Southern Kurdistan, towards the past or future?

Aziz Sheikhani

By Aziz Sheikhani:

Southern Kurdistan is one part of Kurdistan, which has been ruled by the Iraqi state since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This part of Kurdistan, compared to the three other parts – North (part of Turkey), East (part of Iran) and West (part of Syria) – since the creation of an Iraqi state has had much greater opportunities. According to formal documents, up to 5 million people who live there were given a better opportunity to study their mother tongue. In addition, they were recognised as a nation formally by the Iraqi state documentation many decades ago. There was an Autonomy Agreement, 11 March 1970, between the Kurds and Iraqi government, but it was not realized. The Algerian Agreement in 1975 between Iran and Iraq, mediated by the President of Algeria, rejected this agreement and forced the Kurdish struggle of this period to end.

During the eight years war between Iran and Iraq, particularly the last two years, the Kurds of southern Kurdistan suffered a lot under the Iraqi policy. The Iraqi army devastated the Kurdish residential areas, villages and cities, using chemical weapons against them and operating the Anfal genocide campaign. The invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi army in 1990, and its consequences, gave a golden chance for the Kurds. Within the framework of a new political situation and following the crushing of the Iraqi army in Kuwait, they controlled most of southern Kurdistan, including the majority part of Kirkuk. As a result of a retaliation attack from the Iraqi army on civilians, more than two million Kurds were forced to flee from their land.

In the end the situation was positive and this part of Kurdistan became a ‘de facto’. They had a historical chance to change their position, to gain their self-determination. Towards this policy and aim, there were some western countries that wanted to support the Kurds in this area to be free to achieve their destiny. Resolution 688, of the United Nations Security Council, gave them a safe haven and the US and UK established a “No Fly Zone” over some parts of southern Kurdistan.

Following the withdrawal of the Iraqi government and military forces in October 1991, the region practically came under the control of the Kurds. An election was held in 1992 and the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly was founded. Then, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was founded and based in Hewler (Irbil or Erbil). The two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), began to rule this area.

The two mentioned Kurdish parties have had a complicated history, with conflicts between each other. They and their leadership were and are rival political parties. Thus, after the first election in 1992, they did not accept the results and they resorted to the policy of fifty-fifty. They divided the seats of parliament equally between themselves and the presidency of the parliament and government. The policy of fifty-fifty covered whole sectors of society, even education. In addition, they cancelled the result of the presidency of south Kurdistan, because both main parties and their leadership wanted to be rulers.

In other words, the leadership of two main political parties, because of the traditional structure of Kurdish social, tribal, economic and political organizations, planned to rule the area under the perspective of tribal heritage. They tried to continue the culture of guerrilla war on the ground and ignored the principles of a democratic system.

Iraq was under sanction and South Kurdistan was under an Iraqi economic blockade. Therefore the competition between the leaders of KDP and PUK, (Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani) to control the source of power and the economy was tough. The established parliament and its government was not authoritative, because they were and still are in the hands of two rival parties. In this light of this, one of them revealed the plan of François Mitterrand, to Iraqi Kurdistan.

The lack of trust between the leadership and supporters of the two parties, led to four years of civil war, 1994-1998. As a result of the civil war, the government and parliament collapsed and every party tried to rule its own territory.  Thousands of Kurds died, and hundreds went missing during an internal war.

They did not have a bright and clear plan for the future of the region and they were linked to Turkey, Iran, Syria and also Iraq. Barzani and Talabani, as two rival leaders of the KDP and the PUK, wanted to succeed at all costs. Thus, they cooperated with the intelligence of other states that oppress Kurds and they crossed a red line on this many times. For instance, between them they invited the military forces of Turkey, Iran and Iraq to defeat their opponent. One of the two leaders stated that, to defeat a rival party and its leadership, “I resort even to Satan”.

In 1996, both parties did everything possible to win a war. This area became a battle ground for Kurdish war lords and the Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian forces. The balance of power in the region, because of the interest of the great powers, meant both parties had a chance to rule their territory and have two local administrations.

Talabani and Barzani signed the Washington Agreement under the mediation of Madeleine Albright, (Secretary of State of the USA), in September 1998. According to this agreement, both parties ended the civil war and they agreed to share the power and revenue again. The agreement only brought an end to the war in southern Kurdistan. It did not provide the necessary changes on the ground. The KDP and the PUK in their controlled territories did not tolerate each other. In fact, the Kurdish land in Iraq was divided into green (PUK), yellow (KDP) and the Iraqi government influence zones.

The preparation to invade Iraq, by the USA and coalition forces, opened a new way for the Kurdish ruling parties. Although both parties had a relationship with the Iraqi central government, they were informed that the Saddam Hussein period in Iraq was coming to an end. It was a time to make new plans and share the power and finances better than during the previous decade.

After the collapse of Saddam’s regime, they went to Baghdad and participated in establishing the Iraqi state and army, etc. They were more interested in the money and power than solving the Kurdish issue in Iraq. This period of history, particularly the first two years after the collapse of the Iraqi state, was an important opportunity for the Kurds in Iraq to decide their future and solve the historical issues with the central government under the United Nations. They ignored the requirement of the Kurdish people to organise a referendum about the future of southern Kurdistan. The KDP and the PUK used this demand from the Kurdish people for their own interests and claimed more political position and money from Baghdad, including from the Governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer.

After the demise of Saddam Hussein, the control of other Kurdish areas that were under the central government, including Kirkuk, was not transferred to the KRG. Money and power blinded the leadership of the KDP and the PUK. They only promised the return of the other Kurdistan areas. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the new Iraqi government added first Article 58, and then 140, to the Iraqi constitution, avowedly to solve the disputes over Kirkuk and other Kurdish areas that were not under the control of the Kurdish government. According to the promises of Masud Barzani, Article 140 should have been implemented in 2007, but this article has still not materialised.

Their plan was clear and the two party leaders achieved their historical aim. Talabani wanted to be president of Iraq and Barzani, president of southern Kurdistan. A new Iraq gave them a chance to get both these positions, but the people of Iraq and Kurdistan lost a lot. Talabani was elected twice as president of Iraq, and Barzani was also twice as president of southern Kurdistan, once by the parliament and another time by public election.

Although all the Kurdish parties claimed that they and their supporters were fighters for freedom and democracy, in practice all of them were, and are, dancing around power. Regardless of their grandiose statements – about human rights, freedom and a democratic, pluralistic system and division of power – they did not hold an election from 1992 until 2005.

Under a new era in Iraq, elections were held in Iraq and southern Kurdistan. The latest parliamentary election was held in 2009, this was different compared to two previous elections. For the first time in Kurdistan, opposition parties, particularly the Change Movement, won 25 seats. In a new era, the PUK and the KDP formed a Kurdistan List and formed a government. The Kurdish people and their right to self-determination were ignored by Talabani and Barzani.

The two families of Barzani and Talabani, expanded their influence from the political field to the economic, military, diplomatic and other aspects of society. They took control of the oil industry, military forces and other investments and marketing. As a result of this policy, their parties became economic companies and increased their influence unlawfully. Following the appearance of a stronger opposition in Kurdistan, two ruling parties in Baghdad and Hewler wanted to put them under pressure and neutralize their potential. Regardless of the requirements of the opposition, particularly the Change Movement and the demonstrators, the leadership of the PUK and the KDP did not accept a reform plan.

The foreign policy of the KRG is in the hands of these two parties. The economy, governance of the Kurdish area, media, oil and 17 per cent of the Iraqi budget and customs revenue are in the hands of two parties and their leadership. The Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary Branches, are all controlled by these parties. In addition, these two ruling parties have tried to limit the freedom of speech and, according to their law, demonstration without their permission is not permitted.

The parliamentary, presidency and provincial elections are approaching in Iraq and southern Kurdistan. The whole situation in Iraq seems complicated and different factions are in stiff competition. Moreover, regional states influence the internal issues and affairs towards their own interests. Turkey and Iran are expanding their influence zone in Iraq and Syria, and the Middle East is in competition. Nowadays, the KDP linked with Turkey and the PUK has a good and close relationship with Iran. In addition, the PUK is in a good relationship with the Iraqi government and Shia-parties, and the KDP with the Sunnis.

It can be argued that a united policy in southern Kurdistan does not exist over the future of this land, its relationship with neighbouring states and Arab countries. Oil, power, customs revenue and political positions in Kurdistan and Iraq are what binds them together. Under the secret agreement known as the Strategic Agreement, signed in 2007 between Talabani and Barzani, they agreed about sharing power, interests, political and administrative posts and money. The people in this area were forced to accept their position and policy. The officials of the two ruling parties in Kurdistan, have repeated many times that there is no alternative. From their perspective, if they do not follow this way, maybe civil war will be re-launched. This logic does not serve well for the future of Kurdistan and it seems only to be a business contract between two companies.

The leadership of the KDP and the PUK have started their cooperation towards the next election. They want to breach the presidency law and nominate Masud Barzani for a third time as president of Southern Kurdistan. In this case, they are trying to convince the opposition parties to accept the re-election of the leader of the KDP as president of Kurdistan.

According to Kurdish history, the leadership of the Kurds, including tribal, religious and other ideological leaders, were the main reason behind the failure of the Kurds’ struggle to gain their national rights. The decision of the father of Masud Barzani to give up on more than 100,000 Kurdish fighters in 1975 is an example.  Nowadays, the Kurdish leadership does not differ from any of the previous, diverse leaders and all are essentially the same. They have made the same mistakes and their policy is still sufficient only for ruling a tribe, not a nation.

After 21 years of being in power, the Kurds in their land are not sure about their future and they have not been given a good chance to be a source of power and freedom. The Kurdish people have paid a high price for the wrong policy of a leadership that wants to understand the world from their limited and wrong perspective.

As history has indicated, time is limited and historical chances are unique. The next election and the position of the two ruling parties in southern Kurdistan will affect the direction of politics. Approval of democracy and belief in the principle of democracy can guarantee some kind of peace and stabilization. Trying to be in power and control the whole society, in the name of the Kurdish people and national security, causes instability and conflict. Insistence on having all the sources of power and the economy, including the military forces, and limitless benefits for two families and parties in Kurdistan, will create a serious crisis. The people and the opposition groups have an opportunity to strengthen and push back on the KDP and the PUK, parties which have crossed all limits and lines. Now is the time to decide about the direction – towards the past or the future?

Aziz Sheikhani is a doctoral candidate from Finland (university of Tampere). His doctoral paper is on “why the Kurds do not have their own state? Events that changed the destiny of the Kurds, 1916-26”.

Copyright © 2013

4 Responses to Southern Kurdistan, towards the past or future?
  1. Lorenzo Garcia
    May 24, 2013 | 13:26

    If the kurdish people vote those two parties, what is wrong with it? Of course if you belong to a very small minority them you may want to circumvent democracy and ask for more than the democracy is asking you to represent.
    Again, the kurdish people are not idiots and if they go go to the elections and Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse stands for President and is choosen by the people, then the next presiden will be Micky Mouse or Donald Duck.
    Let kurdish elections decide who should represent the kurdish people. Anything else is wrong!

  2. Ari Ali
    May 24, 2013 | 18:20

    ”If the kurdish people vote those two parties, what is wrong with it?”. Absolutely nothing , but votes are not votes when it is done under the watchful eyes of criminal organisations owned by one family such as barastan , asyish etc. Do you call it a vote when the father is president , the nephew is president and the son is president . Barzanies days are numbered , believe me .

  3. Lorenzo Garcia
    May 24, 2013 | 21:17

    Well in the USA the father was President, the oldest son became President and now the youngest son wants to candidate for President after being Governor of Florida.
    “Votes are no votes when it is done under the watchful eyes of criminal organisations owned by one family such as barastan , asyish etc”.
    What ********! Is the Asyish a criminal organization? Are the votes manipulated and changed as you may imply? or is it just that the majority of the kurdish population do not agree with you political views of the Gorran?
    Let the votes talk even if they are different from our views.
    This is the purpose of democracy. One man, one vote.
    And if they choose the wife, the son, the nephew etc is still a democratic choice.
    Please educate me!

    • Ari Ali
      May 25, 2013 | 10:56

      ”Please educate me!”
      Barzanis days are numbered, believe me .

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