A shot at statehood
Welcome to the lighter side of Iraq. Spend a bit of time in Erbil, with its sleek highways, its gleaming highrises and chic cafés that know their espressos from their macchiatos, and it quickly feels strange to think you’re in Iraq at all, which is something that locals take pride in hearing. Because, for them, this is not Iraq. This is Kurdistan.
Who can blame Kurdistan for wanting to break away? The entire Kurdish people were promised their own country by those slippery Brits, French and Americans after World War One. An independent nation for all Kurds, who instead now find themselves scattered across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. But Iraq’s Kurds at least have their semi-autonomous region, probably this friendless people’s most successful shot at statehood so far.
They suffered to get here. The story of Kurdistan began with the 1991 uprising of Iraq’s Kurds against dictator Saddam Hussein, which followed the extreme horror of the 1988 Halabja chemical attack. As hundreds of thousands fled for the mountains, those same powers that had denied them a country some seven decades earlier finally came through, providing an aerial canopy protecting them from Saddam’s bombs, including, allegedly, napalm and phosphorus.
And thus was born the proto-petro-state. A near miss since the two leading clans, the Barzanis and the Talabanis, almost wrecked everything by charging into a two-year civil war. The latter accused the former of raking in large sums from oil smuggling at a key border crossing with Turkey. But, by 1997, the rival clans had made up and were working out a system whereby they would share power in the Kurdistan Regional Government, divvying up jobs and cash in their own separate patronage networks.
It’s a system that has persisted to this day, each clan ruling their respective fiefdoms, with separate peshmerga (military) forces, from their own capitals – the Barzanis under the aegis of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Erbil, the Talabanis via the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Sulaymaniyah. Over the years, foreign aid and oil have been central to the survival of the duopoly. And poverty – lots of it. For the success of these two clans depends on them being the ones with all the cash to splash.
The big carve-up
So far, it all looks strangely familiar, a bit like the chaotic country from which Kurdistan is so keen to differentiate and detach itself. Writing for the London School of Economics, academics Zmkan Ali Saleem and Mac Skelton note that the 50/50 deal governing relations between the Barzanis and the Talabanis resembles Iraq’s muhassasa quota system, set up after the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The system was supposed to ensure all groups – Sunni Arabs, Shi’a Arabs and Kurds – could peacefully share power, appointments determined by religion or ethnicity, rather than on expertise. Aside from sowing the seeds for future conflict, the system enabled the incompetence and corruption that has brought protesters onto the streets of Iraq since October. If OPEC’s second-largest oil producer is unable to spare a few billion for public services, then look no further than muhassasa for an explanation.
The same could be said of Kurdistan, whose own version of muhassasa has also super-charged the fortunes of its two ruling elites, with minimal trickle-down. The carve-up has allowed two families to entrench their power in the machinery of government, their co-existence marked by mutual suspicion, each allegedly sending spies to snoop on the other. The one opposition party – Gorran, or the Movement for Change – that tried to call out the authoritarian nature of the duopoly, winning 25 seats in 2009, ended up being co-opted into the system when the KDP and PUK joined forces against it (often a useful last resort).
Both parties have used their partisan security forces to go after activists, journalists and protesters with complete impunity. After all, who is policing the police on their own turf? A crackdown on anti-corruption ‘Arab Spring’ protests in Sulaymaniyah in 2011, which left at least 10 dead, killed any illusions that Kurdistan might be a model of democracy for the region, a narrative dear to the US, which desperately needs a success story in Iraq.
Popular discontent flared up again in 2015, with protesters calling for reforms, better public services and the payment of public servants’ salaries. Flying solo, the Barzanis had started selling oil independently to Turkey, a move that prompted Baghdad to close the money tap. When oil prices plunged in 2015, the KRG was left high and dry, forced to cut state salaries.
By now the KRG was up to its neck in debt, which didn’t stop former president Masoud Barzani from betting the house on independence. Banking on diplomatic support after Kurdistan’s solid contribution to routing Islamic State from Iraq, Barzani called a referendum in 2017, winning the backing of 92 per cent of voters. The US, which had tried to orchestrate a more cautious route to a referendum, one that would run via Baghdad, stood by as Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias rolled into Kirkuk, seizing the oil-rich province from Kurdistan.
The Kurds were gutted. The oilfields of Kirkuk were potentially the lifeblood of this would-be free nation. But, more than that, the town of Kirkuk was cherished as a symbol of everything Kurdish, considered their Jerusalem. The two parties had a very public bust-up. The KDP accused the PUK of abandoning peshmerga positions after secretly meeting Iranian top-brass. The PUK was livid the KDP had jumped the gun, claiming their forces were no match for the attackers. Humiliated, Barzani resigned.
The people had seen enough. In 2017, they took to the streets of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja provinces, angry about the deepening economic crisis, calling on the KRG to resign – at least five were killed, with over 200 injured. In 2018, publicsector workers were back out in Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Dohuk. Amnesty International reported that demonstrators were beaten up, journalists attacked. The two ruling families were now losing all credibility in the eyes of their people.
But, just when it seemed everything was going down the pan, along came the Iraqi parliamentary elections in May 2018, installing Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister, who promptly coughed up budgetary support for Kurdistan early the following year. So it goes on, the merry-go-round of muhassasa.
Eyes wide open
As chaos continues to simmer down south in Iraq, Kurdistan is currently restabilizing. It continues to trade with Iran and Turkey, both countries with whom it has tricky relationships since they regularly attack their Kurdish dissidents on its soil. And Iran did help to take Kirkuk, though this is a multi-layered relationship that goes back to the Iran-Iraq war when Iraq’s Kurds fought with the Iranians. ‘We are not scared of Iran, but we respect Iran,’ said Kurdistan’s new president, Nechirvan Barzani, recently.
As for the US role in the region, anything seems possible. It was ordered to leave earlier this year by the Iraqi parliament – minus the Sunni and Kurdish vote – after assassinating a top Iranian general and an Iraqi militia leader near Baghdad airport in January. Right now, Kurdistan is keen to see the US stay to fight a resurgent Islamic State, though NATO has also made noises about stepping into the breach.
Iraq’s Kurds may have been betrayed in the past over their statehood, but their eyes are now wide open. If they are serious about their ambitions, now may be the right time to turn their gaze on themselves and get their house in order, creating a governance model that does not replicate the dysfunctionality of a state it ultimately wants to leave. Failure to do so would be a betrayal of its own people.
The Barzanis and the Talabanis have dominated the political life of Iraq’s Kurds for generations. Mustafa Barzani was the legendary granddaddy of the Kurdish revolution, who fought Iraq and Iran for the rights of his people. His son, Masoud, was Kurdistan’s first president. One of his grandsons, Nechirvan, is the current president. Another, Masrour, is prime minister.
The Talabanis are similarly ubiquitous. The late Jalal Talabani, who brought the Halabja massacre to the attention of the world, would later become a champion of national unity as Iraq’s first president after the 2003 US invasion. His son Bafel, who trained with British special forces and the French Foreign Legion, set up Kurdistan’s counter-terrorism unit. His nephews, Lahur and Polad, who grew up in Beckenham, near London, are now in charge of intelligence and counter-terrorism.