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Iraq: Kurdish Factions Struggle To Achieve Unity

  • Charles Recknagel --> Adnan Mufti, leader of the Kurdish National Assembly (RFE/RL) In an effort to maximize their voice in Baghdad, Iraq’s largest Kurdish parties are running as a coalition in the 15 December parliamentary elections. But the alliance’s two key factions -- factions who for years warred with each other -- have so far failed even to create a unified government for the Kurdish autonomous region. What chance, then, of pressing Kurdish demands in the new national legislature?

Irbil, 14 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- There is little doubt how Kurds will vote in parliamentary polls on 15 December. If the last national vote, this January, is any indication (and few doubt it will be), Kurds in northern Iraq will vote overwhelmingly for the Kurdistan Alliance List.

The Alliance comprises the two parties that have dominated Kurdish political life for decades -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- along with a few small parties.

“It is very hard to [propose] a law, to discuss a law, in parliament before we have a single government.”

“It is very hard to [propose] a law, to discuss a law, in parliament before we have a single government.”

Though relations between the two factions have generally been good since a U.S.-brokered deal in the late 1990s and since the election of a unified Kurdish parliament in January, the impact of their past competition for power continues to affect the shape of Kurdish politics and the region’s prospects of democracy.

At times in the past, the two groups have waged war on each other. Today, the KDP and PUK still control separate parts of the Kurdish autonomous region. The northern part of the Kurdish entity is governed from KDP-run Irbil, while the southern part of the region is ruled from PUK-controlled Al-Sulaymaniyah.

Both parts of the region are administered by entirely separate sets of ministers.

The Missing Government

Despite the parties’ electoral alliance, one key step toward reuniting the Iraqi Kurdish region has yet to be taken -- the creation of a single government.

This is hamstringing the Kurdish parliament. Without a unified government, the region’s parliament -- the Kurdish National Assembly -- is largely powerless, argues Adnan Mufti, the Assembly’s president.

"A unified government is very important for us, as a parliament, firstly because we promised our people during the elections [in January] that our key interest is to unify the government. And,” he continues, “it is very hard to [propose] a law, to discuss a law, in parliament before we have a single government.”

In practice, parliament is paralyzed. “Because there are now two administrations we have decided in parliament, particularly in the legislative committee, that it was not in the people's interests to discuss any law before we see a unified government," Mufti says.

Mufti, a top PUK official, gained his position in a power-sharing deal between the two factions ahead of the elections in January, at which Kurds also elected representatives to Iraq's National Assembly.

The two Kurdish factions agreed on several points.

One was to demand that a Kurd should fill a top post in the national government in Baghdad and that the PUK’s leader, Jalal Talabani, should be that man. Talabani is now Iraq's president.

Another was that the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would be the KDP leader Mas'ud Barzani. He now holds that position.

However, confusion about a third point is contributing to the inability to unify the region’s two administrations.

"I don't seen any logical [problem] or obstacle to reunification. We will do that,” says Sadi Pire, who heads the PUK's Irbil branch. “But … we agreed with [the KDP] that the position of prime minister should be rotated – [held] half the time by the KDP, half the time by the PUK, or according to any other formula that we agree upon."

But KDP officials see things differently.

Newzad Hadi, governor of Irbil, says the two sides agreed to a four-year term for prime minister and that the first to hold the position would be Nechirvan Barzani, currently the top KDP official in the Irbil region. "All this had been approved by every party,” Hadi says.

Weakening Their Own Case?

For some Kurdish observers, the disagreement is a measure of how far the two Kurdish factions still have to go to achieve their promised transition to greater democracy in the Kurdish autonomous region.

Behrooz Shojai, a lecturer on civil society at the University of Dohuk, sees the two main factions as two establishments that face little pressure to change. Pressure will only come, he says, when powerful opposition parties emerge -- and there are no strong opposition groups today.

One of the region’s few, small opposition parties -- the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) -- came under attack on 6 December, when its offices in Dohuk and five other towns in the region were torched. Four members of the party were killed.

The leader of the KIU, Salahuddin Muhammad Bahauddin, accused KDP officials that administer the area of organizing the attacks. The KDP denies the charges.

The failure to unify the government’s duplicate administrations into a single government also weakens the Kurds' bargaining position in Baghdad, argues Mufti, the leader of the Kurdish National Assembly.

He says the Kurds need a strong parliament and a strong government if they are to press successfully for one of their key demands: the expansion of the Kurdish autonomous region to include Kirkuk and other towns and villages in northern Iraq.

"If we stay as we are now, we cannot do our best and we will have many problems dealing with Article 136” of the Iraqi constitution, he says. Article 136 obliges the Iraqi government to conduct a census and, by December 2007, to hold a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the final status of these areas.

The Kurds consider full implementation of the article essential to their hopes of recovering what they say are Kurdish territories. Former president Saddam Hussein attached those areas to neighboring governorates with majority Arab or heavily Arab populations.

Iraqi Legislative Elections 2005

RFE/RL's coverage, background, and analysis of Iraq's December 15, 2005, legislative elections.