The leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan's Islamic parties sit together. (photo: سكرتارية الاتحاد الاسلامي / KIU)
Recently the parties in Iraqi Kurdistan with an Islamic political foundation all met for dinner. But the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan were not just there for food and like-minded company. Inspired, and possibly slightly worried, by the new union between two other larger Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Political Union of Kurdistan and the Change movement, these parties wanted to form a stronger alliance too.
The dinner, on July 14 and organized by Salahuddin Bahauddin, the head of Kurdistan Islamic Union, or KIU, was supposed to bring the parties closer together and allow free discussion of future plans and projects.
“One of our aims is to develop the political process in Iraq,” Mohammed Ahmad, a senior member of the KIU, told NIQASH. The Islamic parties want to talk about independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, but only “when conditions are favourable and when there is consensus,” Ahmad said, adding that the Islamic parties felt they would provide a positive moderate bloc at a time when the other, larger parties in Iraqi Kurdistan were drifting further apart, some say, dangerously.
"We want the Islamists to play a complementary role and not to increase the existing divisions,” Ahmad noted.
We want to be role models, and we want to play a role, rather than just being observers.
By this, Ahmad is referring to recent issues that have arisen between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the PUK and Change movement. The KDP and PUK have been sharing power in the semi-autonomous northern region for several years now but recent problems around things like the regional presidency have seen the two divided.
The three Kurdish Islamic parties have 17 seats in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, which is currently suspended due to differences between the KDP and PUK, with the KIU having the most, with ten seats. The Islamic Movement of Kurdistan is the oldest of the three but it has only one seat in the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament. The latter had tried to bring the parties together previously but had failed. The KIU had been concerned about bringing the Islamic parties together for fear of splitting Kurdish politics between the secular and the religious.
There is a real and strong desire for more closeness, agrees Shwan Qaladzayi, the MP for the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan. “There have been several meetings and the next will be held soon; it will bring together all of the party members and clerics.”
The aim is to come together under one joint list for elections and to agree upon a united project for the future, Qaladzayi told NIQASH. “Because we want to be role models, and we want to play a role, rather than just being observers.”
Partisan and personal interests have caused disharmony in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ali Babir, the head of the Islamic Group of Kurdistan, said at the dinner. “The Islamist group should have clear policies and they shouldn’t just be followers of others,” he argued.
Babir’s party in particular might have problems with this as the Islamic Group was originally an offshoot of the KIU, having been formed in 2001 after members of that party walked out to form their own. However, over the ensuing years the original enmity has lessened.
“We believe that any rapprochement must be gradual and discussed seriously,” adds Ribawar Hamad, the spokesperson for the Islamic Group.
While the Islamic parties say they want to be a moderate force for good and to lessen discord, they could also face challenges when it comes to the problems that are dividing Iraqi Kurdistan at the moment. For example, when confronted with the question of the disputed Kurdish presidency, the Islamic party politicians appear to have been undecided on the whole.
The head of the KDP, Massoud Barzani, has been holding onto this job for longer than he is legally entitled to, according to the PUK and the Change movement. This is what caused a split in the broad-based power sharing government that had been formed in Iraqi Kurdistan and what has closed the local parliament.
“The fact that the Islamic parties are coming closer together was to be expected,” explains Abdullah Rishawi, a local historian and expert in Islamic affairs in Kurdistan. “The current political situation makes it difficult for any party to be effective if it isn’t part of a larger group. The Islamic parties need partners.
The KIU is the party most interested in this union because it very much wants to play a neutral role, Rishawi suggests. A closer union would also be in the interests of the Islamic Group. “They have a lot to gain and not much to lose,” he told NIQASH. But they are moving more carefully because in the recent past they have been more partisan about the presidency.