ERBIL – Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region is rapidly descending into political turmoil as the leading political party has resorted to extraordinary measures to expel its major partner from the coalition government.
The bitter political score-settling – coupled with violent popular protests raging in some cities over the past few days – threatens the stability of the Kurdish region amid an ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
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The Gorran (Change) Movement, the second largest party in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), says its parliament speaker and several parliamentarians were prevented from entering the Kurdish capital, Erbil, on Monday. The checkpoint was manned by security forces affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The KDP is the largest bloc within the KRG and is led by Massoud Barzani, who has held onto the region’s presidency, even though his rivals, including Gorran, claim his term ended on August 19.
At a press conference in Sulaimania shortly after he was turned away from Erbil, Yousef Mohammed Sadiq, speaker of the Kurdish parliament, said: “This is an occupation of Erbil … and an attempt to launch a coup d’etat against the main source of legitimacy in Kurdistan, which is the parliament. But we, as the parliament, will not accept a coup.”
He added: “But this will not succeed … MPs have obtained their legitimacy from people, and it can only be taken away by people, not by occupying the capital … The Kurdistan region is moving towards a cliff, towards a much worse situation.”
He also called for “dialogue” and “more understanding and not deepening crisis”.
On Sunday evening, Gorran issued a statement saying its parliament speaker and five ministers in the KRG had been told not to return to their offices Monday, and even to leave Erbil altogether.
Barzani's party has reacted furiously to the attacks on its offices, accusing Gorran of masterminding the assaults, a charge that Gorran has denied.
The fallout between the KDP and Gorran follows a series of protests in Sulaimania province and its adjacent areas since last week that witnessed violent attacks on KDP offices. At least four people were reported dead and dozens injured as a result of clashes between the armed guards of KDP offices and protesters. One of those killed was a KDP member. Barzani’s party reacted furiously to the attacks on its offices, accusing Gorran of masterminding the assaults, a charge that Gorran has denied.
On Saturday, security forces in Erbil and Duhok cities, controlled by the KDP, detained and expelled journalists working at the KNN and NRT television channels, dropping them off at a checkpoint outside Erbil. KNN is owned by Gorran, while NRT is a private station. KDP accused the channels of inciting the public against it.
The protests were triggered by the KRG’s inability to pay its civil servants for the past three months as it is mired in a financial crisis caused by disputes with the Iraqi central government and plummeting oil prices in international markets. The KRG now sells its oil independently but has failed to explain to the public why it has not been able to pay those on its payroll.
Ahmed Kani, a senior official in the KDP, says Gorran’s operatives were instrumental in orchestrating the attacks on nine KDP offices, adding that they will present such evidence to the public.
“As the main winner [in the last Kurdish parliamentary elections], the KDP has the right to expel the party that did not abide by the deal [to form the coalition government],” Kani, who heads KDP’s Kurdish and Iraqi relations bureau, told Al Jazeera. “Gorran ministers were not up to their governance tasks and opposed the government.”
Earlier, Ari Harsin, a KDP parliamentarian, told the Kurdish Rudaw network that preventing Sadiq from entering Erbil was a measure to protect him.
“Given what has happened to our members in the Sulaimania area, their relatives here have been angered. I suspect some might want to take revenge [against Sadiq] because they consider him to be one of those with major responsibility for the [violent] incidents,” Harsin said.
Relations between Gorran and KDP deteriorated after Gorran and Speaker Sadiq played a major role in failed attempts to amend the presidential law to limit the powers of Barzani and set clear term limits for him.
As the leading party in the KRG, the KDP – led by Barzani – is expected to reshuffle the cabinet excluding Gorran. However, it is not yet clear whether other parties will remain in the broad-based government.
But the KDP is likely to seek the assistance of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), with which KDP maintains lukewarm relations. The territory of Iraqi Kurdistan is almost equally split between the PUK and KDP, each of which has its own armed wing – a legacy of the struggle against the Iraqi government in the past.
The KDP and PUK fought a civil war in the 1990s and split the Kurdish region into two separate zones and administrations. Many are concerned that the current incidents might be a prelude to a return to those days.
A statement from eight parliamentary blocs including Gorran and PUK, as an attack on the “legitimacy of parliament”, condemning any moves that might “lead to the fragmentation of the Kurdish house”.
With ISIL next door, many Kurds are worried about the consequences of these internal disputes on the region’s stability.
“Looking at Kurdish history from 1960 up to today: In every episode of conflict, things deteriorated very quickly, and it took a long time to rebuild. There is a serious fear that things will deteriorate, and if that happens, it will be in the benefit of ISIL,” Hiwa Osman, a Kurdish affairs analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“This time around, a lot is at stake – not just for Kurdistan, but for the world and the wider region too. Kurds are providing the ground and the troops for the most effective fight against ISIL.”