A member of Iraqi Kurdish military planting the Iraqi Kurdish flag. (photo: كامران نجم)
It would be fair to say that most locals in Iraqi Kurdistan would describe the year just gone by as characterized by crisis. Austerity measures driven by a financial crisis, political squabbling and a stalled Parliament and ongoing security problems thanks to the fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, were all problems that locals had to live with.
Looking at social media in the semi-autonomous northern region, which has its own borders, economy, and legislation, the Iraqi Kurdish are glad to see the back of 2016. And most people can only hope that 2017 will be a better year, even though solutions to the existing problems seem as far away as ever.
NIQASH rewinds to the significant events of the past year.
At the end of 2016, Iraqi Kurdistan’s three Islamic political parties held a summit. The Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan decided to come together around one supreme council in order to create a more united Islamic front in the northern region.
On Dec. 27 Iraqi Kurdish media published a letter from the region’s Minister of Natural Resources, Ashti Hawrami. The letter came from the whistle blowing WikiLeaks website and showed that Hawrami had suggested his Turkish contemporary buy shares in some Kurdish oil fields. This revelation caused a major controversy as the year came to a close and Hawrami issued a statement saying he had only suggested this as a way to resolve the region’s financial crisis.
In December two bombs exploded outside the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, or PDKI, in the province of Erbil. Most Iraqi Kurdish forces were quick to blame Iran for the violence, as the bombs were targeting Iranian opposition.
The financial crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan has seen many civil servants unpaid or only partially paid. The school year in Iraqi Kurdistan is supposed to begin in mid-September but due to strikes by teachers in Sulaymaniyah, Halabja and Karmayan, lessons at universities and schools did not begin on time. By the end of the year some of the teachers had returned to their classrooms because the government promised them financial aid, while others remained on strike.
While on the whole, the dangers posed by the extremist group known as the Islamic State have been kept outside the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, thanks to tough border security, intensive activities by the local intelligence services and security – known as the Asayesh – and the nationalistic character of Kurdistan, there were several deadly incursions.
Fighters from the Islamic State, or IS, group managed to get into Iraqi Kurdistan several times and set off bombs, causing injuries and deaths.
Qader Utman Razgay, an MP on the Kurdish Parliament’s Committee on Interior Affairs says they believe that the IS group will continue to resort to these kinds of smaller, guerrilla attacks and that this will continue to pose a danger to Iraqi Kurdistan, especially after the extremist group is pushed out of the nearby city of Mosul.
Fear of the displaced Iraqi Arabs coming into the region will continue too, Razgay told NIQASH. “Some of those displaced people could be advocates of extremist policy or they could even have been convinced by the IS group to carry out terrorist actions,” Razgay said.
The Barzani Plan
In November, senior Iraqi Kurdish politician, Massoud Barzani, decided it was time to try and resolve the political crisis that has plagued the region for almost a whole year. Barzani, who is currently still president of Iraqi Kurdistan but whose position is disputed, called upon all political parties to come together and discuss the issues. A negotiating committee was formed and meetings were arranged, although, reportedly, with little progress so far.
The Iraqi Kurdish Parliament has been stalled since October 2015 as MPs wrangle about exactly who should hold Barzani’s current job.
These moves will temporarily calm things down, agrees Ribawar Karim Mahmoud, a professor of political science at the University of Sulaymaniyah. The politicians want to present themselves well to voters. But Mahmoud believes it’s all about the optics – and new political crises will begin again this new year.
The current session of Parliament ends in September at which stage new problems of legitimacy will surface, Mahmoud suggests. “The Kurds are divided,” the professor told NIQASH. “They don’t have a clear vision to unite and one side supports Turkey while the other supports Iran.”
There were several murders – many call them assassinations – in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2016 that were worrying signs for the region’s fledgling democracy.
On Nov. 22, a senior member of one of the region’s Islamic parties, Hoshyar Ismail, a cleric and member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, was gunned down outside his home in the city of Erbil. It’s the first time such a senior cleric has been murdered in the region for years and it prompted declarations from various politicians, including Massoud Barzani, that the killers would be brought to justice. Investigations are ongoing.
At the end of November, a local journalist, Shukri Zainadin, was found dead in what some have described as suspicious circumstances. Local security forces say he was attacked by a wild animal, possibly a pig, while out hunting, but others, including his employers, believe he was murdered. Zainadin had been working for the Kurdish News Network, which is owned by the Change movement.
In August another journalist, Wedat Hussein Ali, was kidnapped in the city of Dohuk and his body, bearing signs of torture, was found later.
Kurds VS. IS
In the first week of November, the Iraqi Kurdish military regained control of the town of Bashiqa – this was the last agreed point up to which Iraqi Kurdish military were supposed to fight, after they started operations in mid-October along with the Iraqi military.
Baghdad VS. Erbil
In September, Massoud Barzani visited Baghdad where he met with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. It was his first visit to Baghdad since al-Abadi got the job. The two men agreed to discuss the various outstanding conflicts between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad, including how much of the federal budget Iraqi Kurdistan should be getting and how much oil they should be supplying in return.
Behind the scenes, American diplomats had apparently paved the way for the meeting between the two, as part of Iraqi preparation to begin fighting the IS group in Mosul.
Kurdistan + US
In July, the US and Iraqi Kurdistan signed a memorandum of understanding that said the Americans would provide military support to Iraqi Kurdish forces in the fight against the IS group.
The memorandum, which was signed by Iraqi Kurdish minister Karim Sinjari and the US’ acting Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs, Elissa Slotkin, is the first such protocol that the Iraqi Kurdish have ever signed with the US.
Survivor + Ambassador
In September, Nadia Murad, a Yazidi activist who had survived being taken captive by the IS group, was made a Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations. This move was celebrated and appreciated by many in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In August, Haval Abubaker, a senior member of the opposition party, the Change movement, became the new governor of the Sulaymaniyah province. Marking how close the Change movement and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, had come, this was the first time a non-PUK member had held the job since 1992.
Al-Maliki In Sulaymaniyah
In July, Iraq’s unpopular former prime minister, Nouri al- Maliki, who still heads important parties and blocs in Baghdad’s Parliament, came to Sulaymaniyah. Ostensibly he came to meet representatives of the PUK and the Change movement. Both of these are traditionally closer to Iran, as is al-Maliki. Additionally al-Maliki is on bad terms with the KDP. His visit was seen as an attempt to change the balance of power in Baghdad in favour of al-Maliki and it also served to drive a wedge between the Kurdish parties, who were already fighting with one another over the presidency.
In May, the PUK and the Change movement signed an agreement to cooperate further. At one stage the Change movement was seen as a troublesome outsider with the PUK and the KDP holding all the power in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, the Change movement, originally a break away from the PUK, has become more popular and the two have decided they are stronger together. The agreement was criticized by the KDP.
A financial crisis has been causing major problems in Iraqi Kurdistan since early in 2016. The crisis derived from various issues, including Kurdistan’s problem with Baghdad and the federal budget, the price of oil falling and political problems inside the region itself.
There have been many demonstrations, mainly because civil servants’ salaries have not been being paid on time.
“There is not much hope that we are going to resolve this crisis in 2017,” says local economist Kareem Mohammed, former head of Kurdistan's Economic Forum. “I just hope that it doesn’t get worse this year.”
Mohammed believes that oil prices, which are currently rising, won’t help much if the political situation doesn’t change. “Short and medium term plans in Iraqi Kurdistan are impacted by politics,” Mohammed told NIQASH. It is all about whether the political will for reform is there, he concluded.