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The New Arab

The Iraq Report: Kurdistan in turmoil

Date of publication: 27 December, 2017

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This week in Iraq: Kurdish politicians are being blamed for an ongoing and deep economic crisis, leading to deadly protests and the resignations of several ministers.
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

Following the disastrous Kurdish independence referendum in October that saw the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) lose almost half the territory it once held in a lightning offensive by the federal government, anger has gripped the Kurdish street over the corruption of KRG officials. Kurdish politicians are being blamed for an ongoing and deep economic crisis, leading to deadly protests and the resignations of several ministers.

Taking advantage of the turmoil are key players representing the pro-Iran Shia Islamist political trend in Baghdad, who seek to undermine their opponents in government by cutting deals with the embattled Kurdish leadership.

Although the government is led by Shia Islamists, it is personal rivalry – and not political ideology – that motivates these challenges to an already weakened Baghdad which has been recently trying to re-establish authority by declaring victory over Kurdish secessionism and religious terrorism in quick succession.

Ministers resign as Kurdish street flares

Once hailed as the oasis of calm in a stormy sea of sectarianism, the KRG-controlled Kurdistan region of Iraq has been buffeted by deadly turmoil and civil dissent.

With its capital Erbil once dubbed as the “Dubai of Iraq”, Kurds are protesting against what they see as the regional government’s corruption.

Thousands took to the streets more than a week ago in Kurdistan’s second city of Sulaimaniyah, a stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), setting car tyres ablaze and torching the offices of political parties.

The Movement for Change party, also known as Gorran in the local Sorani language, announced that they and the Kurdish Islamic Group party would be resigning in solidarity with the protesters who they allege were treated harshly by PUK-affiliated security forces.

Thousands took to the streets more than a week ago in Kurdistan’s second city of Sulaimaniyah [Getty]

The leader of Gorran’s Baghdad parliamentary group, Sarwa Abdul-Wahid, said that three ministers from Gorran and two from the Islamic Group would resign, in addition to Gorran’s regional parliamentary speaker and the head of the KRG’s investment board.

"Sulaimaniyah has become a military camp for the [PUK] where they have deployed all their forces in the cities and towns to suppress the demonstrations," Abdul-Wahid told Associated Press.

It is worth noting that both Gorran and the Islamic Group have not been spared the wrath of demonstrators who perceive them to also be at fault for the economic and political woes of the Kurdish enclave. Both parties’ offices were attacked by stone-throwing protesters.

Both the PUK and its main rival, the Kurdish Democratic Party, have faced mounting anger in the wake of September's independence referendum, which triggered a major crisis with the central government in Baghdad who launched a military offensive to retake disputed cities.

Both the PUK and its main rival, the Kurdish Democratic Party, have faced mounting anger in the wake of September's independence referendum

The vote for independence was approved by more than 90 percent of Kurds but rejected by Baghdad and Iraq's neighbours Turkey and Iran, who worked with Iraq to quash any Kurdish bid for secession.

In October, federal forces seized disputed territory from largely KDP-affiliated Kurdish fighters, including the city of Kirkuk and surrounding oil fields, while the PUK largely cooperated with Iraq and Iran against their KDP rivals, scuppering any chance of independence. Baghdad has also demanded that border crossings and the region's two international airports be handed over to federal authorities, and has ordered international airlines to halt services.

Even before the referendum, the Kurdish region was suffering from a financial crisis exacerbated by low oil prices. Civil servants have not been paid since August, pensioners have not been paid since February, and the government still owes both groups for unpaid months in previous years.

Not only did the KRG’s leadership fail to deliver on a long-held Kurdish dream and ambition of independence, but that failure compounded the Kurds’ already extreme anger at the financial crisis. By failing to ensure independence, Kurdish politicians also failed to shield themselves from public anger regarding the economy that may have otherwise been averted had they been able to show political successes.

Shia Islamists seek to take advantage of Kurdish woes

Seeking to take advantage of the chaos afflicting the Kurds in order to destabilise his political rivals is former prime minister and current vice president, Nouri al-Maliki.

Maliki – a notoriously sectarian Shia Islamist politician – has made overtures of peace and unity to both the KDP and the PUK in order to undermine the uncompromising position towards the Kurds adopted by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister site reported a senior Kurdish official as saying that Maliki had approached both major Kurdish parties and arranged meetings with them, though the official did not make clear if the former premier would be meeting with major Kurdish figures like fallen KRG President Massoud Barzani.

“Since the beginning of the crisis with Baghdad… Maliki and senior leaders within his party began communications and holding meetings with the leadership of both the [KDP] and the [PUK] in order to strengthen ties,” the unnamed Kurdish official said.

Since the beginning of the crisis with Baghdad… Maliki and senior leaders within his party began communications and holding meetings with the leadership of both the [KDP] and the [PUK] in order to strengthen ties

"Through these moves, Maliki is attempting to pave the way for his ‘political majority’ project with the backing of the Kurds."

Maliki has fiercely opposed the confessional system of governance used by Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, that sees parliamentary and government roles divided between the largely Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shia Arabs.

Prior to being forced out of office, he had called for the “political majority” to have the sole right to form governments and hold parliamentary and ministerial positions.

While confessional systems of democracies are inherently unstable – as in the case of the Balkans and Lebanon – Iraq suffers from a lack of democratic participation. In the last elections in 2014, most of the largely Sunni Arab Anbar governorate could not vote freely due to clashes between IS and government forces, effectively silencing the voices of 1.5 million Iraqis.

Also, Iraq faces problems with nepotism and foreign-backed politicians and militants taking control of entire ministries, compromising an already weakened system. The New Arab has confirmed documents obtained from Iraq’s High Electoral Commission showing 62 men who are members of pro-Iran Shia Islamist militant groups will be running for office in May 2018, raising further fears about the spectre of what a “political majority” system may look like to the Tehran-backed Maliki.

Although both Abadi and Maliki hail from the same Dawa Party and have the same ideological leanings rooted in Shia Islamism, they are bitter rivals. In the aftermath of the Islamic State (IS) group’s sweeping conquest of almost a third of Iraq in 2014, the hawkish Maliki was pressured to leave office in favour of the more ostensibly dovish Abadi.

Maliki’s sectarian policies were blamed for allowing IS to rise, while recently Abadi has been praised by the international community for adopting less divisive rhetoric and leading Iraq to “victory” over IS.

By seeking an alliance with the Kurds, Maliki is also seeking a marriage of convenience, as he was notoriously anti-Kurdish throughout the almost eight-and-a-half years of his premiership.

Beneath the rubble of Mosul lie the bodies of many civilians, in figures that have been quoted as being 10 times higher than official body counts

Thousands dead as Christmas returns to Mosul

Christmas has returned to Iraq’s second city of Mosul for the first time in four years following the ousting of the IS extremist group from the city last July.

For the first time in years, Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Church held mass on Christmas Day [Getty]

Christians were brutally stripped of their possessions and their rights when IS conquered Mosul in July 2014. Christians were required to pay additional taxes, and had their lands and properties confiscated if they could not pay IS militants off. Thousands of Iraqi Christians were forced to flee, with many travelling abroad after suffering under IS.

However, and for the first time in years, Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Church held mass on Christmas Day in a church battered by the fighting, with white sheets covering shattered window frames. Sako called on the congregation to pray for “peace and stability in Mosul, Iraq and the world.”

While the world celebrated the return of Christmas to Mosul for the first time in four years following the collapse of IS’ so-called “caliphate”, other haunting images of destruction and death have been emerging from the ruined city.

Video footage taken by aid workers shows a completely devastated western Mosul, where some of the most brutal street-to-street fighting took place between IS and the Iraqi government.

An entire stretch of road and adjacent buildings can be seen reduced to rubble which has not been cleared almost six months after fighting ended.

Beneath the rubble of Mosul lie the bodies of many civilians, in figures that have been quoted as being 10 times higher than official body counts.

Up to 11,000 people may have been killed, according to a story originally reported by the Associated Press. According to the report, bodies are still being pulled from beneath the rubble to this day.

US-led coalition forces are responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths from airstrikes and artillery fire provided in support to Iraqi forces. The rest of the civilian fatalities were caused by Iraqi forces themselves, or IS militants who attacked civilians attempting to flee.

The coalition, which claims to lack the resources to send investigators into Mosul, only accepts responsibility for 326 deaths. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, claims only 1,260 civilians died during the operation to recapture Mosul from IS.

Both figures have now been placed in doubt, as Iraq attempts to claim a propaganda victory as well as military success against IS.

However, and without adequate compensation and the restoration of services and infrastructure, the inevitable poverty and disenfranchisement that this level of destruction has caused may be used to fan the flames of a future war.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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