Kurdish Objectives in Iraq’s Political Crisis
May 21, 2016 - Emily Anagnostos
Key Takeaway: Iraqi politics are deadlocked. Several political parties and blocs boycotted the Council of Representatives (CoR) following the Sadrist protesters’ first breach of the Green Zone on April 30. The Kurdish Alliance, a bloc that consisted of nearly one-fifth of the CoR, withdrew on May 5. The bloc has now split, and two of its component political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran, formally reunited on May 14 to create a new bloc. The PUK and Gorran were incentivized by the urgent need for financial assistance to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and likely by Iranian urging. A loan from the IMF in which Baghdad and the KRG will have a share proved decisive in incentivizing their cohesion. The PUK-Gorran Alliance will therefore likely strengthen ties between Baghdad and Arbil. Their rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), retains ambitions of regional independence and a stranglehold on political power in the KRG. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) will either have to reintegrate or seek new political partners. The PUK and Gorran will likely eventually return to the CoR. Although they are still negotiating with the KDP, Kurdish parties are unlikely to return the CoR as one entity, ending what had been a significant, cohesive bloc. The new political alliance will nevertheless shift the power dynamics of both Baghdad and Arbil.
The Kurdistan Alliance has been the framework under which Kurdish political parties have formed a consensus agenda in the Iraqi Parliament since 2005 elections. The Kurdistan Alliance since 2014 elections had been comprised of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), and Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), the five of which constituted the entirety of Kurdish representation in the Iraqi parliament and are the five largest parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). These five political parties are answerable to both the politics of Baghdad and those of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Kurdistan Alliance has primarily aimed to maintain Kurdish influence within the Iraqi Government in order to guarantee financial and budgetary assistance for the KRG.
The Kurdistan Alliance persistently blocked Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s attempt to create a technocratic government through his cabinet reshuffle, proposed first on February 9, 2015. The bloc has insisted on retaining the ethnic and sectarian quotas that ensure Kurdish representation within the government, preserve Kurdish control over ministries, and ensure that the Iraqi Presidency remains in Kurdish hands. The bloc’s goal in the reforms was retaining positions for Kurdish leaders, such as Minister of Finance Hoshyar Zebari, a member of the KDP. PM Abadi’s reform plans, however, seek to end the quota system on principle which threatens guaranteed Kurdish representation and may lead to a decrease in Kurdish representation.
The Kurdish parties had presented a unified bloc in Baghdad until May 1, while within the KRG they have been fractious and struggling with one another for power. KRG President Masoud Barzani has retained his office past when his term limit ended in 2013 when the legal council in the KRG parliament twice granted him a two year extension, first in August 2013 and then in August 2015, granting him full powers until the 2017 parliamentary elections. His rivals in the Gorran Party, the second largest party in the KRG, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) denounced this extension, calling for new presidential elections and even for a new form of government. The political crisis split the KRG on October 12, 2015 when the KDP blamed Gorran for the large-scale anti-KDP demonstrations which erupted in Sulaimaniyah Province over unpaid salaries. The KDP expelled Gorran from the KRG, demanding that Gorran not return to the government until they had replaced several Gorran members whom the KDP blamed for the political tensions. The split in the KRG has continued since then without resolution. The KDP and Gorran have yet to reconcile and Gorran has not returned to the Kurdish Government in Arbil. The PUK attempted to act as a mediator between the five main political parties in the KRG in early 2016 in order to restore Gorran to the KRG. All five Kurdish parties met on February 3 for the first time since October 2015. They were scheduled to meet again on February 7 in the presence of Masoud Barzani, but the KDP “indefinitely delayed” these negotiations for reconciliation. These divisions have created incentives for Gorran and PUK to try to thwart Barzani’s consolidation of power, and even to seek recourse in Baghdad to achieve those gains.
The Kurdistan Alliance Withdraws from Baghdad Politics
The Kurdistan Alliance withdrew from Iraq’s Council of Representatives in Baghdad, outraged over the failure of security forces to secure the CoR building during the April 30 protests, when Sadrist Trend-driven protesters stormed the Green Zone and the parliamentary building and physically assaulted Kurdish CoR members. Those assaulted included PUK senior member Ala Talabani, niece of PUK founder Jalal Talabani, and Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad. The Kurdish parties left for Iraqi Kurdistan on May 1 after escaping the Green Zone and announced that they would not return to Baghdad until their physical safety was guaranteed. One Kurdish CoR member stated that there was “no hope in the current government” to contain the crisis, and called CoR Speaker Salim Juburi’sefforts to resolve the crisis as temporary and incapable of being implemented. The Kurdish parties on May 5 refused to come back to the CoR for the next session, originally scheduled for 10 May.
The Kurdistan Alliance’s withdrawal from Baghdad represents a major inflection point in the Iraqi political crisis because the Kurdish parties control a significant proportion of the CoR and have the ability to help determine a quorum as well as advance and dismiss legislation. Their unified walk-out gave the Kurds a new source of leverage over the CoR, as Iraq’s political process remains paralyzed without their participation.
The Kurdistan Alliance’s Demands
President Masoum met with senior ISCI member Adil Abdul-Mahdi on May 6 to discuss the political crisis and future plans in the Ministry of Oil, especially regarding the mission of self-sufficiency in the oil industry. The Kurdish demands regarding oil and gas laws were likely a central focus of this conversation as a solution to resume the political process in Baghdad. Kurdish demands also included addressing Article 140 in the Constitution regarding the disputed status of Kirkuk Province, a highly controversial topic which will not be resolved in these negotiations. President Masoum continued to meet with other political parties with significant clout in the Iraqi Government, including meetings with ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim, National Alliance leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and SLA leader Nouri al-Maliki all individually on May 9, where Masoum likely acted as mediator between political parties in order to relay the financial prerequisites of the Kurdish CoR members’ return and hear the negotiating terms from these three Shi’a political leaders. These negotiations were not decisive and failed to draw the Kurdish political parties back to Baghdad.
Most Kurdish demands of Baghdad were driven by money rather than security. Initially, the Kurds maintained that the primary condition of their return to Baghdad was a guarantee that the events of April 30 would not repeat, calling it a “black day” in Iraqi political history. But the Kurdish political bloc continued to pursue its enduring demands for legislation in Baghdad on the core issues of revenue sharing, budget relief, and the status of the disputed internal boundaries (DIBs) that it wishes to incorporate into the Kurdish region. The KRG currently struggles to pay the salaries of both its government employees and its Peshmerga forces and, like Baghdad, is burdened with falling global oil prices. The Kurdish Alliance thus replaced the blustering of the previous days in order to demand more tangible financial concessions from Baghdad. These demands include the payment of government and Peshmerga salaries and implementation of oil and gas laws which would help the KRG’s floundering economic situation. They were relayed between various political parties by Iraqi President Fuad Masoum, a senior member of the PUK who also speaks on behalf of the Kurdish parties in Baghdad’s power politics.
The Kurds also issued a set of demands which were both unreasonable and unattainable. The walk out on May 1 was coupled with the publication of an op-ed by Masrour Barzani, nephew of KRG President Masoud Barzani, calling for an “amicable divorce” from Baghdad on May 5. The KDP thereby added the threat of declaring independence to the list of demands. Masoud Barzani announced back on January 26 that he would seek to hold a referendum before the U.S. 2016 presidential elections, likely using the upcoming U.S. elections as a tangible deadline to foster a sense of imminent change.
Baghdad Vies for Kurds to Return
The threat that Kurdish parties would withdraw indefinitely, and possibly permanently, from Baghdad changed the ongoing negotiations among Iraqi Government leaders who immediately prioritized negotiations for the Kurdistan Alliance’s return. But because Baghdad’s leaders were themselves fractured over Abadi’s reforms among other issues, several political groups within Baghdad will vie for the Kurds’ return to the CoR and into new political agreements. The emerging Reform Front, created from the rump parliament session onApril 27, seeks Kurdish membership in its efforts to reach a quorum. Abadi hopes to court the Kurds back into the political process in order to resume his reform legislation and to block the Reform Front’s efforts to changing the status quo.
CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi was among the first to visit some Kurdish parties in order to secure their return to the political process in Baghdad, but he went to Sulaimaniyah, the headquarters of the PUK, rather than the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Arbil where the KDP prevails. Juburi’s outreach to Kurdish leaders on May 8 appeared to be relegated to the Kurdish opposition parties of the PUK and Gorran, with Juburi visiting recently-returned Gorran leader Nushirwan Mustafa, who had returned to the Kurdistan Region on April 28 after seven months in London seeking medical treatment. The timing of his return is not coincidental. Juburi also met with Gorran Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad and PUK leader Ala Talabani. Gorran and the PUK stand to lose from continued political absence and are less committed ideologically to an independent Kurdish Region as the KDP. They also have stakes in removing the political stranglehold of President Barzani over KRG politics.
The international community, led by Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq Jan Kubis, finally achieved a breakthrough that softened some Kurdish parliamentarians’ hardline stance against their return to the CoR by appealing to financial interests. Kubis carried out a series of meetings in both Sulaimaniyah, the headquarters of the PUK, and Arbil, the headquarters of the KDP, on May 8, where he reminded the Kurdish parties that they would have access to the much needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan only if they participated in the government in Baghdad. Iraq stands to gain significant financial support from a proposed $15 billion loan from the IMF over the next three years. The KRG, as a part of Iraq, would stand to inherit a portion of that fund, which, if approved, is slated to release the first of three installments in June 2016. The prospect of massive financial support through the IMF loan is further enticement for Kurdish parties to remain active in the Baghdad government.
The Kurdish Alliance Fractures
The Kurdistan Alliance has formally fractured over these financial incentives. The threat of no international financial assistance has motivated several Kurdish CoR members to walk away from stringent Kurdish demands of independence and from the KDP. The Iraqi Government has continued to court Kurdish opposition parties, who are the most likely to soften at prospects of the IMF loan, as Prime Minister Abadi personally sent a delegation to Sulaimaniyah on May 12 to meet with PUK member Ala Talabani and Gorran Second Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad. The IMF loan was the weight needed to break apart the Kurdistan Alliance. Gorran and the PUK announced on May 14 that they had ratified a new political alliance. The two announced that they would run on the same list in 2017 elections and would coordinate in political efforts in the KRG, in the CoR, and in provincial governments.
The new PUK-Gorran Alliance will seek alternative demands and negotiations for participation in Baghdad and will be more willing to cooperate with the federal government than the KDP in order to achieve their financial demands. A Reform Front member made an unconfirmed report on May 13 that suggested that the PUK-Gorran Alliance and Baghdad plan to carry out significant financial negotiations including handing over oil sales to Baghdad in exchange for Baghdad providing salaries for Kurdish employees in Sulaimaniyah, Kirkuk, and Arbil provinces.The PUK and Gorran are not in favor of declaring independence of Iraqi Kurdistan at this time, and a senior PUK official, Mulla Bakhtiar, noted during Juburi’s May 8 visit that “we are still a part of Iraq.” Deputy Prime Minister of the KRG and PUK member Qubad Talabani later stated on May 15 that now was not the time for Kurdish independence, pointing specifically to the KRG’s weak economy and infrastructure. The KRG, with the PUK-Gorran Alliance in charge, would remain a part of Iraq and would seek negotiations with Baghdad.
The PUK and Gorran together have 29 CoR members (originally 30; one Gorran member has joined the Reform Front) to the KDP’s 25. Currently 216 of 328 CoR members are assessed to be boycotting CoR sessions, the possible return of the new PUK-Gorran Alliance would likely influence other blocs, notably the Sunni Etihad bloc with roughly 40 active members, to return as well. (The current size of Etihad is unclear, as some members have joined the Reform Front, but Etihad likely retains a sizeable number of members.) These additions could put the CoR in range of meeting quorum and resuming sessions. The KIU and KIG may also be persuaded to follow the PUK-Gorran lead and return their seven CoR members to Baghdad. The Reform Front will try to court the PUK-Gorran Alliance to join their bloc in order to sway the CoR majority in their favor. Nouri al-Maliki praised the new PUK-Gorran Alliance on May 18 as an “important step” to overcoming divisions within the Kurdistan Region and “an overall understanding with Baghdad.” The Reform Front will likely increase relations with the new alliance in the coming days in order to persuade the PUK-Gorran Alliance to considering rejoining the CoR as a part of the Reform Front.
Note: ISW has tracked Iraq’s building political crisis since early February, following political reforms proposed by Prime Minister Abadi and the challenges to them. The Council of Representatives (CoR) has also faced challenges from an increasingly fractious set of parties some of which have attempted to break off from the CoR and form a “rump” Parliament that later morphed into a new opposition bloc, the Reform Front, composed of members from various parties. As with all political maneuvering, ISW has relied on media reporting as well as our own assessment of likely political coordination, cooperation, and alignment among and between individuals and parties. We are currently re-examining our methodology in light of recent maneuvers and statements leading up to the CoR Ramadan break and will update our CoR graphic when that analysis is completed.
Iran and the New PUK-Gorran Alliance
Iran has used its historic relationship with the PUK in order to facilitate this Kurdish political reorganization consistent with their interests: preventing Kurdish independence, marginalizing Barzani, and returning to a stability in Baghdad consistent with the status quo prior to protests. Iranian representatives therefore conducted a series of meetings with the PUK after the April 30 protests, likely in an effort to steer them politically and guide their demands. Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danaifar met with KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani on May 3 to discuss the political crisis. Danaifar met on May 4 with Second Deputy Secretary General of the PUK Barham Salih in an unpublicized meeting that did not reach vetted media. Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi likewise visited both PM NechirvanBarzani and President Masoud Barzani in Arbil on May 15, the latter of whom Alavi invited to visit Tehran. Alavi then with Barham Salih and First Deputy Secretary General of the PUK Kusrat Rasul Ali in another unpublicized meeting in Sulaimaniyah on May 15. Iran likely has their own requests of the PUK and Gorran, including the return of the Kurdish political parties to Baghdad in order to restore stability in the Iraqi government. The Iranians have likewise used their relationship with the PUK to corral President Masoud Barzani’s move towards independence and attempts to monopolize power.
The KDP Reacts
The new PUK-Gorran Alliance is also large enough to be a formidable rival to the KDP in KRG. The PUK became the third largest party within the KRG after the 2013 parliamentary elections when Gorran split from its ranks and formed its own party, seizing 24 seats in the KRG parliament and reducing the size of the PUK from 29 seats in 2009 to 18 seats in 2013. The KDP remains the largest party with 38 seats. As 2017 elections in the KRG approach and as President Barzani continues to remain as president beyond his term limit, the re-merger between the PUK and Gorran, which at current numbers would boast a combined 42 seats in the KRG parliament, could pose a significant political driver and perhaps a threat to Barzani, who has occupied his office since since 2005. The KDP unsurprisingly denounced the new alliance as “deepening internal issues” within the KRG on May 18.
The KDP is now fracturing internally. Some members still call for independence. One KDP CoR member stated on May 10 that the “partnership between Baghdad and Arbil has collapsed.” President Masoud Barzani’s speech on the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on May 16 called for recognition that the Sykes-Picot had “ended” and to treat Iraq as a “brother and neighbor” and no longer a partner. These strong condemnations of continued contact with Baghdad contradict actions and statements made by other ranking KDP members.
Other KDP members would prefer to remain in Baghdad politics. KDP member and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari met with President Fuad Masoum on May 11 about the impending IMF loan. KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani stated on May 12 that “as long as we are part of Iraq, we should not be cut off from the political process,” calling for the Kurdish CoR members to return to Baghdad. Nechirvan Barzani’s statement echoes sentiments closer to PUK official Mulla Bakhtiar than to KDP associates and family members. Some KDP members may therefore return to the CoR on their own accord.
Alternatively, the lack of cohesion in rhetoric may be a way for the KDP to maintain its political leverage. President Masoud Barzani’s continued rhetoric requires political negotiators in Baghdad – whether it is Abadi or the Reform Front – to likewise increase their bids for the KDP’s return. Meanwhile, PM Nechirvan Barzani and key KDP officials like Zebari continue to soothe Baghdad’s concerns that their bids are unreceived and provide continued physical contact between the KDP and Baghdad. The KDP will not relinquish power easily, whether in Baghdad or Arbil, and will play all its cards in order to make Baghdad cater to its demands..
Baghdad Sweetens the Deal
President Fuad Masoum arrived in Arbil on May 16 and May 17, meeting with President Masoud Barzani and later with Vice President Qubad Talabani to stress the importance of political solutions. Masoum also met with PUK founder Jalal Talabani and with Gorran leader Nushirwan Mustafa in Sulaimaniyah on May 19 to congratulate the new PUK-Gorran Alliance and discuss the return to Baghdad. Masoum seeks to bring the Kurds back to Baghdad while maintaining the cohesion in the Kurdish bloc.
On May 17, the Iraqi Central Bank, managed by Ali al-Alaaq, announced that it will open a branch in the Kurdistan Region as the result of talks between the “federal government” and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. Alaaq, a prominent member of the Dawa Party, was part of the delegation personally sent by PM Abadi to meet with PUK and Gorran officials in Sulaimaniyah on May 12. The opening of a banking establishment in Arbil that is directly and inherently connected to Baghdad suggests long-term coordination between Baghdad and Arbil and an intent to establish continued relations. The opening also underscores that the Kurdistan Region will not move for independence any time soon and instead will continue negotiations that allow for long-term financial support from the Iraqi Government in return for the Kurdish parties’ return to the CoR. Additionally, the announcement on May 19 that the IMF has a $5.4 billion standby agreement to Iraq, with the ability to receive up to $15 billion from international aid over three years, and the rumor that the Kurds wouldreceive 17% of this loan, adds further pressure and enticement for the Kurds to remain active in the Baghdad political process. The personal visit of Oil Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to visit President Masoud Barzani in Arbil on May 19 also suggests that the KRG and Baghdad will continue to conduct financial agreements. These signs of the KRG’s continued financial dependence on Baghdad indicates that all Kurdish parties will return to the CoR, however it is unclear when they will return and if they return as a cohesive bloc or separate entities.
Will the Kurds Return to Parliament?
The fracture of the Kurdistan Alliance will force the Kurdish parties to reevaluate their positions in both Baghdad and Arbil. It is unlikely that the Kurdistan Alliance as it existed before April 30 will remain. The new PUK-Gorran Alliance will shift the power dynamics within the Kurdish political parties. The PUK and Gorran are likely to return to the CoR as negotiations, primarily over the IMF loan, continue. The KDP may return as well, but it is unclear if it will return within the framework of the PUK-Gorran Alliance or outside of it. The new PUK-Gorran Alliance will likely work more closely with the Abadi government in Baghdad.
PM Abadi may find the Kurdish parties with the PUK-Gorran Alliance at the helm a more malleable and open-minded political ally that can help him retain his control over the government and keep pro-Maliki political forces at bay. The PUK and Gorran will likely soften their position on Baghdad’s oversight in northern Iraq if Baghdad can guarantee substantial financial support to the alliance’s primary support base in Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk provinces. The PUK-Gorran Alliance’s current disinclination towards Kurdish independence will also ease the concerns of Abadi, Iran, and the U.S. which seek a unitary Iraq.
The KDP may seek new partners within the CoR in order to maintain its relevance as the PUK-Gorran bloc moves ahead. Maliki’s Reform Front is trying to entice it, a dangerous course of action because it could empower the Abadi government’s main challenger. But the PUK-Gorran alliance itself is also negotiating for the KDP’s return, and it can offer a combination of concessions in Arbil and Baghdad that help stabilize both, a tremendous boon for an Iraqi government on the verge of collapse.