Growing Instability in Iraqi Kurdistan

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Growing Instability in Iraqi Kurdistan

September 30, 2013 | 1415 GMT


Iraqi Kurdish security forces gather at the site of a car bomb explosion in Arbil on Sept. 29.
Just as the results of a controversial local election in Iraqi Kurdistan confirmed that the power balance between the two main Kurdish parties has been broken, a large — and rare — suicide bombing rocked the security headquarters in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil on Sept. 29, killing seven people and injuring dozens of others. Iraqi Kurdistan has long tried to set itself apart from the rest of Iraq and the wider region as an oasis of political stability and security worthy of attracting foreign investment, but a number of factors are converging to erode that image.


One year ago, Stratfor forecast that the balance of power between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, would come under grave strain. This power balance has survived most of the past decade, ever since the two parties signed a power-sharing agreement in 2005 following the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.

That agreement, designed to prevent another civil war between the rival Kurdish parties and to take advantage of the removal of one of their biggest threats, created a united regional government and formalized a long-standing arrangement between the two parties: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan administered the southeastern province of Sulaimaniyah, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party administered the northwestern provinces of Arbil and Dahuk, with each side tending to its own political patronage networks and maintaining its own security forces.


But the Kurdish power balance also bred high levels of corruption that eventually led to the rise of the Goran movement, a party that split from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 2009 to attract Kurdish youths and anyone else disillusioned by the existing duopoly. Support for the Goran party steadily grew, particularly in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s domain of Sulaimaniyah. Goran’s rise was aided by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s own leadership crisis after Talabani became too ill to perform his duties and left for Germany in 2012, where he remains hospitalized.


Both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party recognized the growing threat to their power base, but Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party was clearly in a much stronger position than the internally divided Patriotic Union of Kurdistan that was hemorrhaging supporters to the Goran movement. In the absence of Talabani, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan faced little choice but to accede to the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s move to extend Barzani’s tenure as president of the regional government for an additional two years despite a political arrangement in which the two parties would rotate the presidency. The Kurdistan Democratic Party then tried to use its advantage to force the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan into submission, claiming it was doing its rival party a favor by keeping it on a joint list in elections and evenly dividing up the political offices of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Kurdistan Democratic Party’s rhetoric only further undermined the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the face of its constituency, leading the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to take the risk of running on separate tickets in the latest regional election.


That gamble evidently did not pay off. The Independent High Electoral Commission, after delaying the release of the results by a week, announced Sept. 29 that the Kurdistan Democratic Party came in first place with 719,004 votes and that the Goran movement had taken second place with 446,095 votes. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan came in third with 323,867 votes, less than half of what the Kurdistan Democratic Party earned. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is now fracturing over how to move forward, and it has no credible leadership to navigate it through this crisis.


The Kurdistan Democratic Party has invited the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to join the party in a coalition, wherein the Kurdistan Democratic Party would essentially be subsidizing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s loss in political support. Not wanting to succumb to the leading party on these terms, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has so far resisted the offer, and a faction of the leadership is contemplating whether the party can survive in the opposition. No matter which direction the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan goes in the wake of these elections, old but stalwart frictions between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan will become more visible and threaten the anomalous Kurdish unity that the region has experienced over the past decade.


Local jihadists, Baghdad and regional neighbors will all exploit the rise in intra-Kurdish tensions. The Sept. 29 bombing in Arbil, claimed by local jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq, was a reminder that the Kurdish region is not immune to the growing jihadist threat in the surrounding area. In the latest attack, a suicide bomber driving a minibus reportedly tried to storm the security headquarters in Arbil. The last time a bombing on this scale occurred in Iraqi Kurdistan was in 2007, when the Interior Ministry building in Arbil was attacked. The Kurdistan Regional Government has been trying to beef up security measures by banning cars with license plates from outside the area and digging ditches around the autonomous region, but these measures are not foolproof, particularly as jihadist activity in the region escalates because of the crisis in neighboring Syria.


Baghdad will meanwhile try to exploit the instability in Iraqi Kurdistan to thwart ongoing plans by the Kurdistan Regional Government and Turkey to circumvent Baghdad’s control in exporting Kurdish crude oil through an alternative pipeline. The project is building up to a point where the Kurdistan Regional Government, together with Turkey, will have to make a political decision on whether to complete construction of the pipeline and sort out a payment mechanism in defiance of Baghdad, but Turkey will be less willing to engage in such a confrontation when the Kurdish political landscape is in flux. Kurdish instability in Iraq will only further complicate Turkey’s designs for the region, as Kurdish militants in Syria seeking autonomy continue to battle jihadists near the border with Turkey and as Ankara faces numerous obstacles in its dragging peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.