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    Middle East
     Oct 6, 2009
Seeds of change in Iraqi Kurdistan
By Derek Henry Flood

IRBIL - The political sphere in Iraq's Kurdistan region was, until recently, in a state of suspended animation. The Kurdistan region's two principal political movements are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). They are essential clan-based war-fighting groups that have morphed into political blocs over the years, thanks to heavy lobbying in Western capitals and a great increase in stability in Iraqi Kurdistan since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Kurdistan region's two big men, the KDP's Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and the PUK's Jalal Talabani, fared well in the spoils of the American-led occupation of Iraq. Talabani became president of Iraq, while Barzani was made the leader of the

 

autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has its own parliament in Irbil (often referred to as Hawler in Kurdish), capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

But a few months before regional elections this July, a new group emerged in Sulaimaniyah, the KRG's second city. Calling itself the Goran List (Goran translates as "change" in English) or the Movement for Change, it managed to win 25 seats of the 100 seats allotted for Kurds in their parliament (there are a total of 111 seats with 11 slated for minorities such as Turkmen and Assyrians), faring surprisingly well against the KDP-PUK alliance.
Change is led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, a former PUK deputy secretary general turned opposition leader. He says he plans to implement democracy in northern Iraq based on policy rather than personalities. The party says it will make Kurdish issues a priority by working in both the local and national political frameworks.

Many Kurds feel that their veteran leadership has become selfish and complacent with regard to Iraq's Arab leadership. This is where Change says it will come into play.



The KRG operates with a high degree of autonomy within Iraq's chaotic politics. It issues its own visas, has its own political and trade delegations, and requires Arab Iraqis to obtain residence cards to live in Kurdish areas, much to the consternation of the Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad.

Asia Times Online sat down with Dr Kawa al-Mufti at Change's office in Irbil to learn about a political movement viewed as more progressive than what sometimes passes for a political party in Iraq. Often these are just personality cults based on the adulation of an individual religious or ethnically focused leader, or violent Iranian-sponsored actors with contempt for Western-style democracy.

Mufti spent decades in exile teaching engineering in Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania rather than live in Ba'athist-controlled Iraq. Fitful internecine rivalries among Iraqi Kurdistan's clans had become an anathema to Kurdish intellectuals like Mufti, and the formation of the Movement for Change by Mustafa raised hopes for genuine democracy in the region.

The Change sells itself as a vibrant alternative to the in-fighting and rivalries of the KDP and PUK. Mufti said that the high number of votes his young party received in July represented "the birth of democracy" in Iraqi Kurdistan. He said older parties operating in the region cater mainly to their leadership's own interests and are viewed by the global Kurdish diaspora as largely devoid of new ideas.

Claiming that Change has the support of nearly 80% of educated Kurds living in the West, Mufti said that fears over a renewed period of stagnant policy was drawing Kurds from abroad back to Iraq.

He said much of the foreign military action in Kurdistan, which has been mostly Turkish or Iranian, has been illegitimately justified by a legacy of Kurdish clan disunity and civil war in the mid-1990s.

"The PKK [the Kurdistan Worker's Party waging guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey] is a problem for everyone. Turkey must realize that they cannot solve the Kurdish question through violence. Force may work in the short term, but is rarely a solution for the long term. If there is no problem between the [Kurdish] parties, then we have no need for any foreign military action in Kurdistan."

At different points in the 1990s, at the behest of the KDP and PUK leadership, Turkey and Iran sought to intervene in the Kurdish civil war, furthering their own ethno-nationalist agendas in an effort to deny sanctuary to their respective Kurdish rebels who operated inside the de facto Iraqi-Kurdish state.

As Change sees it, it is not healthy for the future of Kurdistan that warring parties consistently remain in power. "We believe that the future of Iraqi Kurdistan lies with the hopes of our young people here, and also we strongly believe that the rights of women should be respected," Mufti said. "Many people stayed home on election day because they are tired of more elections with the same faces over and over."

According to Change, the recent KRG election was plagued with many of the same problems as have allegedly effected the recent Afghan presidential elections. Ballot-stuffing, vote-buying, bussing in voters and tampering with the ink used to stain voters fingers' had skewed votes toward the traditional players in Kurdistan, he said.

Mufti optimistically described Change's success as an incremental step taken towards reform in Kurdistan's political system, which he said may offer a safer path toward future stability rather than shocking the system all at once. "A gradual process [of reform] is best for us as well as the Americans."

He said he believed much of the voter fraud that occurred must have taken place with a least a minimal acquiescence of the Americans, who might fear a change in the status quo in Iraq's only regularly stable region. Barzani and Talabani, once bitter enemies in the Kurdish civil war, now appear together on billboards and carpets around Iraqi Kurdistan as a visual proclamation of Kurdish unity.

But what unites these very different men is their political and military allegiances to their American sponsors and shared sense of the "Other" with regard to Arab Iraq. Barzani appears as the regal tribal chieftain in traditional baggy shalvar trousers and a kaffiyeh (scarf), while a bespectacled Talabani looks somewhat academic in his suits and relatively Western appearance.

Iraq's Kurdistan region hosts dissident Kurdish groups from across the dismembered segments of post-Ottoman "Greater Kurdistan" (Syria, Turkey and Iran). These groups operate in a mountainous areas devoid of governance outside of the KRG's formal control in the tri-border area of Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

Mufti described the Turks as the obvious regional leader and said that steps taken by the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government towards improving the situation for Turkey's own Kurdish population may help to set an example for Iran, and possibly even Syria, to follow.

"Turkey should be encouraged," said Mufti of Ankara's baby steps towards improving minority human rights within its borders. Mufti said that he believed if Turkey could come to a non-violent resolution with its perpetually restive minority, then Iran may have no choice but to follow in its footsteps.

Iranian-Turkish relations have been growing ever closer in recent years as Turkey's European Union accession hopes have been begun to fade and politics in many European Union states have veered toward rightist platforms fearful of Muslim integration into Europe.

Erdogan has begun to look east and south and sought to strengthen military and trade ties with Tehran and several of the former Ottoman provinces that now make up the modern Middle East. Iran faces multiple internal threats from both ethnic and religious insurgents as well as a surging Afghan drugs trade and a massive backlash among the educated urban class over the vastly controversial June presidential elections.

Iran's Kurds in Iraq are a convenient way of improving ties with Turkey at a time when the Islamic regime is under immense pressure and seeking regional allies more than ever.

On the overall subject of the Kurdistan region harboring its rebellious ethnic brethren, Mufti stated a well-known righteous Kurdish political refrain, "All Kurds are our brothers," while at the same time insisting that Iraq's Kurdish politicians desire "good relations with all of our neighbors".

This inherent contradiction between ethnic solidarity and inter-regional dialogue highlights Kurdistan's place as one of globalization's most tangled, nebulous geopolitical entities. The Kurds, much like the Pashtuns along the Afghan-Pakistan border, represent a massive nation without a state.

The solidification of the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq has given a segment of the Kurdish nation a degree of legitimacy and political maneuverability in the international community. Though the troika of Turkey, Iran and Syria are all starkly different types of modern states, each manages severe Kurdish repression justified by their various chauvinist state structures.

Saddam's Iraq once made this a quartet, but since his fall a boisterous Kurdish democracy in the northern Middle East has forced a strategic rethink for Ankara, Tehran and Damascus. Mufti told Asia Times Online, "We thank America for the removal of Saddam Hussein."

The KRG is naturally conflicted in its role as a truncated Kurdish rump state that can act as an ethnic political enclave and sanctuary for other disaffected Kurds. At the same time it asserts a level of quasi-sovereignty by maintaining relations with its neighbors, bolstering trade and diplomacy advantageous in the event of distant but sought after outright independence.

Having offices in Washington, Ankara and Tehran helps the KRG to distance itself from Baghdad when necessary and creates leverage between it and the Middle East's Arab core with which many Kurds feel little affinity. In that sense, Irbil is playing a game of classic realpolitik.

Change will be selecting and putting forth a set of new candidates for Iraq's national general elections, slated for January 2010, in a bid for seats in Baghdad's parliament. Change says its main agenda is to heal Iraq's internal and regional wounds through non-violent, democratic dialogue.

The Change movement says that Kurdish-Arab relations, with particular respect to the future of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk and related issues pertaining to the sharing of oil revenues, must be resolved through a calm, constitutional process without the background threat of Kalashnikov-wielding, clan-based threats to return to Kurdish infighting.

The group sees itself not as a self-interested political party, but as a group of like-minded civil society people that seek to move Iraq forward. Mufti explained that Change would remain nimble in its outlook, allying itself with the KDP or PUK when their views on Kurdistan meshed, and diverting from the traditional parties when they appeared to be acting out of political self interest rather than what was best for the electorate.

"Our leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, tells our Change parliamentarians, vote for what is good for the people not [necessarily] for the party." For Iraqi Kurdistan, Change appears to represent a genuine break from decades of stalemate and proxy war.

Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Kurdish lessons leave Iraqi Arabs cold (Oct 1, '09)

Kurds turn up the heat on Baghdad
(Aug 6, '09)

US diplomacy leaves Kurds adrift
(Jul 16, '09)


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