How a Kurdish dream went up in smoke
Iraqi Kurds have had to give up the dream that oil would help them achieve independence. Citizens blame their leaders, who do not stop quarreling and enriching themselves.
If a new political party were to emerge now in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, it would get more seats in parliament than either of the two current largest parties, while a quarter of voters would not vote at all.
This result of a recent opinion poll is not surprising, considering the crumbling trust in the oldest Kurdish parties KDP and PUK. In the past, however, the rise of new parties has shown that they do not do what is expected of them either, namely, taking care of the citizens. Those interviewed for the pollsters must, therefore, be pretty desperate.
The biggest problem for most parties can be found in their foundation: a family or person, and in the loyalty to them. But they are never based on a party program that focuses on the points citizens find important. Even new parties don’t have those – and in fact, there aren’t really any new parties at the moment. Those that once were, are usually counter-parties: opposition for opposition’s sake, without providing workable alternatives.
What predominates in Kurdish politics is the use of fear for an enemy. Internally, the contrasts that have always existed are magnified, resulting in the KDP and PUK barely governing together anymore. But also externally, towards Baghdad, which is said to always want to cut the Kurds down to size. This is a popular instrument to get Kurds to rally behind their leader.
However, what the poll most of all shows is how fed-up the Kurds are with their leaders and politicians. This is mainly due to the lack of progress resulting from their policies. While taxes are rising (the Kurdish government needs money, it can barely pay its civil servants), just like the prices (under the pressure from the global market and the war in Ukraine), the government is providing fewer services. The hours when an (expensive) neighbourhood generator is needed to supplement government supplied electricity are increasing. While a water tanker is needed more often because there is no water coming from the tap for days on end. Protests are therefore increasing, with supporters of KDP and PUK also participating.
Although new roads are being built (ring roads for Erbil, and a highway from Duhok to Erbil), many other roads go without maintenance. It makes the potholed road surface a danger to traffic. Villages are not being connected, no matter how often the dirt road turns into an impassable mud pool in winter. And no matter how often villagers plead for asphalt.
Iraqi Kurds were promised that all problems would be solved once they started extracting and selling their own oil and gas. They would no longer depend on Baghdad. This has now been proven demonstrably wrong. The reasons are clear, although the politicians blame others. It is due to the power games of the KDP, and the resistance to it from a divided PUK. To self-enrichment and corruption. But above all, because of the unwillingness to cooperate with each other.
Things went terribly wrong when the 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence upset both Baghdad and foreign allies and sponsors. Not only did Erbil lose its influence in the so-called Kurdistani areas (claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad). It also lost control over the oil city of Kirkuk. And that was just the beginning.
Because in this way, Baghdad managed to increase its influence over the Kurdistan Region. And next, the Federal Supreme Court, the highest Iraqi court, got involved. And it ruled that the postponement of the Kurdish parliamentary elections at the end of last year had been illegal. A number of decisions taken since then is declared to be void, and the Kurdistan government has been given a caretaker status until a new parliament is elected.
That delay last year was agreed upon only because KDP and PUK could not agree on adjustments to the electoral law. This even led to Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani boycotting cabinet meetings for months. Only under American pressure and threats to withdraw their support for the Peshmerga forces of both parties, was this resolved.
These conflicts also cloud the Kurdish relationship with Turkey – which is pursuing and bombing the Turkish-Kurdish PKK on the territory of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The PUK allows the PKK to operate in areas under its control, while the KDP does not obstruct Turkey’s attacks in the slightest. Baghdad plays its own role; it views the PKK as a foreign militia operating on Iraqi territory and wants to establish a military cordon around its main camp, Makhmour, only kilometers away from Erbil.
Kurdish citizens despairingly shake their heads over all this, increasingly losing their faith in the problem-solving abilities of their administrators. Another interesting survey indicates that as many as eighty percent of Kurds believe it is to their advantage that the Kurdistan Region has lost its independent oil extraction to Baghdad. Only seventeen percent think otherwise.
Because that is the latest big blow that the Kurds have had to absorb, which is again the result of all that internal strife. For years, they had insisted that according to the Iraqi constitution of 2005, the oil belongs to all Iraqis. That would give the Kurdistan government the right to sign contracts with oil companies and export oil without involving Baghdad. In February, the Federal Supreme Court once again ruled that this Kurdish policy was against the constitution. A month later Baghdad won an arbitration case against Turkey, thus preventing it from exporting Kurdish oil without Baghdad’s intervention.
All oil exports came to a halt – and remain so, which means a loss of billions of dollars in revenue. This forced Erbil and Baghdad to reach an agreement, where the Kurds had to give up their independence on this issue as well. The 400,000 barrels that Kurdistan produces daily are transferred to the Iraqi state company SOMO, which deposits its revenues in a separate account that is under the control of Erbil but supervised by Baghdad.
The agreement was passed in the Iraqi parliament as part of the Iraqi government budget. But not without a fierce quarrel between KDP and PUK. The latter accuses the former of monopolizing oil revenues, thereby leaving insufficient money for the PUK province of Sulaymaniya. The PUK managed to push through an article that allows provinces in a region to ask Baghdad for a separate budget if they do not receive a fair share of the total regional budget.
The KDP was furious and announced that it would appeal the decision. Prime Minister Masrour Barzani even called the Kurdish parties who voted for it traitors. “History will not forget the Kurdish traitors,” he threatened. Fact is, that the controversial article once again gives more power to the federal government in Baghdad.
During the budget voting in the Iraqi parliament, Kurdish discord was the subject of jokes and schadenfreude. For the PUK did something that the Kurds have been guilty of more often: collaborating with the enemy. Under the old adage: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they have formed imprudent coalitions before. The most notorious being the KDP’s alliance with Saddam Hussein in 1996, during the Kurdish civil war, to drive the PUK out of Erbil. The PUK has never forgiven the Barzanis for this.
The Kurds in Iraq are weaker than ever before. The dream of independence has disappeared beyond the horizon. Baghdad, Iran, and Turkey have more power than ever. And the Kurdish citizens blame their leaders for this. Ultimately, it is their unwillingness to cooperate that has burst the dream of an independent state for all Kurds like it was merely a soap bubble.