|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
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
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
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
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.
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