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Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] - Politics

Iraq's self-governing Kurdish region elected a new president in a parliamentary vote 28 May 2019 boycotted by a key opposition party. Former prime minister Nechirvan Barzani followed his uncle Masoud Barzani in office. The elder Barzani resigned in November 2017 after a failed bid for independence from Iraq. The Barzani family and their Kurdistan Democratic Party had dominated Iraqi Kurdish politics for generations. The opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan stayed away from the vote after coalition talks between the two parties broke down.

Since August 2015, President Masoud Barzani had been ruling without a mandate, and parliament had not met since November 2016. The Iraqi Kurdistan Region Parliament (IKP) had not convened since October 2015, when KDP officials and politicians ordered their counterparts in Gorran Party, including IKP speaker Yousif Mohammed, to leave Erbil and not report to parliament. KRG security forces subsequently blocked Mohammed from returning to Erbil. Negotiations among IKR political parties to reactivate parliament continued sporadically throughout the year.

By 2018 there were major internal differences among Kurds, with ministers of the Change parties and the Islamic Group having withdrawn from the Kurdish government. There are also major differences between the two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani, who controls Erbil, Dahuk and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls Sulaimaniya. Barzani accused the latter party of treason when they withdrew from Kirkuk.

Two political parties, Gorran and Komal, which had long-standing discord with the ruling parties, have quit the coalition government and Amin’s KIU has set out demands with the threat it too could withdraw.

Tensions between Erbil and Baghdad increased since the Region held an independence referendum on 25 September 2017, which won overwhelming support for secession from Iraq. Baghdad refused to recognize the vote and instead responded by imposing collective punitive measures against Kurdistan, including the use of military force in disputed areas.

After the referendum the Iraqi government regained control of most disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil — the most important being the oil-rich Kirkuk province. Along with the sanctions imposed on the region forced Erbil to call on Baghdad for negotiations. However, this time the Iraqi government put forth a set of conditions before agreeing to enter into negotiations with the region. On 25 December 2017, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region Nechirvan Barzani sent a letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, calling on the Iraqi government to begin negotiations.

Abadi repeatedly announced his conditions for the commencement of dialogue with the region, the most important of which is "the open and explicit annulment of the results of the referendum" and "the handing over of the border crossings to the federal government”.

Baghdad refused to send the Kurdistan Region its rightful share of the budget so that “internal crises in the Kurdistan Region deepen further, people bear arms against one another, the hungry revolt, all our achievements are destroyed, and internal war is instigated,” Dr Muthana Amin, head of the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) bloc in the Iraqi parliament, told Rudaw TV 25 December 2017. Under austerity measures, the KRG reduced or delayed payment of civil servant salaries. The KRG maintains that the loss of oil-fields in Kirkuk and the continued budget cut by the Iraqi government since early-2014 are the primary reasons they have failed to pay state salaries in full or on time.


The three provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah form the Kurdistan Region and are administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government which, under the 2005 constitution, has considerable powers of autonomy within a federal Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government administered area has significantly greater stability, compared with the rest of Iraq. Since 2003, the three Northern Governorates of Dahuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah have largely escaped the violence and collapse of law and order prevalent in many parts of the Center and South and remained relatively quiet and stable. The security situation, however, remained tenuous and unpredictable.

The Kurdistan Region is one of Iraq’s leading success stories. Iraq’s Kurdistan Region has continued to thrive as a peaceful and stable region where civil society is booming, and democracy is taking hold. The region is widely considered as the gateway for doing business in Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan moved quickly to use every constitutional tools it had to establish as much autonomy as possible.

The two principal political parties in the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq and within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PUK is the predominant political party in the southern and eastern areas of the KRG bordering Iran, which includes the Governate and city of Sulaymaniyah, while the KDP is stronger in the northern areas bordering Turkey. The PUK party’s political bureau is based in the city of Sulaymaniyah. As of 2008, the KRG functioned with two party-based Ministries of Interior. The PUK Party controlled the Ministry with oversight of the province of Sulaymaniyah, and the KDP controlled the Ministry with oversight of the provinces of Erbil and Dohuk.

Michael Gunter, writing for The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor in 2007, adds that: “Historically…the PUK…is supposedly more progressive (even socialistically inclined), less tribally-based of the two parties ... Historically, of the two major parties, the KDP is supposedly more conservative, traditional, nationalistic, tribally-based and centered in the northwestern Kurmanji (Bahdinani)-speaking area of Iraqi Kurdistan. The PUK, on the other hand, is supposedly more progressive (even socialistically inclined), less tribally-based and centered in the southeastern Sorani-speaking area of Iraqi Kurdistan. In addition, the Barzani power base was originally built in part upon its Naqshbandi Sufi roots, while Talabani’s power base was originally made up of adherents of the rival Qadiri order. To some extent, these differences, although real, were always exaggerated."

The political parties in northern Iraq were more important than the tribes. The parties own the government and distribute the jobs. Tribes were important because they regulated the social affairs of the Kurdish people. For example, the tribes were responsible for solving family disputes, which if left undone could result in violence and crime. Tribal leaders were in charge of determining financial compensation in both honorable and dishonorable marriages, as well as handling land disputes between animal herders.

The Barzanis are a clan within the Zebari tribe, yet the Barzanis remain independent from the Zebaris. The Zebaris and Barzanis conducted a bloody feud during the latter half of the 20th century, with fighting becoming especially intense from 1960 to 1970. When Coalition Forces entered Iraq, several Zebari families in Arbil fled to Mosul, joining other Zebaris, in fear of reprisals from the Barzanis. Iraqi KDP founder Mullah Mustafa killed Zebari tribal Shaykh Mahmud Zebari (Shaykh Zebari's uncle). As a result, Mahmud's son - Arshad Zebari - and a portion of the tribe fled to Mosul as a safehaven, coalescing with the Iraqi regime. The Barzani-Zebari conflict appears to have simmered down due to Coalition intervention.

Since the establishment of the northern no-fly zone in 1991, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a 20-year-old Iraqi Kurdish political party, struggled for power with another older and more traditional Kurdish political party, the 50-year-old Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and had in various circumstances applied for and received aid from the Iranian government in its struggles. The KDP gradually lost ground to the PUK and finally appealed to the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein for support. In the first week of September, 1996, the KDP, with Iraqi troops behind them, quickly took over the major towns and cities in the Kurdish area of Iraq which had been under the control of the PUK. President Clinton responded by extending the no-fly zone in the south and launching two groups of missile strikes to destroy Iraqi SAM sites in southern Iraq.

The Kurdish-inhabited region of northern Iraq has been relatively peaceful and prosperous since the fall of Saddam Hussein. However, the Iraqi Kurds' political autonomy, and territorial and economic demands, have caused friction with Christian and other minorities in the north, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Arab leaders of Iraq, and with neighboring Turkey and Iran. Despite limited agreements allowing for new oil exports from the Kurdish region, the major outstanding issues between the Kurds and the central government did not appear close to resolution.

When elections to Kurdistan’s parliament were held in 2005, the two main parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of regional president Massud Barzani -- formed a joint list that won 80 of the 111 seats. Ten seats were reserved for the region’s Turkmen, Christian and Yazidi minorities. The Islamic Union of Kurdistan won nine seats, the more radical Islamic Group of Kurdistan gained six seats, and three smaller left-wing parties won the remainder.

Tensions increased after Kurdish representation in two key mixed provinces was reduced by the January 31, 2009 provincial elections. Because Sunni Arabs fully participated in these elections, the Kurdish influence in the two provinces of Nineveh and Diyala – the location of several disputed terrorities – was sharply reduced. In Nineveh province, the Kurds have essentially lost control of the provincial council and provincial administration.

In July 2013 the Kurdish parliament postponed presidential elections, leading to fist fights in the Kurdish parliament between the Kurdish opposition and Barzani supporters, and gave Barzani two more years in office. The current Kurdish constitution only allowed two, four-year terms, but Barzani reportedly did not want to cede power. Barzani remained a powerful political figure in Kurdistan. His son Masrour Barzani was the head of security, while his nephew Nechervan Barzani was the prime minister.

The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament passed the Access to Information Law in 2013, which provides for access to information for journalists, media outlets, and ordinary citizens. By year’s end, however, the KRG had not made efforts to implement the law. Moreover, local government, political parties, and officials, regularly discriminated between media outlets regarding access to information based on party affiliation. For example, in KDP stronghold areas Duhok and Erbil, KDP-affiliated outlets Rudaw and KTV had access to all KRG departments, while in the PUK and Gorran stronghold of Sulaimaniyah Governorate, PUK-affiliated outlets such as GK TV and Kurdsat TV received more access to government and party information than other outlets.

Ethnic Kurdish refugees from Syria, Turkey, and Iran in the IKR generally integrated well. Local integration remained the best and most likely option for the majority of Iranian Kurds. The Kurdistan regional government classified an estimated 40,000 Syrian Kurd refugees as “noncamp refugees.” Many non-camp refugees worked in Erbil or found shelter with relatives in the IKR.

The Change (Gorran) Movement accused the Barzanis of a monopoly all government’s positions in Erbil, and it does not believe in the principles of true partnership and and peaceful transfer of power. Throughout the IKR there were numerous shootings, beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases the aggressors wore military or police uniforms. Many attacks targeted independent and former opposition media, mainly the independent Nalia Radio and Television; Payama Television, affiliated with the Kurdistan Islamic Group; and the Kurdish News Network Television, affiliated with the Gorran Movement.

In March 2015 the IKR established the Kurdistan Independent High Electoral Commission, which has authority to supervise all elections and referenda within the IKR, previously under IHEC supervision. Discussions between Iraqi government and Kurdistan regional electoral commissions to determine the coordination mechanism for federal elections continued at year’s end.

Massoud Barzani, whose term as Kurdistan President ended on August 20, 2015 after having been extended for two years, refused to step down and remained unofficially in office. Kurdistan PM Nechirvan Barzani removed four members of his cabinet from the Change (Gorran) Movement on October 13, 2015. Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament’s Speaker was prevented from entering Erbil city on October 11, 2015. Since then the Kurdish parliament has been suspended. The expelled ministers were replaced on October 28, 2015 with KDP politicians.

The Kurdish Democratic Party insisted that Barzani’s presidency be extended for another two years and that future leaders should be elected by a general vote. But two main opposition parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran (Change), and two smaller parties, the Kurdistan Islamic League (KIL) and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), insisted that any president should be appointed by parliament. One possible solution would be allowing Barzani to continue as president for two years while strengthening the power of parliament to limit the authority of the presidency.

Kurdistan’s political fight fell along old lines of rivalry: Barzani and his KDP party generally look to Turkey and the United States; the PUK and its offspring Gorran are seen as being aligned more with Tehran. The two sides fought a bitter three-year civil war in the 1990s.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2019 18:58:19 ZULU