While Fighting Islamists, Iraq’s Kurds Succumb to Rivalries

Decades-old rivalries resurface in the north of Iraq at the same time as Kurds are fighting the Islamic State.

President Masoud Barzani of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government meets with American officials in Washington DC, May 7
President Masoud Barzani of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government meets with American officials in Washington DC, May 7 (DoD/Glenn Fawcett)

Even as Kurdish troops struggle to keep fanatics of the self-declared Islamic State at bay, their leaders in northern Iraq are succumbing to decades-old rivalries that threaten to undo the spectacular progress the region has made.

The Kurds are often praised in the West for the bravery and tenacity they have demonstrated in fighting off Islamic State militants who still control much of the east of Iraq as well as territory across the border in Syria.

The previously relatively stable politics of Irbil, the regional capital, also contrasted favorably with the ongoing sectarian infighting in Baghdad, luring international energy companies and investors to the region.

But the rivalries that led to a civil war two decades ago remained unresolved and have recently resurfaced.

The Washington Post reports that the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), one of the region’s two most powerful factions, has come under intensifying criticism as its struggles to pay out public-sector salaries.

Adding fuel to the fire is Masoud Barzani’s refusal to step down as regional president even though his mandate expired in August.

Tensions reached a boiling point earlier this month when several people were killed in attacks on KDP offices in the eastern Sulaymaniyah Province, the heartland of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Falling oil prices and the war against Islamic State have drained the autonomous government’s coffers. But the root cause of the present political crisis is the KDP’s clientelism.

In power since 2005, Barzani — son of the famed Kurdish nationalist leader Mustafa — has presided over a huge expansion of the regional Kurdistan economy. But institutional reform has been lacking while the main benefactors of the oil boom, according to the Brookings Institution’s Luay al-Khatteeb, have been Barzani’s allies. Iraqi Kurdistan, he argues, has fallen victim to a resource curse.

Like countless governments with vast oil wealth before them, the Barzani clan have built the system on oil cash and it has come crashing down just as the price of oil has fallen.

Leading the charge against Barzani is Gorran (“Change”), a PUK offshoot that won almost a quarter of the votes in the most recent legislative elections. It accuses the regional president of staging a “coup d’état against state institutions” in Kurdistan. Six of the party’s lawmakers were recently denied entry into Irbil.

The KDP and PUK fought a civil war in the 1990s that led to the establishment of rival administrations in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. The Barzani regime in Irbil at one time collaborated with Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Baghdad. Yet it emerged as the most powerful faction in the Kurdistan Regional Government after Hussein was overthrown in an American-led invasion in 2003.

The two parties still control separate peshmerga units and guard border crossings between the areas they control.

Complicating relations between the two parties is competition between their patrons: Turkey and Iraq. The former supports Barzani’s KDP and has traded oil with his government despite objections from Baghdad. The PUK, whose territories are on the Iranian border, has traditionally enjoyed closer relations with Tehran.