Kurdistan — a territory between Iraq and hard places

Kurdistan — a territory between Iraq and hard places
Peshmerga fighters west of Kirkuk city in 2015. (Photo: Khalil al-A’nei / EPA)

Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the United States, reminded that ‘The world is full of fools and faint hearts; and yet everyone has courage enough to bear the misfortunes, and wisdom enough to manage the affairs of his neighbour.’ He may not, however, have been to Iraqi Kurdistan, a self-governing territory that survives and has prospered in spite of its neighbours.

Az Zubayr, a town of around 250,000 people, sits just south of the Iraqi city of Basra. At the time of the invasion to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, Basra had grown to more than three million people, most of them Shia and many so-called “Marsh Arabs” (or Maʻdān) who had been forcibly relocated by the Iraqi dictator who had drained their wetlands and removed their livelihoods in retribution for the failed 1991 Shia uprisings, converting the area into a desert.

In August 2004, in a meeting with government officials, I asked an official in Zubayr how he identified himself. His answer: “Muslim”. I gingerly probed further. He responded with “Shia”, then “Maʻdān”, “Zubayr”, “Arab” and, finally, “Iraqi”.

It was a personal ah-ha moment on the Iraqi war, a fast-changing puzzle of self and issues that played out in the following two decades. Identity is a complex issue, as are the domestic and regional relationships that lie behind it. Changing one dimension inevitably creates problems and challenges in other areas. 

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein listens as a list of charges that he and 11 other high-level defendants were to face is read in an Iraqi courtroom, on 1 July 2004 in Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo: Getty Images / STR)

That’s not to say the world is not a better place for Saddam’s passing, a man responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and perhaps as much as a million more in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War which he kicked off in September 1980. From the start, he was the prototype strongman, monstrously brutal yet politically cunning, a master of the politics of redistribution. 

Having taken over formally as Iraq’s leader in July 1979, just six days later he staged an internal party purge, a psycho-drama carried on live television, its black and white images complete with public admissions of guilt, scenes of the denounced (and soon to be executed) being forcibly led out of the hall, and Saddam’s own flamboyant cigar-puffing theatre. His feared secret police, or Mukhabarat (literally, “communications”) carried out much of his dirty work, assassinating dissidents at home and abroad. No one knows how many people were killed under Saddam’s regime, but estimates on domestic deaths and disappearances run as high as half a million, plus another three million Iraqis (among a nation of 17 million by 1990) who were forced to emigrate. 

“Saddam was a monster,” says Daban Shadala, the deputy foreign minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi’s north, “and it is better for all of us that he was removed.”

The Kurdish population of northern Iraq suffered disproportionately under Saddam, an estimated 182,000 losing their lives alone during the 1987-88 Anfal, a systematically genocidal campaign. By the time the campaign ended in fall 1988, 4,500 Kurdish towns and villages had been destroyed. 

Sulaymaniyah’s Amna Suraka (“lest we forget”) museum, housed in the former Mukhabarat headquarters, details the atrocities committed by Saddam’s regime. There was no presumption of innocence, no stone left unturned if Saddam thought he saw a threat — women and children were not immune to a machine that had no bounds in its ruthless, imaginative methods. A separate section details the war with Islamic State between 2014 and 2017, in which 8,000 Kurds lost their lives in stopping Isis reaching Baghdad. It illustrates a proud, stubborn and bloody Kurdish history in a rough neighbourhood. 

Ottoman collapse, Iraqi opportunity

The Kurdish minority had long been a thorn in Saddam’s Sunni side, as had the Iraqi majority Shia. Kurdish resistance to Baghdad’s rule and the desire for autonomy was rooted in a combination of their distinct cultural identity and the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the World War 1. 

The British response was to create “Iraq” — a seventh century name meaning “well-rooted country” — whose boundaries largely mimicked the territories of three Ottoman provinces. The selection of this land was partly to keep Turkey to the north and Iran to the east in check, and partly to maintain British interests over Iraq’s burgeoning oil production. A Hashemite royal, Faisal, was installed as King on 23 August 1921.

“It was an amazing thing to see all Iraq, from North to South, gathered together,” wrote Gertrude Bell, a British colonial official who had recommended Faisal to her government and would remain his adviser. “It is the first time it has happened in history.”

It was the last time too, despite tremendous resources. With the world’s fifth-largest proven crude oil reserves at 145 billion barrels, Iraq today produces around 3.3 million barrels per day. At an average production and transport cost estimated around $12 per barrel, at current prices this endowment should offer a huge development windfall. But so far it has failed to do so, the reason centring on politics, domestically and internationally. 

And it’s been like this for the best part of a century. 

On 14 July 1958, Iraq’s constitutional monarchy came to a brutal end when troops led by Colonel Abd al-Karim Qasim stormed the palace in Baghdad and killed King Faisal II, the 23-year-old grandson of the first monarch, and several of his relatives. The Ramadan Revolution in January 1963 led by the Ba’ath (meaning “renaissance”) Party under General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr killed now Prime Minister Qasim, while a palace coup in November 1963 saw pro-Nasserist Iraqi officers take over from the Ba’athists. By then Baghdad was at war with the Kurds in a struggle for greater autonomy in the north, that phase ending with a decisive Kurdish victory at the Battle of Mount Handrin

In April 1966, President Abdul Salam Arif was killed in a helicopter crash, being succeeded by his brother, General Abdul Rahman Arif. The Ba’ath Party retook power two years later when Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr returned to become president and chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). A peace deal ending the First Kurdish-Iraqi War was reached in March 1970, providing for a measure of Kurdish autonomy. The relationship once more however deteriorated with the Arabisation of the rich oil fields in the north, especially around Kirkuk, starting the Second Kurdish-Iraqi War between 1974/5. This phase ended in Kurdish collapse and the exile of the Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).

Then, following Saddam’s takeover from his Tikriti kinsman al-Bakr in 1979, the country descended into an even more turbulent period with the Iran-Iraq War, and the Anfal phase of the war against the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), which had split with the KDP in 1975. 

Resonance of cruelty

Saddam’s brutality touched the moral bottom when his cousin, General Ali Hassan al-Majid, ordered an attack using gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja on 16 March 1988 in the final months of the war with Iran. PUK fighters, allied with Iran, whose border was just 11km away, had taken the town the previous day. There is a recording of al-Majid — who acquired the moniker “Chemical Ali” as a result — boasting: “I will kill them all with chemical weapons. Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck the international community and those who listen to them!”


General Ali Hassan al Majeed, known as ‘Chemical Ali’ stands next to his wife during a referendum on 15 October 2002 in Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo: Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images)

After Saddam’s forces attacked the occupying Peshmerga (literally, “those who face death”) with artillery and air strikes, the Kurdish fighters withdrew from Halabja to the surrounding hills, leaving behind women, children and the elderly. The following day, 16 March 1988, the town was bombed by Iraqi jets with a cocktail of mustard, VX and Sarin gas, many of the ingredients for which had been supplied by Western companies.

More than 5,000 civilians lost their lives at Halabja, and at least twice this number suffered long-term health effects, from blindness to miscarriages. Al-Majid, the chief of the Mukhabarat, among other roles, was tried and executed in January 2010 for his part in this crime.

Mourners attend a reburial ceremony for the remains of 100 Barzanis, at a monument in Barzan, northern Iraq, 31 July 2022. The bodies of 100 victims of the 1983 Barzan massacre found in southern Iraqi mass graves were returned to Barzan village and reburied during a ceremony. Some 8,000 men of the Kurdish Barzani tribe were killed in July and August 1983 upon orders of then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in what the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal in May 2011 ruled to be an act of genocide. EPA-EFE/Gailan Haji

The flat, cultivated lands on the drive to Halabja hints at its history as a market town. Today, however, it is better known for this atrocity and its politics. Inside the town is a memorial to the attack, the roof of the building constructed to resemble blisters. Nearby is a gravesite containing the fallen, sometimes with three names per stone, sometimes whole families in a row. To put these numbers into context, the US-led invasion to topple Saddam cost 4,825 coalition lives over an eight-year period between 2003 and 2011. Little wonder a fading sign outside the cemetery reads: “Not allowed for Bathesm to enter.”

No sooner had peace been made by Iraq and Iran in 1988, than Saddam invaded Kuwait, motivated partly by reasons of territory and debt. Iraq’s inevitable defeat at the hands of the international coalition in February 1991 was the beginning of Saddam’s end.

Encouraged by the defeat of Saddam’s forces, and the rhetoric of President George HW Bush, the Kurds again rose in hopeful rebellion as did the Shia in the south. Again they were crushed by Saddam’s artillery and air power, two million Kurds fleeing into the mountains before a no-fly zone was imposed over the Shia in the south (“Southern Watch”) and Kurds in the north (“Northern Watch”) from March 1991. Along with a widespread sanctions regime against Saddam, this measure led eventually to the establishment of a de facto Kurdish state. While on a map the territory was still Iraq, on the ground it was governed as Kurdistan.

As Dr Rewas Faiek, the Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament reminds: “The existence of the KRI [Kurdistan Republic of Iraq] is not a by-product of the Iraqi constitution, but a reality faced on the ground since 1991.”

This was not without its internal frictions, including a civil war between the two Kurdish factions — the KDP and the PUK — during the mid-1990s. The two parties had divided northern Iraq into two roughly equal areas, with a border with Iraq, the so-called “Green Line”, running from Zakho in the northwest to the Iranian border. Erbil, the largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan, lay just north of the line; Kirkuk, a city with a mixed Kurdish and Arab population, just below it in the area under Saddam’s control.

While the Kurds not only welcomed Saddam’s demise following the March 2003 invasion and worked closely with American forces to do so, many are scathing about the chaotic and incoherent post-war plan and administration of Iraq.

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Legacy of bad decisions

“From one day to the next,” says Daban Shadala, “two million Ba’athists lost their jobs, in the government and the army, and with it their means of income, prestige, power and manhood,” he reflects on Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer’s issue of Order Number 2 on 23 May 2003, effectively dissolving the entire former Iraqi army and putting 400,000 former Iraqi soldiers out of work.

Such plans were complicated by differences in the approach of the Pentagon and State Department, notes Shadala. The chaos went hand in hand with dollops of incompetence, arrogance and ignorance, as seen in an inability to think things through to the finish, and the product of either a naïve world view or sloppy thinking. A cursory reading of Iraqi history should have told them this was not going to be easy, nor would hoping it would all turn out right in the end suffice. Iraq after 2003 proved the adage that aspiration is not a strategy and hope is not a plan.

Such choices combined with a lack of thinking through the consequences of the removal of Saddam, a deeper understanding of the complexity and thus need to manage regional politics, and the extent of Iraq’s domestic divisions, essentially created a cycle of national disorder with the resurfacing of the divisions that had remained restive since the country’s creation in 1921. The US’s legacy, a result of the CPA’s bad decisions, was civil war.

For instance, in the regional arena, the invasion and its aftermath effectively “gave” Iraq to Iran through its Shia majority, particularly since the Islamic Republic felt increasingly trapped between US forces on either side with the earlier invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia was hardly likely to allow this, while both Saudi and Iran were hardly domestically aligned on the United States’ democratic ambition for Iraq. To the north, Turkey had its own interests, not least in keeping the Kurds in check and exploiting the trade on offer.

The origins of the Kurds are not completely clear, but they have inhabited the area for a very long time. The Kurdish minority in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq today totals more than 40 million, the largest ethnic group worldwide to lack a formal state of its own. None of the host countries has an interest in the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

Similarly, domestically, Saddam maintained his rule over a disparate and fractious country through patronage and fear, handing out contracts through especially the Sunni tribal sheikhs while hammering his opponents among the communists, Shia and Kurds. The Iraqi Kurds, spread over an area the size of Denmark, are themselves made up of more than 50 tribes. While the two main parties are dynastic, being led by the Barzani and Talabani families, there are complex cross-cutting religious and other regional, geographic affiliations. Although Sunni in character, the community is divided between the Naqshbandi and Qadri Sufi orders. And there are ideological differences.

“An onion with many layers” is how one Kurdish analyst describes the make-up of these relatively homogenous people.

The outcome was a cycle of extraordinary violence resulting in the loss of more than 100,000 Iraqi lives, the rise of Isis, and a significant loss of resources. For instance, it is estimated that while the operation to remove Saddam and its decade-long aftermath cost the United States $2-trillion, the cost of four decades of war to the hard infrastructure has been as much as a backlog of $300 billion.

Even if this money is forthcoming, it requires soft infrastructure — technical, managerial and organisational skills and discipline — to manage its delivery and usage. Such systemic thinking and skills are apparently in short supply, reminding of Lord Salter’s observation in 1955 that: “The chief limiting factor to the success of development in Iraq may prove to be neither the amount of money for investment, nor even the limits of skilled labour and materials available, but the efficiency of the administrative machine.” A 2018 World Bank study Connecting to Compete found that businesses in Iraq, for instance, face one of the worst logistical systems in the world, the country ranking 147 out of 160 nations evaluated.

Comparatively, the Kurdish region, having benefited from a longer period of self-governance and stability since the introduction of the no-fly zone 12 years earlier, has prospered, seeing a two-fold increase in per capita GDP to $7,000 in the 10 years to 2017, and a steady improvement in logistics. By the time the US troops left in 2011, Kurdistan was considered a safe and modernising region amid the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq.

The KRI finds itself in a different and far more affluent situation compared with just 20 years ago, reminding that recovery from the trauma of Saddam’s rule takes time. Iraqi Kurdistan had a 12-year head-start on the rest of Iraq. Regardless, the Kurds have indubitably made it hard for themselves. 

The compact between the KDP and PUK has increasingly become frayed with tensions over the wisdom of greater autonomy from Baghdad and closer ties especially with Ankara. 

This has led to several blind alleys, notably the referendum on KRI independence in 2017. While supported by nearly 93% of Kurds, it was rejected by the region and internationally as a bad idea, or at best, as a reasonable idea at a bad time, despite what some of the KRG’s notable international advisers were saying.

The costs were immediate. The referendum led to conflict with the Iraqi central government, in which the KRI lost 40% of its territory and revenue from the Kirkuk oil fields, while Masoud Barzani resigned as president. Perhaps more importantly, it was a strategic disjuncture in developmental terms, erroneously attempting to shift the focus towards a chimaera of quick-wins and away from a longer and tougher road to governance and diversification. 

Independence was never going to work when Kurdistan has to go through a region which does not favour this goal. As Dr Faiek puts it: “If we had this geography in Europe, it would be very beneficial.” Instead, she says, “Our definition of the state and non-state elements around us is that they are a threat to us.”

This highlights the overall challenge: the Kurds have great potential, but live in a bad neighbourhood and sometimes they don’t help themselves. Choosing short-term gain rarely helps long-term progress. Perhaps this is a product of a national liberation struggle; you don’t stay alive in the mountains by thinking about strategies for development, love and peace. It is also a by-product of their liberation struggle; of financial payback for its participants and the entitlement that surrounds it, a feature that has echoes elsewhere.

Such choices in the oil industry, for example, are about who earns and keeps what. Previously the KRG received a share (initially 17%) of total oil revenue from Baghdad, less the value of the oil it directly sold (450,000 bpd) from fields under KRG control. This formula was suspended in 2014 when the then-Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, withheld the KRG’s share of the federal budget. The same year, the Peshmerga took control of the disputed territory of Kirkuk, allowing the KRG to also seize control of the province’s northern oilfields, or some 250,000 bpd, much of which was smuggled to Turkey until the area was retaken by Iraqi forces in October 2017. Since 2014 the KRG has kept all the oil produced in its territory. 

Not all of it allegedly goes through the government’s books, however. There are concerns about the legality, transparency and commercial implications of this arrangement, not least given the ongoing disagreement with Baghdad, especially regarding the oil pumped from the so-called “disputed” (or “Article 140”) territories in the border areas between Iraq and the KRI. This creates contractual uncertainty and possible future legal vulnerabilities for international operators.

This illustrates a further, generational disjuncture, one which, too, is familiar to Africa.

Escaping the nostalgia and independence trap

The pattern of Iraqi Kurdistan’s politics is familiar: a liberation elite holding the reins of power largely living on nostalgia and without a post-liberation agenda, and a youth increasingly disconnected from politics. One anecdotal measure is in the ambition for emigration in search of a better life. This is not entirely about jobs, as there are about 50,000 mostly South and Southeast Asian contract labourers working in the KRI. “Younger people”, one hears time again, “don’t see equality of opportunity. They see corruption and patronage.”

Much of the current focus in government is apparently about the division of spoils based on the past. That past is synonymous with struggle, suffering and the fight for self-government and freedom. Now that this has to a great extent been achieved, Iraqi Kurds should turn their attention to what they want KRI to become, and how. To do this, the government requires a strategy and the allocation of resources and plans to achieve it. 

Moreover, escaping the nostalgia trap requires changing the mindset of the parties, from the mullahs and sheikhs who gained disproportionate political leverage through having men under their authority to supply into the martial struggles which have defined the Kurds for generations. In developing a new path, there is also a need for the government to view criticism as constructive and not simply as a threat to existing power. Of course, balance has to be maintained: the Peshmerga remain essential to Kurdish security in such a tricky neighbourhood; yet that security is increasingly to be judged on economic rather than in purely military terms. 

As a country without formal recognition, absent a central bank and its own currency, Erbil has few police levers to pull. It is already heavily indebted, its stock growing from zero to an estimated $35-billion since 2014. It is severely affected by climate change, the underground water table, on which the growing urban areas are dependent, falling fast. Ironic for a country that exports oil in such volumes, the KRI suffers routine power blackouts. The relations with its key neighbours are fraught, where Kurds are seldom viewed as equal partners, and certainly not sovereign agents, where bilateral matters are usually subordinate to a wider strategy on the part of their neighbours, which includes the Kurdish minority in their own countries and their own economic interests. 

But there is considerable regional upside. 

Kurdistan is rich in natural and other resources. Its direct neighbours, including Iraq, offer a $1.6-trillion, 230-million-person market. A million-strong overseas diaspora provides conduits for skills, tech and capital. It has massive agricultural potential, untapped water resources from its winter snow, and remarkable solar opportunity in a country where summer temperatures can reach over 50ºC. Its cement and steel industries among others ensure Kurdistan makes up nearly one-third of Iraq’s industrial output. There are untapped gas opportunities particularly around Sulaymaniyah in a world moving away from oil, and from dependency on Russian gas. 

A way forward for Iraqi Kurdistan is thus, contrary to the Manichean nature of the political discourse about the available choices between independence or national failure, towards interdependence with both Baghdad and the region. Rather than Kurdish being spoken as a language of national pride, the focus should shift to speaking Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, English and Kurdish in line with becoming a “land-linked” service centre. The independence debate is too often a licence for rent-seeking, licence farming and anti-competitive practices.

Bruce Ferguson has been president of the American University in Sulaymaniyah since 2016. A key challenge he identifies is to create independent institutions in an environment where affiliation, to clan, party or personalities, pervades. In coming from a tradition of unquestioning rote memorisation, this instead highlights experiential learning, the acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions, and the centrality of soft skills. 

There are some green shoots in this regard.

Dr Faiek, the Speaker of Parliament, says she is an “Iraqi Kurd” which is the one “permanent feature” of her identity. Whatever their complex make-up, Kurds are proud of the history that delivered a different world for them, even with its challenges.

And there are other positive aspects.

The citizens of Sulaymaniyah, the largest Kurdish city in Iraq, have a reputation for forthrightness. In identifying the three major constraints — the size of the pool of clientele, the (un)availability of local skills, and the cost of imported goods which dominate his business, Shad, the manager of a hip restaurant, popular with 18- to 35-year-olds, is critical of government: 

“They don’t do anything for us,” he says, with a government minister at our table, “but rather make our lives more difficult with their permits.” I expected that he did not know the minister, and anticipated a tough retort to follow. But they knew each other. The minister simply shrugged and smiled.

If this attitude is not only welcomed, but its advice acted on, Iraqi Kurdistan will change and prosper. Absent it, it won’t. DM

Dr Mills has been in Iraqi Kurdistan researching a new book.


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