The relationship between the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi government in Baghdad was never a simple one at the best of times. But over the past few weeks it has been becoming far more complicated.
Recently Kurdish MPs went back home – they withdrew from Iraqi parliamentary proceedings and are said to also be considering leaving the ruling coalition they’re in, together with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s own party and others, altogether. Recently meetings were held in Iraqi Kurdistan to discuss how Iraq’s Kurdish politicians should proceed.
Over the past six months several events have pushed the Kurdish MPs toward boycotting parliament. The disputed territories, as they are known, continue to be a problem. That is, there is land in the country that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to Iraqi Kurdistan but which Baghdad says belongs to Iraq. However in reality, the Iraqi Kurdish have been able to, at least partially, control some of these areas, as their military have remained in charge there. Which is why the setting up of an Iraqi army base – the Tigris command centre - in one of the most disputed territories, Kirkuk, caused a military standoff.
And most recently there has been the issue of the national budget for 2013. Iraqi Kurdish MPs are critical about the funds allocated to them for, for instance, their own armed forces (the Peshmerga) and the share of money coming into Iraq via foreign oil companies working in their part of the country.
Despite boycotts of the session by a number of parties, including the Iraqi Kurdish MPs, Prime Minister al-Maliki managed to cobble together a very small majority and ratify the budget in early March. Needless to say, his critics – which included both Iraqi Kurdish MPs and the opposition Iraqiya bloc were not pleased.
On March 18, Iraqi Kurdish politicians held a meeting in Salahaddin in Erbil at the invitation of the region’s President, Massoud Barzani. There they agreed that all Iraqi Kurdish MPs and ministers should continue to boycott the federal parliament’s proceedings until at least April.
The Iraqi Kurdish politicians also decided to send a letter to the Iraqi government explaining their position. But not everyone agrees with the move.
According to Iraqi Kurdish media, no lesser figure than US Secretary of State, John Kerry, called Barzani to warn him against withdrawing from the Iraqi government.
And Osama Jameel, an MP for the Kurdistan Islamic Union, didn’t think there was any point in everyone returning to Iraqi Kurdistan. “There is a problem with al-Maliki,” he said. ‘But there’s no problem with Parliament. It would be better to return to Parliament,” he said, speculating that this would likely happen in the next few days.
One of the biggest parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, of PUK, which has 14 seats in the Iraqi Parliament and holds several important ministries as well as the Presidency of Iraq, seems hesitant about withdrawing from the coalition.
Iraq cannot be governed without Kurdish support, Saadi Ahmad Bira, a political strategist with the PUK, said. “If al-Maliki and his party stop monopolizing power and abide by the Constitution and by various agreements they’ve made, then the Kurds will not withdraw from government. Our MPs and ministers returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in order to make it clear that we will not accept all decisions being made by just one individual,” Bira explained.
Bira told NIQASH that if the Iraqi Kurdish politicians were to withdraw, it would be a last resort. “If al-Maliki continues to refuse to have genuine partnerships, then that’s what we’ll be forced to do.”
“We will not compromise on our rights and we won’t give them up,” was the response from Ali Hussein, a leading member of the other large Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. He added that his party’s problems were not with al-Maliki as a person, rather it was the manner in which the country was being governed.
“Whether the Kurds stay or withdraw will depend on the Iraqi government and whether it can comply with the Constitution and various agreements it has made,” Hussein said. “If that happens, things might get better. Otherwise each party will doubtless make a decision in its own best interests.”
Meanwhile the Change Movement, the largest Iraqi Kurdish opposition party that acts separately from the KDP and PUK, who often work together, said it would not be withdrawing its eight MPs from Baghdad because parliament “is the right place for discussion and debate”.
The Change Movement’s spokesperson, Muhammad Tawfiq Rahim, said that his party understood the Kurdish desire to withdraw from ruling coalition. “The Kurds haven’t benefitted from being in al-Maliki\'s government in past years so they really have nothing to lose if they withdraw,” Rahim said. But the Change Movement thought withdrawing MPs from Parliament was an irrational move because it was there that Iraqi Kurdish MPs could “protect the rights of their people”.
Local political analyst Mohammed Bazyani felt that withdrawing from the government could be an opportunity for the Kurdish politicians. But he warned them to look at what had happened to the MPS from Iraqiya who had left the government – their posts in ministries had been taken up by new ministers from other parties, in particular by members of the Sadrist movement.
Bazyani thought that the Iraqi Kurdish MPs needed to decide whether the Sadrists were being tactical and opportunistic or whether they supported al-Maliki’s government. Often the Sadrists did things very much according to their own schedules and desires, he said.
In the past Iraq’s Kurdish politicians have been able to play king maker, holding just enough seats to swing the balance of power one way or another. And as Bazyani concludes, “the Iraqi government is a coalition government. If the Kurdish MPs withdraw, along with those from Iraqiya and the Sadrist movement, then al-Maliki’s government may well be finished. At which stage, the Kurdish politicians will be able to impose their own terms.”