A wave of protests in a form of rallies and demonstrations has being gaining momentum in the northeastern Iraqi province of Sulaymaniyah since October 9 of this year. Protest participants demand that the regional authorities would immediately and effectively solve political, social-economic and financial problems in Iraqi Kurdistan. These actions erupted into violence, arsons and riots with use of firearms.
And, though one of the core political demands the protestants made was concerning the election of a regional president (a respective provision is present in the current constitution), local analysts agree that the protests are largely provoked by the Baghdad’s inobservance of the provision of the state legislation, which prescribes to allocate to Iraqi Kurdistan 17% of the revenues of the state budget, which is mainly replenished with the money earned from oil export.
A war with the Islamic State (ISIS) and, as a consequence, accumulation of over one million Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the region, oil and gas price drop, isolation of the region from the central and southern provinces of Iraq after creation of the IS’ caliphate in the territory of eight Sunni provinces have adversely affected the quality of life of the local population. The paradox of the current situation is that rather large number of citizens of one of the richest countries in the world (according to the per capita oil export revenues) lives beyond the poverty line, and state employees as well as public sector employees do not get paid their wages for months. Local opposition parties and Iranian authorities surely used this financial and economic crisis to their advantage.
The party Movement of Change (“Gorran” for short) has been heading the protests in the northern parts of the country. The party has been founded back in 2008 in London on the basis of a splinter wing of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Initially, the leaders of Gorran announced that the system of government and internal policy of the Kurdistan region had to be reformed, and that the entire political system of the country was in need of modernization. They were maintaining that after dictator S. Hussein had been overthrown in Iraq, a gap between ordinary citizens of the Iraqi Kurdistan and the leadership of the region had widened. They also held that corruption, tribalism, nepotism, clannishness and lack of political and economic transparency, etc., were prospering. Gorran’s leaders believe that because two traditional Kurdish parties have been holding office in the region for a long time, the Kurdistan region divided into two parts. There still exists a zone controlled by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK) and a zone ruled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which still manage the combat units of “Peshmerga” that are formed in accordance with the tribal principle. Today Gorran, headed by Nawshirwan Mustafa, deputy Secretary General of the PUK, stands as an alternative to DPK and PUK. At the last parliamentary election in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, this party managed to overtake the PUK in the number of votes, to acquire seats in the parliaments and even to occupy a number of ministerial positions in the regional government. It should be noted that all five mainstream political parties are represented in the government of Kurdistan, but Gorran points at the leading party DPK as at the party allegedly responsible for the current crisis.
According to Kurdhish mass media, Gorran was charged with the arrangement of the October riot in Sulaymaniyah in which 5 people died, more than 260 were injured, dozens of DPK offices were set on fire and destroyed. As a result, Gorran’s representatives in the regional authorities (the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Peshmerga Affairs, as well as the speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament) were dismissed from their positions. Masrour Barzani, chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council condemned recent violence against the employees of the DPK offices in Sulaymaniyah and accused Gorran’s supporters of the attempt to “spark hatred and violence” in the region. But there also were representatives of PUK, of two regional Islamic parties and even of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (KWP) among the protesters.
Powers of the current president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masud Barzani (leader of DPK), being a matter of an interparty dispute, turned out to be yet another serious cause of mass protests. Bazrani’s term of office expired in the middle of August of this year and DPK is demanding for the term to be extended, which, if they manage to achieve this goal, will be the second extension since 2013. This issue has polarized political parties of the Iraqi Kurdistan. Masud Barzani has been the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005 when he was elected by the regional parliament. He was elected once again for the 2009-2013 term, but through the universal popular vote and in 2013 his powers were extended for 2 more years (till August 2015), however, by the regional parliament this time.
DPK has appealed to other parties to support the extension of his powers once more, till the war with ISIS ends, having justified the request by saying that it is never a good idea to change leader during wartime. DPK has also proposed an alternative option—to leave the “presidential issue” up to the new parliament, which will be elected in 2 years. But a considerable part of other political forces and, first of all, Gorran, the ambitions of whose leaders have spiked being fueled by the fact that now they are present in the regional government, have demanded immediate presidential election and not through the nationwide popular vote, but by the parliament, which gives the party almost no chances to have its representative reelected.
The leaders of PUK have also been accused of participation in the organization of the October rallies and protests. But a large part of ordinary members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as well as of all that Kurdish Islamic parties supports M. Barzani. The regional authorities accuse the leaders of Gorran and PUK of close connections with Iranian authorities striving to reinforce their influence in Iraqi Kurdistan or at least in the bordering Iran Sulaymaniyah.
Iran was traditionally attempting to use the “Kurd factor” in Iraq to achieve its goals and does not shy away from using any means to do that, including inciting internecine wars and conflicts between Kurds and Arabs and among Kurdish tribes. Even now, at the height of the regional Sunni-Shiite armed conflict, it is vital for the Shiite fundamentalist Iran to “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi Kurds to have them support pro-Iranian governments of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad and Bashar Assad in Damascus. Moreover, Tehran is rather straightforward about its interest in participation of Kurds in ground offensive campaigns (along with Shiite police) against the Islamic State and its supporters—Iraqi Sunni Arabs. Iranian Ayatollahs, however, apparently dislike the pragmatic and reserved course of President M. Barzani, who tries to maintain balanced relations with the rest of the world and with the regional centers of force, striving to limit the participation of the country in the war with ISIS only to the defense of its territory and protection of Kurdish population residing in the adjacent territories. They, in Tehran, also fear the final break up of the relations between Erbil and Baghdad and the exit of Iraqi Kurdistan from Iraq (the country, which has de facto fallen apart). In the recent 10-12 years, the central government has not only provoked a war with Sunni Arabs, but also constantly neglected Kurds’ needs and hopes, having hardly fulfilled any of their obligations set out in the Erbil agreements as well the provisions of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. Presently, it is not only useless, but also dangerous for Kurdish representatives to remain in the totally rotten and corrupt Baghdad government, because earlier or later someone will have to give account for the unleashed war with Sunni, for the defeat by the ISIS militants of the decayed army, for theft of large amounts of money from the state budget and other crimes of the central government. To be unbiased, we should mention that actions of Baghdad authorities are, basically, squeezing Kurds out of the state existing de jure.
They, apparently, are not giving much thought to these circumstances in Tehran and continue to maintain the union of Shiite Arabs and Kurds, a structure, that is in many respects artificial. It is not accidental then that there are rumors in the Iranian mass media that the leadership of DPK and President Barzani display “pro-Western” sentiment and are suspected to be the “enablers of America and Israel.” It looks like the Iranian Ayatollahs can go as far as to support secessionist sentiment in Iraqi Kurdistan and provoke the separation of Sulaymaniyah from the region. In such a case, one more subject of the federation, directly subordinated to Baghdad, might form in the country.
In the conclusion, it should be noted that so far the regional government has managed to keep the situation in Sulaymaniyah under control. A positive moment here is that the authorities did not engage armed force to counter protesters, while the murders of representatives of DPK committed by somebody from the rioting crowd and arsons of DPK’s offices have only strengthened the prestige of Barzani and his supporters.
Stanislav Ivanov, PhD in History, Leading research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations and at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.