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Reality Versus The Rules
Kurdish Parties Bend Iraq's Electoral Rules On Politics With Guns

Maaz Farhan
In Iraq, there has been plenty of fuss about politicians with armed militias running for office. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the biggest political parties have had their own loyalist troops for years.
A mural showing Iraqi Kurdish military. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة )
A mural showing Iraqi Kurdish military. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة )

In Iraqi Kurdistan locals use the term “Khomji” to describe an individual who cannot make up their mind. Khom means dates and Mewij are raisins. If you cannot make up your mind which fruit you want to eat, then you are a Khomji, a person who wants the best of both worlds and cannot decide.

This may well be the best way to describe what is happening in Iraqi Kurdistan today when it comes to current rules around elections and the federal laws that say that no armed force can compete in elections in the country. Yet that is almost exactly what Iraqi Kurdish parties have been doing for decades, with no concern about getting their soldiers to give up their weapons.

Officials are always talking about how democratic they are when it suits them but when something happens they don’t like, they revert to discussing how many guns they have. 

Iraqi Kurdistan has more than 30 different political parties but five get the vast share of the votes. And of these, two have armed forces at their command.

In practical terms the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan is split into two zones of influence, with one half under the control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the other under the control of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. While the two parties now have a power sharing agreement and work together most of the time, it was not always this way: At one stage, they were involved in a civil war. And recent events in October, when the Kurds were pushed out of areas they had controlled up until recently, such as Kirkuk, by the Iraqi government, tensions between the two parties again ran high.

So there are some historically justifiable fears that the two parties, who have their own military forces, as well as intelligences agencies, could bring out their guns again.

A statement made on local TV in January this year by a senior member of the PUK, Mullah Bakhtiar, raised alarm and caused much debate. Bakhtiar is generally considered to be one of the more liberal members of his party but on television he stated that, “regardless of the number of seats we win, whether one or 100, we will continue to be the PUK… we have weapons and nobody can take them from us.”

Locals pointed out that the officials in Iraqi Kurdistan are always talking about how democratic they are when it suits them but when something happens they don’t like, they revert to discussing how many guns they have. Bakhtiar’s statement was taken as proof by those who are sceptical about how genuine democracy is in Iraqi Kurdistan, that they are right to be worried.

The two major parties are not the only ones in Iraqi Kurdistan with armed forces at their disposal. Kurdistan’s Socialists have one seat in the regional parliament but also have an armed wing. Two of the Islamic parties used to have militias but these have officially been frozen since 2003; however most locals say they still have fighters to call upon if they need them, in case of any trouble. 

“The Iraqi Kurdish military could be used in internal fighting and if they are, they would do the will of the parties that control them,” Amin Bakr, an MP for the oppositional Change movement, who is usually based in Baghdad, told NIQASH.

Critics say that even if it does not come to blows, then there could be a repeat of other misdemeanours. During previous elections, politicians have accused their opponents of using partisan troops to intimidate voters and they say soldiers also participated in voter fraud, by casting more than one ballot.

In Iraqi Kurdistan there are 14 brigades with a joint command – that is, the 45,000 fighters in them are supposed to be more independent and commanded by officers allied with both the KDP and PUK. For example, if a troop is headed by an officer from the KDP zone of influence, then his or her deputy will be a PUK member – and vice versa.

In addition to that though, the KDP and PUK also have their own troops, with no such joint command structure, and these outnumber the jointly controlled brigades. The PUK has about 70 units and the KDP has about 80, with around 150,000 members in total.

These forces are not neutral, Bakr points out. “There is a lot of talk in Iraq about not allowing militias to participate in the federal elections,” Bakr continued, referring to the Iraqi rules that say that members of the formerly-volunteer militia groups that fought the extremist group known as the Islamic State could not compete in elections as they were (in fact, many changed their names to enter the race).

“The same problem exists in Kurdistan,” Bakr argues. “Some of the political parties here have armed forces. The PUK and the KDP have troops who are loyal to the political parties that created them.”

Some locals in Iraqi Kurdistan have even suggested that the federal government get involved and try to neutralize the brigades belonging to the Kurdish political parties, by forcing them to become joint troops as well. This seems unlikely to happen.

Meanwhile the PUK and KDP deny any wrong doing. They insist that they don’t have their own militias and that Iraqi Kurdish troops they command are all part of the Kurdish-government organized security forces. 

“Both PUK and KDP forces are registered with the Ministry for Peshmerga [the colloquial name for regular Kurdish troops] and are supervised by that ministry and under the control of the government,” Shwan Daoudi, a spokesperson for the PUK in the Iraqi parliament, told NIQASH. “They exist within a legal framework. There are forces outside of the Iraqi defence system,” he said, referring to the Iraqi militias based further south, “but the 70 and 80 brigades [belonging to the PUK and KDP] are official forces.”   

“There are no partisan forces in the Kurdish region,” added Shakhwan Abdullah, a member of the KDP. “And the ones that are there, are part of the Ministry of Peshmerga, from which they also get their salaries.”

Abdullah was keen to contrast the behaviours of the Shiite Muslim militias with the Kurdish troops. “Those [Iraqi] forces are affiliated with political parties and they should have been dissolved. But that didn’t happen and they will participate in the elections,” Abdullah complains, adding that he thinks the 150 or so brigades belonging to the KDP and PUK will also eventually be transformed into joint forces.

Those comments do not jibe with reality though. Ever since the formation of Iraqi Kurdistan, the ministry they are talking about has been controlled by either one or another senior member of the KDP or PUK. In a similar scenario to the joint brigades, if a PUK member headed the ministry, then a KDP member was the deputy head. However that didn’t make any difference as to the loyalty of the separate brigades – whether deputy head or head of the ministry, that individual did not have any power over the other party’s troops. This was made even clearer in 2013 when the oppositional Change movement, which has a lot of popular support but no military to call its own, became briefly responsible for the Ministry of Peshmerga. During the few months, a Change movement politician served as minister, he had no real authority over those troops. 

Some critics of the current situation are hoping that Iraq’s High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, might step in. But, as Saed Kakaei, a member of IHEC’s council, says, his organization only deals with legalities. “As a commission we can only deal with actual evidence,” Kakaei told NIQASH. “The PUK and KDP have organized their forces under the umbrella of the Peshmerga ministry and in Iraq, the armed groups are legally under the control of the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces. There is no legal evidence that political parties have armed wings,” he says. “If we were to find any evidence that contrary to those facts, then a court would have to decide,” Kakaei concludes.