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Establishing A Foothold:
Iraqi Political Party Hopes To Capitalize On Kurdish Political Angst

Kosar Othman
Opening another office in Iraqi Kurdistan is a good decision for the newly formed National Wisdom party. Even though they are Arab and may only get a few votes there, it makes for great optics, no matter what.
22.02.2018  |  Sulaymaniyah
Ammar al-Hakim addresses politicians in Baghdad.
Ammar al-Hakim addresses politicians in Baghdad.

In the middle of last month, a political party opened a new office in Sulaymaniyah, a major city inside Iraqi Kurdistan. But it was not just any political party. This was the National Wisdom party, a Shiite-Muslim majority party founded by an Arab cleric, Ammar al-Hakim. It’s unusual because the only politicians who tend to try and get a lot of votes in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan are Kurdish.

Al-Hakim, 46, was formerly part of another long-established Iraqi political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI – it is also one of the biggest and most important Islamic parties in Iraq. In the middle of 2017, al-Hakim left the party his father founded to start the National Wisdom party, saying it was a project to rejuvenate Shiite Muslim politics in Iraq and to appeal to younger supporters. Its main goal was apparently to win votes from locals in central and southern Iraq, most of whom are likely to be Shiite Muslims.

Perhaps the situation created by the referendum makes people see the opening of the National Wisdom headquarters as a threat.

However, in opening the office in Iraqi Kurdistan, it seems the National Wisdom party is serious about letting go of the idea that a political party in Iraq can only have voters from one sect or another, Shiite or Sunni, and appeal to one ethnic group.


“We want to be a bridge to make things better and to serve both the people of Kurdistan and Iraq,” Issa Rashid Barzanji, a spokesperson for the party in Sulaymaniyah, told NIQASH. “We are working here as Kurds, not as Sunni Muslims.”

Al-Hakim already has an office in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region; it is the former ISCI one.

Most voters in Iraqi Kurdistan tend not to vote according to their religious sect, they mostly support politicians who are also Kurdish. Nationalism usually trumps sectarian interests here. And, in fact, even if sectarian interests were considered more important, the majority of the Kurds in this area are Sunni Muslims, not Shiites like al-Hakim. Although numbers are not regularly updated, it is estimated that around 17 percent of those living in Iraqi Kurdistan, including in some disputed areas around the region, are Shiite Muslims.

In the recent political past, Iraqi Kurdish politicians who got into parliament in Baghdad, have tended to support Shiite Muslim politicians and, in doing that, have tried to get the best deal for members of their own ethnic group and the Kurdish region.

Barzanji says that if the National Wisdom party gets votes in Iraqi Kurdistan then he and his colleagues “will do a good job and foster improved relationships between the Iraqi Kurdish region and Baghdad”.

Any political party that is registered to compete in elections with the Iraqi authorities may open an office anywhere in the country, local legal analyst and former politician, Ahmed Warti, told NIQASH. However, it is likely that to open political headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan, the party would need to seek approval from the Kurdish authorities first, because Iraqi Kurdistan doesn’t have specific rules on this, Warti added.

There is some history between the National Wisdom party and Iraqi Kurdistan: The party’s head here, Mustafa Kawa, is the great grandson of Mahmud Barzanji, who led a Kurdish uprising early in the 20th century and who was known as the “king of Kurdistan”. Barzanji had met al-Hakim’s grandfather, Mohsen al-Hakim, a senior Iraqi cleric, during that time.

“The political parties of southern and central Iraq have the right to open offices in Iraqi Kurdistan,” says Kawa Mohammed, a senior member of the Kurdish party, the Change movement. “Just as Kurdish parties have the right to open a headquarters in Baghdad.”

Not everyone is pleased though. Kurds should be concerned about activities like this, says Abu Bakr al-Karawani, a local political analyst and former member of one of the Kurdish Islamic parties. “We should be afraid of political parties that make use of the economic situation here to serve their own interests,” he argues, referring to the financial crisis still impacting on Iraqi Kurdistan. Those interests might be contrary to what is good for the Kurds, he notes. “On the legal level, [opening an office here] is acceptable. But from a social and political point of view it is not really acceptable,” he continues.

The Change movement’s Mohammed understands that argument even if he doesn’t agree with it. “Perhaps the situation created by the referendum makes people see the opening of the National Wisdom headquarters as a threat,” he suggests. The ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence, which resulted in a Kurdish military drawback, has led a lot of Kurds to lose faith in the politicians that steered that course. Mohammed says established Kurdish parties are worried that the National Wisdom party is seeking to exploit that dissatisfaction.

Abed Khalid, the dean of the political science facility at the University of Sulaymaniyah, says he is not too worried. He believes the National Wisdom party’s objectives are clear. “Opening an office in Sulaymaniyah is another way for the party to introduce itself as a party for all Iraqis, one that doesn’t have any sectarian prejudices,” he says.

Additionally, Khalid adds, the National Wisdom party is already getting a reputation as a more moderate Shiite Muslim party, and by opening here, it will also be able to win the votes of Shiite Muslims who like the idea of an alliance with the country’s Kurds. 

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