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From The Mountains To The City:
In Iraqi Kurdistan, A New Generation Takes Power

Histyar Qader
The old guard of Kurdish politicians fought for Kurdish rights with guns while the new generation is more likely to work with words, money and diplomacy. But are they really that different?
16.11.2017  |  Erbil
Sons of the mountain generation: Iraqi Kurdish prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani. (photo: موقع قوباد طالباني على الفيسبوك)
Sons of the mountain generation: Iraqi Kurdish prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani. (photo: موقع قوباد طالباني على الفيسبوك)

In saying that he was stepping down, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has moved in another direction too, towards the transition of power between Iraqi Kurdistan’s older “mountain generation” toward the region’s younger “city generation”.

The description, mountain generation, refers to the older political and military leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan, those who struggled for Kurdish rights and independence from the 1960s onwards. The saying “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains” refers to the flight of Kurdish rebels into the mountains, and their use of the mountains as a guerilla base. This generation includes the likes of Jalal Talabani, Nawshirwan Mustafa and Massoud Barzani. The first two are recently deceased and the fact that Barzani has said he would relinquish power means that the biggest, most senior names in the mountain generation have now passed out of the spotlight.

The era of charismatic leaders is coming to an end. The leaders who are coming next are not as charismatic.

For the past 26 years, all of the important decisions about Iraqi Kurdistan have been made by members of the mountain generation.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s city generation refers to younger Kurdish figures, those who did not participate directly in any Kurdish revolution or fighting, as they were just children or perhaps not even born in some cases. If they were around, they were either growing up in the cities or else living in safety outside of Iraq.

Often these individuals are the children or grandchildren of the mountain generation. They include the likes of Barzani’s nephew, the region’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and his other son, Masrour Barzani, head of the security forces as well as Talabani’s sons, Qubad and Bafel, and Talabani’s nephew. All of these men hold senior positions either in the Iraqi Kurdish government or within security forces.  While members of the mountain generation still hold ranking positions throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, the leadership positions are now mostly occupied by the city generation.

“The era of charismatic leaders is coming to an end,” states Fareed Asasard, a senior member of the party Talabani used to head, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK; Asasard is considered a member of the mountain generation. “The leaders who are coming next are not as charismatic. They will distinguish between partisan affiliations and if they can make this work, then their main concerns will be how to maintain prosperity and peace.”

“The mountain generation sought political gains and played upon their legitimacy through revolution to do so,” argues Amin Faraj Sharif, a professor of political science at Salahaddin University in Erbil. “The new generation should serve citizens better. The citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan demand prosperity and peace now and they are ready to move beyond the old classics.”

Locals hope that this changing of the guard might bring a better political and economic situation to Iraqi Kurdistan. They hope that this new generation might be less set in their ways, less nationalistic and not as stubborn as their elders, who grew up fighting for Kurdish rights.

 “It doesn’t matter whether those in power are of the city generation or the mountain generation,” says Ari Harsin, a leading member of the party Barzani leads, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and a former soldier. “What really matters is how the person thinks and some members of the city generation have empty minds.”


Too many grey heads: Massoud Barzani (center) recently stepped down.


Harsin believes nationalism and looking after the best interests of the Kurdish people go hand in hand. “No matter what, it will be difficult for the new generation to solve Kurdistan’s problems.”

It is quite possible that the recently deceased leader of Iraqi Kurdistan’s main opposition party, Goran, or the Change movement, was also partially responsible for the growing influence of the city generation. Nawshirwan Mustafa was the leader of the Change movement and he encouraged many younger members to take on responsibilities – people like the speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament, Yusuf Mohammed, and his deputy.

Ribawar Hamad, the spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamic group of parties says his colleagues have tried to maintain a balance between the mountain and the city. “This is our vision for the slow change of power,” Hamad told NIQASH.

It’s also possible to see the devolution of power from the mountain to the city outside of local political parties.

In the run up to the referendum on Kurdish independence, Shaswar Abdulwahid, a local businessman and owner of the NRT media outlet, started a campaign named Not Now. A critic of the government, the campaign referred to what many people thought was the wrong timing for the independence referendum. Since then, Abdulwahid has started a new political movement called New Generation, off the back of the Not Now campaign.

From now until the next elections, the city generation has eight months to show what it can do now that the mountain generation is taking a back seat. Two major issues will need to be confronted almost immediately: The fact that many locals have not received their salary from the state for months and how to stop Baghdad from exerting even more pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish region.

However, there is one major sticking point. While the city generation may be younger and in some ways, think differently than the mountain generation, they have certainly been around for most of the important political decisions of the past decade or so. They did not all hold senior positions then, but they participated in politics then too. This is why some locals feel that the city generation must share the blame for any bad decisions made by their forerunners.  

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