Some points about the situation in South Kurdistan


Massoud Barzani, whose mandate expired in august 2015, wants to see an independent Kurdistan before he steps down as president.

(Paper prepared for the Rafto-foundation in June 2017)

A referendum on independence from Iraq, scheduled for September 25, is expected to get overwhelming support from the voters in The Kurdistan Region of Iraq. A similar referendum in 1995 gave 98 % yeah-votes. The present referendum-plan is opposed by two parties in the Kurdistan parliament, the reform party Gorran and the islamist party Komal. This is not because they do not desire independence for Kurdistan, but because they see the referendum as a tactical move by regional president Massoud Barzani to deflect attention from the serious problems facing the region.

Among these underlying problems are:

*  An economic breakdown stemming from the fall in oil prices, but exacerbated by endemic corruption and nepotism. The leadership of the two major parties, the PUK and the KDP, have spirited the vast oil income into hidden accounts as well as conspicuous consumption. This was the main factor behind the rise of the reform party Gorran, presently the second largest party in the Kurdistan parliament.

* The war against the Islamic State, Daesh, is a heavy drain on the economy. In 2014 Daesh was poised to conquer the main Kurdish cities of Duhok and Arbil. Kurdish peshmerga-forces were only able to drive them back after receiving air support and military backup from an international force including the US and Norway. However the withdrawal of Iraqi government forces allowed peshmerga to take control over large areas outside the Kurdistan region proper. These disputed territories include the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, and the the yezidi-populated area around Sinjar, or Shingal, mountain. More on this later.

* The influx of refugees. More than a million internal refugees from other parts of Iraq and more than 300 000 from Syria, constitute a constant overload on the fragile infrastructure, including roads and transport, electricity, water and sewage, schools, health services and jobs.

* Towering over all these is a constitutional crisis. When Massoud Barzani’s presidential period expired in august 2013, his mandate was extended for two years after much wrangling. In august 2015 he refused to step down and arrange for the election of a successor. When parliament questioned his actions, he had the speaker of parliament,  Yousif Muhammed, barred from the capital, and the ministers from Mohammeds Gorran-party removed from the cabinet. Parliament has not convened since.

All parties, except Barzani’s KDP, have demanded that parliament be reconvened as the proper authority to call a referendum on independence from Iraq. However only Gorran and Komal have stuck to this demand. PUK and several smaller parties have joined the KDP in preparations for a referendum to be held on september 25.

In all probability the referendum will return a massive yes to independence. Informal talks have been going on  with Bagdad, whose approval is the main condition for a possible declaration of independence. Leading members of the PUK as well as the KDP seem confident of  achieving an understanding with Bagdad, as well as with  the neighbouring capitals of  Teheran and Ankara.

However, even  if a general understanding with Bagdad is reached, it will be hard to agree on the details, especially on the borders of the future Kurdistan.  Kurdish forces control large areas outside the designated Kurdistan region and the referendum is meant to take place also in these disputed territories. The city of Kirkuk is already flying Kurdish flags from government buildings, and will probably vote to join Kurdistan, even though non-Kurds such as Arabs and Turkmen constitute half the population.

On the Nineveh plains outside Mosul there is an even more mixed population, including large numbers of christians, yezidis and other targets of Daesh persecution. The peshmerga retreated from the plains when Daesh attacked in 2014. Most of the population of the plains have since fled into Kurdistan, where there is a substantial christian presence, and where their presence in not under threat. These christians are the last remnants of the once widespread Church of the East, the so-called Nestorians. They are known today as Assyrians or Chaldeans. Some of these Assyrians have been calling for their own province on the plains of Nineveh. Such a province would have to include also other ethnic and religious groups and there are different ideas on what relationship it should have to Kurdistan.

A similar situation exist in the largely yezidi-populated Shingal (Sinjar in arabic) district, which was also overrun by Daesh in august 2104. The (largely sunni) peshmerga retreated, but a few yezidis organised some vital resistance, allowing large numbers of people to escape into the Shingal-mountain proper. Eventually Kurdish forces from Syria, connected to the radical parties PKK and PYD, opened a corridor to their areas in Syria, allowing the refugees to pass into Kurdistan.

The PKK has organised a yezidi militia, the YBS, establishing a permanent presence in Shingal, and seeking to introduce the ideology of PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan. When Barzani’s KDP returned to the area in 2016, the Shingal became divided between two opposing Kurdish forces, more intent on blocking each other than on removing the remaining Daesh forces.

When shiite militias, the Hashd el-Shaabi, entered Shingal in the summer of 2017, hundreds of yezidis deserted the militias of the Kurdish parties in order to join them and liberate their homes from the Daesh. The result is that Shingal is now split between three different forces – the PKK, the KDP and the Hashd el-Shaabi – all claiming to be the real protectors of the yezidis.

The situation on Shingal embodies some of the main conflict lines in Kurdistan of Iraq; the power of the Barzanis confronts the revolutionary ideology of the PKK, as well as the government of Iraq. While both the PKK and the the KDP see Shingal as part of Kurdistan, the Hashd el-Shaabi are fighting for Bagdad and it’s Iranian backers. The facts established on the ground may become the future border between Iraq and Kurdistan.

2 kommentarer (+add yours?)

  1. Kawa Kavian
    sep 25, 2017 @ 09:13:46

    No mention about the budget has been cut from Baghdad since 2014. Very bias reportage

  2. Jan Bojer Vindheim
    sep 27, 2017 @ 11:52:39

    I agree that the lack of funds from Bagdad is an important factor that should have been mentioned. As for the bias, that depends on the eyes that see

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