Political Turmoil in KRG Risks Hindering Kurdish Efforts Against Islamic State

Political Turmoil in KRG Risks Hindering Kurdish Efforts Against Islamic State

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 17

By: Göktuğ Sönmez

The Jamestown Foundation


Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq have been some of the most effective in tackling Islamic State (IS) on the ground, but the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) itself has been mired for more than a year in political turmoil over the extension of President Masoud Barzani’s term in office (Al-Monitor, May 22, 2015; Anadolu Agency, April 13).

In May, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran Movement, which broke away from the PUK in 2009, signed an agreement opposing what they view as Barzani’s one-man rule (Ekurd Daily, May 17). The document, which consists of 25 articles, emphasizes the importance of liberal democratic values and strongly criticizes the lack of such values in the KRG.

At the same time, the KRG faces a growing economic crisis, and while political compromise could end the parliamentary stalemate, only the defeat of IS appears likely to end the Kurdish autonomous region’s economic problems.

Barzani’s Rule

Masoud Barzani, who leads the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has been president of the KRG since 2005. His second term ended in 2013, but his rule was extended for a further two years by parliament. Under this legal amendment he should have stepped down on August 19, 2015. Instead he has ruled without a mandate for nearly a year.

From the outset, there was disagreement over the move to extend Barzani’s presidential term. Both the PUK and Gorran demanded Barzani’s powers be reduced in favor of parliament. The KDP, on the other hand, wanted to call a presidential election, which they expected would see Barzani granted another term. The political debate spilled over into violence. Barzani dismissed ministers from Gorran and banned Yusuf Mohammed Sadiq, the speaker of the Kurdish parliament, from Erbil (Ekurd Daily, October 12, 2015).

These moves appear to have brought the PUK and Gorran closer together. It had been though that the PUK could soften its stance towards Barzani in the hope of eliminating Gorran, and regain its position as the main political partner of the KDP. The PUK-Gorran deal in May, then, came as a surprise to many but indicates the two parties believe that united they may be able to remove Barzani from office and share power between themselves.

Economic Crisis

Amid the political turmoil, the KRG is also suffering on the economic front, hit both by the declining oil price and the financial burden of the fight against IS. Numerous construction and development projects have been halted and the government is struggling to pay the monthly salaries of teachers, doctors, and even MPs and the Peshmerga. Considering the Peshmerga is about 100,000-strong, the payment that needs to be made to them alone could constitute up to $300 million (Reuters, December 04, 2015).

Around 6,000 construction projects have been halted in the region and electricity provision has slipped to around eight hours a day, a disappointing figure by any yardstick, but especially compared to earlier provision of 22 hours (Ekurd Daily, January 01).

While the decline in the oil price has had a significant impact, the KRG already had a budget deficit of about $6.5 billion due to the Baghdad government’s decision to stop transferring the KRG’s previously agreed share of state revenues, which constitutes 17 percent of Iraq’s overall state budget (Rudaw, December 16, 2015; Al Jazeera Turk, June 08, 2015).

The KRG also bears some responsibility for its current economic problems, mainly because of its failure to channel revenues from energy sales in earlier years into R&D and profitable industrial projects. It is also argued that behind the economic crisis lie corruption, nepotism, and a lack of accountability that complicates deals and negatively impacts politics (Reuters, December 04, 2015). As a consequence, many qualified educated people, including teachers and doctors in the region, are looking to leave – some travelling without the required documents – to neighboring countries and further afield to Europe, in order to find better opportunities there.

Disputed Territories

More broadly, the Peshmerga’s efforts to recapture areas taken by IS, have complicated Iraq’s political situation.

When IS began its campaign in 2014 and took control of Mosul, Baiji and Tikrit, Tal Afar, Anbar and advanced into Kirkuk and Diyala, capturing hydrocarbon resources and military equipment, they became in effect the neighbors of the KRG. When IS advanced towards Erbil – a move that was marked by the first U.S. air strike against the group – it became clear the KRG would need to fight back.

The Kurd’s successful campaign has allowed the KRG to expand its influence in almost all the areas it disputes with the central government. This came about in part because of the Iraqi army’s earlier failure in the face of IS, although it has not been without cost to the Kurds, who saw at least 1,500 Peshmerga fighters killed and about 8,000 injured over a six-month period (Rudaw, November 1, 2015; Iraqi News, November 4, 2015).

The Peshmerga are now in de facto control of Kirkuk. This occurred as a result of their presence on the ground and the influence of Governor Najmaddin Kerim, a leading PUK figure who has used his position to extend Kurdish security forces’ control over the city and its energy resources.

The settlements of Tuzkhurmatu and Tazekhurmatu are a further point of tension, in this case between Kurds and Turkmen. Given that a significant amount of the Turkmen forces in these areas fight under the aegis of the Hashd-al Shaabi, an umbrella organization for Shia militia groups that has official links to the Iraqi prime minister, these conflicts could escalate further.

The Kurds have been able to take the upper hand in Kirkuk and have gone largely unchallenged, except in Arab-populated Havija. The Peshmerga’s capture of Shingal from IS was welcomed internationally and provided an important boost to Kurdish morale, indeed the Kurdish military gains have led KRG officials to increasingly talk about a three-state solution for a post-IS Iraq.

However, the fighting has also exposed the KRG’s internal political struggles and quarrels over the control of territory and natural resources have underlined the rift between the KDP and PUK. Their treatment of other ethnic groups within these territories is also under scrutiny.

Political Tensions

While the KDP, Gorran and PUK all share the position that the disputed territories belong to the KRG, attempts to officially link them to the Kurd’s autonomous region have the potential to further deteriorate already tense relations between Erbil and Baghdad.

The Turkmen presence in the region means Turkey also claims an interest, further complicating the situation. The potential for tension to spill over into regional conflict means the Iranians and the United States are also closely monitoring events.

In the light of all these factors, President Barzani’s frequently repeated calls for independence seem unlikely to be realized any time soon. In fact, the call for independence is viewed by most Kurds as merely a political rallying cry as the current state of the KRG’s politics have left it in no shape to pursue it.

Whether the May 2016 deal between the PUK and Gorran signals the end of the KDP rule in the near future remains to be seen. It does present a challenge to the KDP. If Gorran and the PUK can consolidate their deal, their political power combined could herald defeat for the KDP. That may push the KDP towards compromise. But the KDP has resorted to repression in the past, notably during a period of tension with Gorran in 2015, and could do so again. Gorran is particularly susceptible to the threat of force since, unlike the other two parties, it does not maintain its own Peshmerga.

With IS undefeated, the consequences of KRG internal tensions erupting into conflict could be severe. That should ensure the KDP favors compromise, but a real end to the crisis will only come with the defeat of IS and the re-capturing of the oil-rich regions that are under IS control, most of which are within the PUK sphere of influence. Free from any dispute with the central government, the revenues from these could end the KRG’s economic crisis.



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Photo source: President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani (Source: timesofisrael.com)

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