدبا لوفي كلانسي )
The problems in northern Iraq, and in particular in the city of Kirkuk, have led various Kurdish politicians and parties to bandy about accusations of treachery and betrayal.
The two largest political parties in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, have both said the other is largely to blame for what is happening in northern Iraq now. Over the past few years, and particularly since the security crisis sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, the Iraqi Kurdish have been expanding their zone of influence outside of the lines of the region they legally control. Over the past few weeks, those areas and others have been retaken by the Iraqi military.
Everyone is talking about unity, and calling for unity, but nobody is putting any effort into achieving it.
Directly and indirectly, the KDP has said the PUK is taking part in a plot against them, by collaborating with the Iraqi government, Shiite Muslim militias and Iran. Meanwhile the PUK has said that the KDP is to blame for everything that has transpired because the head of the KDP, Massoud Barzani, pushed so hard for the Iraqi Kurdish to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. They say that pressure brought the Iraqi government down on the Kurdish.
All of the accusations might be partially true. All of them may be partially false. But one thing is for sure: This is not the first time that the Kurdish politicians have engaged in such skulduggery. Although they have been running the Kurdish region side by side for several decades, the two parties were once enemies, on opposite sides of a Kurdish civil war. And both parties have engaged with their enemies before in order to weaken the other.
Kurdish parties have worked with their Iraqi adversaries as well as Iran, Turkey and even Syria to try to eradicate each other. This happened in the 1960s and right up until the Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and the formation of what is now known as Iraqi Kurdistan.
For example, in 1993, both the PUK and the KDP agreed with the Turkish military to strike against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK at the same time. The PKK fight for Kurdish independence in Turkey and are considered terrorists by the Turkish government. They were forced to withdraw from Iraq and make peace with the PUK and the KDP.
During the Iraqi Kurdish civil war between the KDP and PUK in the mid-1990s, the KDP actually sought the help of one of the Kurdish people’s greatest enemies, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s military, to regain control over the city of Erbil, which was controlled by the PUK at the time. On August 31, 1996, the Iraqi army entered Erbil with tanks and tried to expel the PUK from the city. The PUK were far from innocent: Previously the PUK had sought the aid of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, to help them fight the KDP.
PUK supporters often mention August 31, 1996, as a “day of treason”. But now the KDP are repaying them by describing October 16, 2017, as their “day of treason”.
A mural depicting Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons attack on Kurdish Halabja in 1988. Pic: Levi Clancy/Wikimedia Commons
“All of these defeats and incidents of treason have meant that Kurdish unity is really still just a mirage,” says Majid Khalil, a professor of history at the University of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is a dream that will be difficult to achieve, he notes.
To locals on the ground, who now not only fear some sort of Iraqi military incursion but must also fret about further infighting between the KDP and PUK, it doesn’t feel like their politicians have learned much over the years.
A number of campaigns have been started by ordinary people that urge Kurdish unity instead of division, calling on all parties involved to halt their course toward mutual destruction.
The reaction to that kind of public desire from politicians has not been surprising: They support the idea, but they have not done very much about it.
“There is a failure to work towards unity because of personal interests,” argues Fadhil Basharati, a senior member of the KDP. “Political parties are more committed to personal and partisan interests than to national or patriotic aspirations,” he told NIQASH, adding that he was still optimistic though.
“Everyone is driven by their own personal interests or their parties’ agendas,” adds Adnan Hama Mina, a leading member of the PUK. “We have to think about what is best for the Kurdish people and go beyond those interests.”
“Everyone is talking about unity, and calling for unity, but nobody is putting any effort into achieving it,” Mina concluded.