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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Monday, March 19, 2007

Internal Divisions Threaten Kurdish Unity

By Lydia Khalil

After years of infighting and repression by Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq's Kurds were finally able to seize the opportunity for autonomy and influence presented by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Since then, they have solidified the de facto autonomy that was established under the No Fly Zone and retained power and influence over Iraq's national policies. The Kurdish leadership was able to accomplish these significant achievements by maintaining a unified front and overcoming years of disarray and distrust. In June 2006, the Kurdish leadership in Northern Iraq announced the long awaited unification of a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Despite their success, Iraq's Kurds must now wrestle with deep-seated and long-standing issues that may be even more difficult to overcome than the legacy of civil war and repression. Iraq's Kurds must not only overcome their past, but also chart a singular future. As Kurdish fortunes improve and their power increases, so do the stakes. There are a number of issues that will come to a head that could spell trouble for Kurdish unity and continued stability within the newly unified KRG. The issues affecting Iraqi Kurdish unity and stability can be broadly broken down into internal and external factors. This analysis will focus on the internal factors that may affect Kurdish unity.

Internal Fissures

The first internal factor is the full implementation of the unity agreement. Internally, the KRG must address the greater demands for democratization and good governance as well as address systemic corruption. They also have to manage constituent desires for independence and tackle the ongoing power struggle between the so called "old guard," which includes the mid-level politburo members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the "new guard," consisting of younger, Western-educated and reform-minded politicians within the KRG leadership. In addition to this, they will have to come to a workable resolution on Kirkuk. Administrative unification and transformation of the KRG will unfold in an environment of intense internal political competition.

Although the administration of the Iraqi Kurdish region was officially unified under the KRG, they still have yet to implement the unification agreement fully. This means that there are still unresolved issues and rivalries between the preeminent Kurdish political groups—the KDP and PUK. For one, unifying the administrations will mean dismantling old patronage networks. In doing so, the PUK-KDP leadership will be forced to manage the ramifications of the fallout within the mid-level political ranks in order to strengthen their institutions and ministries. The so-called "old guard" still has long standing feuds, rivalries, personal interests and patronage networks that could be threatened by unification or by greater democracy in the region.

The other obstacle to unification is the armed forces of each party—the peshmerga. The Iraqi constitution calls for the creation of a unified National Guard—ostensibly made up of the same peshmerga fighters that had previously fought one another—to provide internal security for the North. This is no easy task. The challenge is to unify their command and control so that they can comply with the constitution, provide adequate security, link up to the central command in Baghdad and prevent the temptation to call in the peshmerga whenever there is an internal dispute between the KDP and PUK. Despite the unification agreement, there remain two separate peshmerga ministries. Peshmerga fighters are loyal to their political bosses, not to the KRG. The peshmerga are affiliated with the parties and they perceive themselves as PUK and KDP peshmerga, separately. Looming in the background are past grievances from the civil war that raged from 1994-1998.

Like the peshmerga ministries, the Ministry of Finance is still not unified. Implementation agreements have stalled because the two parties could not agree on how to split or consolidate revenues, or how to unify their financial administrations. The split in government inhibits the efficient distribution of services and hinders the pace of reconstruction. Kurdish civilians are becoming increasingly frustrated with this as they see more and more reconstruction money coming into the region with little result.

The Kurdish leadership has touted the success of their democratic experiment in Kurdistan and offers it up as a model for the rest of Iraq. Yet how democratic is Iraqi Kurdistan? According to one Kurdish official, in the recent elections "there were all kinds of intimidation; there was ballot stuffing and a variety of things…It shows that as 'democratic' as the north is and as developed of a civil society it has, it is still fragile" [1]. Although there are freedoms in the KRG, political expression and civic participation have been hampered by the overwhelming presence of the KDP and PUK, who monopolize the political space and resources. Kurds feel that there is little they can do to change the policies of the KDP and PUK. The March 2006 riot in Halabja was a clear sign of this tension. Hundreds of protesters threw stones and even destroyed a memorial dedicated to the victims of Saddam Hussein's 1988 chemical attack on the town (KurdishMedia.com, March 24, 2006). The demonstrators marched through Halabja chanting, "We don't want government officials here…You have done nothing for the city…All government officials are corrupt" (AFP, March 16, 2006). Some analysts have labeled the Halabja protest as the most serious challenge to the KRG since its inception.

Corruption is also rampant. In the rush to implement reconstruction projects, money is flowing everywhere, and often into the coffers of the respective parties. Anecdotes such as the following are not uncommon: "I had somebody come to me and say I have a deal for a cement factory in Kurdistan. It will cost $120 million. Can you find some funding? So I was able to communicate with some people [in Kurdistan] and they said if it's a sovereign contract we'll fund it. My connection…called the office of the prime minister. They told him 50% on top of it and we'll give it [the contract] to you" [2].

Ordinary citizens and political leaders are beginning to speak out, frustrated by the two parties' lack of movement and buoyed by the promise of democracy throughout all of Iraq. The problem, however, is that there is only enough political openness to encourage civil society and political participation, but not enough to broaden it. This is a dangerous situation now that Iraq's Kurds have been given the promise and taste of political and civil life outside of the old KDP/PUK framework.

The arrests of Kamal Sayid Qadir and Hawez Hawezi for allegedly "defaming" KDP and PUK leaders drew the unwanted attention of the international community to the lack of political freedoms in Kurdistan (KurdishMedia.com, December 28, 2005). Qadir wrote a series of high profile articles in the Kurdish media, outlining corruption and nepotism within the KRG. Peshmerga associated with the KDP seized Qadir and detained him for weeks without charges and without communication with a lawyer or his family. He was later released and officially charged with defamation, but his ordeal put in doubt Kurdish leaders glowing accounts of a free Kurdistan.

Other political parties besides the KDP and PUK have had a difficult time penetrating politics. Many parties have either been co-opted by the KDP and PUK or have been suppressed. The Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) is arguably the most serious opposition to the two parties, challenging the long standing commitment to secularism in the Kurdish region. The KIU is gaining traction among the population by criticizing the government for corruption and economic mismanagement. The KIU was established in 1994 and has been led by Salahadin Bahadadin [3]. It was originally part of the "unity" list with the KDP and PUK during the first round of elections. It has long been active in social work in Kurdistan and is becoming increasingly popular with students. The KDP feels threatened by the gains of the KIU, and it sent its supporters to mount an attack on its offices in December 2005. Seven were killed and many injured (RFE/RL, December 9, 2005). The Kurds also have to find a way to better incorporate the religious and ethnic minorities living in Iraqi Kurdistan—namely the Assyrians and the Turkomen [4]. The Kurds should reach an accommodation with the Turkomen especially, because both communities have a historical claim on the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Much of this is contingent upon who is driving the policies and leadership of the KRG. The future will depend on how much influence the old guard has in determining the future direction of Iraqi Kurdistan. If the old guard leadership maintains their hold on decision making, then tensions will surely continue. As it stands, they have the most to lose in the unification process. With the two administrations joining, somebody is going to lose a position or influence over a sector or neighborhood. The young guard, for the most part, has a "big picture" view. They are more concerned about developing institutions and encouraging investment. The new generation of leaders is not hampered by resentment over past conflicts, and grew up at a time when Kurdistan was largely independent. The younger leadership will emerge only if the insecurities of the old guard are alleviated. To what degree the younger leaders can work around or with the old guard is still uncertain. For now, they have found it necessary to work with rather than against them, at least until they shore up enough of their own power to confront them.

The status of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk is a hugely contentious issue in Iraqi politics. The Kurds claim this territory as rightfully theirs, but their claims are contested by other Iraqi groups who do not want Kirkuk to be part of the KRG. Analysts focus on the potential of Kirkuk to spark a civil war within Iraq, but there is a sub-level conflict as well. Kirkuk is a point of rivalry between the KDP and the PUK. Kirkuk will be a big political victory for whichever Kurdish group brings it into the Kurdistan region. The party that accomplishes this will be lauded by the population as the group that brought back their historical city. It will also upset the balance of the North. As of now, the governorates are split evenly between the KDP and PUK, with the KDP having a slight advantage. Who will be the majority in Kirkuk if it comes under the KRG? For the two parties, it is a new political space to fight over. Outwardly, the Kurds present a unified front on Kirkuk. According to Qubad Talabani, the KRG representative to the United States, "Kirkuk is a Kurdish issue, not a KDP or PUK issue…It will be a joint exercise. We may have difference of opinion, we may have other political battles, but not over Kirkuk. We should not and we will not have this competition" [5]. If the Kurds stay unified on this issue, they may succeed in bringing Kirkuk under the KRG. Unfortunately, a unified front will be difficult to maintain.


The issue of Kirkuk, if forced too soon, could have a severe destabilizing affect on Kurdish security. It could become a cause for greater internal tension, and even if the Kurds are successful in integrating Kirkuk into the KRG, it could invite interference by Turkey. Yet Kirkuk is not the only issue. Good governance, greater civil liberties and true opportunities for political participation are also critical to ensuring the KRG's security in the long-term. Although it is unlikely that the KDP and PUK will revert back to violent conflict over issues of unification, resources and political control, it is likely that the region could see more violent protests like the Halabja demonstration if demands for better governance are not met.


1. Interview with a senior Kurdish official, January 2006.
2. Interview with a senior Iraqi advisor, February 2006.
3. For more information on the party, see http://www.kurdiu.org.
4. Interview with Fawzi Hariri, Iraq's minister of industry and minerals, who is Assyrian and is part of the KDP.
5. Interview with Qubad Talabani, the KRG representative to the United States, January 2006.
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