Barham Salih Was On The Wrong Side of Politics for Twenty Five Years

By Arian Mufid:

It was in the late 1980s that I met Dr Barham Salih, in London, during the demonstrations and seminars held against the former regime of Iraq as part of our national liberation movement. He devoted all his energies to organise and promote the Kurdish nation’s struggle for freedom to the whole world. Barham Salih was busy in London with the PUK movement and of course that movement has since changed enormously, not just with changing political circumstances but also with the involvement of so many newcomers. Barham was educated and fully qualified for his role as a person with key responsibility for the PUK’s overseas activities, but he had little power. These days we have people in authority who are not fit for their jobs but have a lot of power.

Barham grew closer to the families that effectively controlled the PUK and over time this association served to diminish his standing. In March 1991 the forces of Saddam Hussain and the Iraqi government were expelled from Kurdistan and the KRG was established the following year with the support of air cover provided by the allied forces. However, the ensuing civil war between the KDP and PUK set back the development of south Kurdistan for almost a decade. Barham Salih returned to Kurdistan during this time. For someone who came from so well-established a family in Suly city it is hard to understand why he did not take the necessary steps to establish his own platform and party at that time. He was well educated in the UK in the 1980s. He is well known for his dedication. While he was in jail in Iraq he managed to get the top score in the country in his Baccalaureate exam. But the PUK warlords always looked on him as more foe than friend because he hadn’t participated in the armed struggle. He has held several governmental posts, including as prime minister of the KRG, but the PUK leadership continued to see him as a liability not an asset for the party.

The struggle for power among the PUK leadership intensified with the prolonged illness and eventual passing of Jalal Talabani. The Talabani family couldn’t accept Barham Salih as the new leading figure in the PUK and considered him as unfit to be president of Iraq, although reportedly his eyes were focussed on that post. Barham’s support was substantial among the PUK grassroots and he had some backing from a few PUK warlords but this wasn’t enough for him to reach the top. However, at a time of governmental drift, Barham Salih stormed back to the political centre-stage in 2017 with the launch of a fully-fledged new force, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), in which, after a quarter century of being on the wrong side of politics, he is very much his own man. He has since faced complex issues which remain unresolved. To fail to acknowledge this would be to fail the people of Kurdistan. Furthermore, having been undermined by the PUK leadership in the past he should now clearly dispel the rumours, spread to try and derail the CDJ, that he is planning to return to their ranks.

Finally, we can conclude the following. Barham Salih should not be discouraged by securing two seats in the Iraqi parliament. He should continue the struggle and, in this respect, follow the example of Imran Khan’s party in Pakistan which fought for 22 years before entering the government. He should make it clear that corrupt politicians will be held accountable for their crimes and expected to reimburse Kurdistan with the stolen billions. He needs a blueprint for developing Kurdistan’s economic infrastructure. He should not ally himself with Islamist parties in Kurdistan and instead distance himself from Islamist politics. He needs to pay special attention to the position of women who have been badly let down by the KRG. He should thwart the ideas of simplistic populism inside the CDJ and grasp the realities of Kurdish society. He should learn from the sharp lessons of working inside the PUK and avoid the same mistakes by ensuring that his organisation shuns bureaucratism, adapts to changing circumstances and keeps attracting quality people. For the good of Kurdistan, Barham Salih must strive to finish what he has started, even though there is probably a long fight ahead.

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