A former Peshmerga fighter has swapped his rifle for a paintbrush as he relives battlefield memories.
Sulaimania – “When gold appears in the Euphrates River, out of a hundred men, only one will survive” – so recounted a Kurdish woman from Kirkuk whom I met on my way to Sulaimania in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. She was paraphrasing a famous hadith, or saying, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.
“It’s an old saying, it’s in our books,” she insisted. “A hundred men, and only one will survive. Isn’t this happening all around us today? People are coming to my country and fighting and dying – for what? Does anybody know?”
This hadith about gold in the Euphrates has become an oft-repeated truism since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The gold appeared for the Kurdish region and lasted a decade – a decade of prosperity, reconstruction and hope – before the advent of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Two years after ISIL’s declaration of its so-called caliphate, the ongoing battle for Mosul has elicited a wide range of reactions in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region. But the overarching sentiments are hopelessness, apathy and cynicism.
“They promised us independence after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell,” said the Kirkuki woman. “But now whenever our president [Massoud Barzani] appears on TV to talk about independence, we all laugh. We know he’s trying to distract us from some crisis or corruption scandal. But nobody buys it any more.”
Once a post-war boomtown for foreign investors, the Kurdish region today is a ghost town. And the public sector salary crisis, which began in late 2014, has now taken its toll.
Whether the crisis is Barzani’s refusal to cede his presidential post (his term expired in August 2015) or the expected tsunami of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Mosul, people are fed up.
Or as one politician told me, off the record: “Independence? What are you talking about? We can’t afford to run the few cities we have under Kurdish regional control. This war isn’t about grabbing lands. This isn’t about independence. This is about holding on to what we have.”
Indeed, a festering dispute between Baghdad and Erbil over illicit oil sales has meant that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has not received its 16 percent share of the Iraqi budget for months. Once a post-war boomtown for foreign investors, the Kurdish region today is a ghost town. And the public sector salary crisis, which began in late 2014, has now taken its toll.
“It’s the [mostly Arab] IDPs who are keeping the business going in the bazaar,” says one resident of Sulaimania. “They still receive their pensions and salaries from the Baghdad government. But here, the Kurds are getting nothing. The IDPs are richer than we are!”
A resolution of the dispute with Baghdad, reached last month, was dampened by internal Kurdish bickering. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, which holds sway over the province of Sulaimania and Kirkuk, accused the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of misappropriating the Kurdish regional budget. Meanwhile, the average Kurdish public sector worker hasn’t been paid in months, and pensions for invalids and the elderly have been slashed.
As a consequence, public schools and universities are now closed – teachers haven’t been paid. Only the wealthy can afford to attend private schools and universities.
“We have never seen so many people enlist for Peshmerga service,” quipped the politician. “It’s about the only public sector job that is getting salaries paid – at least from time to time.”
The Kirkuk woman lamented the state of her nation: “An entire generation is being deprived of an education. What will become of us? A nation of shoe-shiners and vegetable sellers? Our politicians seem to be telling us, forget your education, get a menial job to make ends meet.”
In a region where most media outlets are controlled by one party or another, and reliable information is scarce, many continue to rely on hearsay or a neighbour’s anecdotes.
Rumours are rife in town about IDPs in their midst supposedly sympathising with ISIL, or about Kurdish politicians making deals with neighbouring countries, purportedly giving away 50 percent of the region’s oil wealth.
“They are accusing us of trying to change demographics, of burning down Arab villages … But whose demographics are really changing?” asked one politician. “We have 1.5 million Arab IDPs living across the Kurdistan region today – in Erbil, in Sulaimania, in Dohuk – and who will likely never return to their hometowns because they can’t. So whose demographics are changing?”
Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian