The History of Political Parties in South Kurdistan

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The history of political parties in South Kurdistan has in the last century, other than a few influential families and individuals, not changed in social and political models. During the Kurdish uprising at the beginning of the twentieth century, Şêx Mehmûd Hefîd was a character with familial influence. Three times during 1919 and 1933 he led Kurdish rebellions to independence. For a short period, he extended his influence from Silêmanî to Mûsil and Hewlêr. English imperial forces, however, suppressed the rebellion in a brutal assault falling short of aerial bombardment.

A number of historians have argued that Şêx Mehmûd was against Turkish policies, which according to National Covenant pact, demanded the return of Kerkûk and Mûsil. Others have argued that he advocated a pro-Turkish approach, lacking a clear analysis of the situation. According to the Brussels Summit, struck in 1925 between Iraq and Turkey, if the former failed to preserve its territorial integrity, the latter would have the right to lay claim to the province of Mûsil. Turkey has ever since tried to revive this agreement.

Concomitant with the Şêx Mehmûd’s uprising the influence of Barzanî family was on the rise. The evidence revealed by Eyub Barzanî and a number of other authors close to the Barzanî family shed more light on this family’s status. There has, of course, been speculation about the origin of this family and the beginning of the Neqişbendî Order, which is not the subject of our enquiry. What is of interes there is that after the Ottoman execution of Şêx Ebdulselam Barzanî in 1914, the head of Neqişbendî, this Order encountered a significant problem.

As the new head, Şêx Ehmed Barzanî managed to restore the Order. Until his death in 1969 he also managed to maintain the Order’s influence inside the family, trying to keep it out of politics. The rising reputation of Mela Ebdulrehman, the cousin of Mela Mistefa, among the Barzanîs, encouraged the latter to kill him; a plan he did finally carry out, opening the way for the rise of authoritarianism among this family.

The legacy of the Neqişbendî Order among the Barzanî family and the latter’s fighting skill against the authorities of the Ottomans and the English, coupled with outside interference in internal Kurdish affairs with the Baghdad government spurred a war in the 1960s between Barzanî and Abdul Karim Qasm, Iraq’s then prime minister. This increased Mela Mistefa’s influence in South Kurdistan, symbolising him as an icon of Kurdish resistance, which in turn helped him to stifle all his real and imagined opponents. While staying in power until his death, he established the Security Organisation to be led by his son, which now is headed by his grandson, Mesrûr.

Among the major tasks of this Organisation was to gather intelligence on all members of the Democratic Party of Iraqi Kurdistan (KDP); particularly those who had been suspicious of disavowing the Barzanî family. This turned Mesud Barzanî into a figure which has monitored every single detail inside the party of which he has been the supreme leader, following the death of his father. The split in the Order, and the political evolution on the structure of the Barzanî family, which has so far been conducted via both brutal force and the application of soft power, has rendered KDP’s political rivals ineffective. On the other hand, it has institutionalised the power of the Barzanî family through the appropriation of the vast majority of governing and financial bodies. The begging question here is: why did no other political party emerge as an alternative to the status quo?

Government in Iraq can be divided into two eras. The first was the monarchical, spanning from 1921 to 1958, during which Iraq was a British mandate. The second began in 1958, when Abdul Karim Qasm turned the Iraqi state into a republican one. In the first era, there was no prohibition on the formation of political parties with the exception on the Left. Until his coming to power, Karim Qasm stood against British forces, seeking to nationalise his country’s natural resources. When grasping power in 1958, he sought to solve the Kurdish issue. For the first time, for instance, he recognised the Kurdish people as a separate nation inside Iraq, granting them certain measures of cultural, economic and national rights. His granting of the right of assembly marked the beginning of a golden era for different cultural and national entities including Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, and the Shiites. He also initiated the land reform, which ended the superiority of the feudalists.

A number of Kurdish tribes, however, rejected the reforms. The Barzanî family, on the other hand, turned it into an opportunity to fight against the regime, while external players capitalised on this. The British, the Americans, and the Iranians had all been fed up with the policies of Qasm, labelling him as pro-Soviet. This is why they supported the Baath coup against him. At the same time, the Baath movement in Iraq and Syria, and the nationalists throughout the Arab world were on the rise, against the Leftists.

From 1963 onwards, the Baathists took over the central authority, lasting until 2003 when the US-led coalition forces toppled their rule. During their era, the Baathists pursued in Kurdistan the most vicious policies ranging from cultural assimilation to genocide; the Anfal Campaign, the chemical bombardment of Halabja town, the Massacre of the Feylis, the demolition of more than 4,000 villages, the Arabisation of Kurdish villages in Mûsil and Diyala, as well as the whole city of Kerkûk took place during the Baathist reign. They governed the country through a centralised state based on absolute Arab power and Sunni religion. Kurds as well as other social entities were not denied, but refused of any political, cultural, and economic rights—let alone the right to self-administration.

When the Communist Party of Iraq was established in 1934, most of its leaders were of Kurdish origin, i.e., Behadîn Nûrî, Ezîz Mihemed, and Kerîm Ehmed. Later in the 1980s, however, a conflict emerged inside the Kurdistani branch of the Party, leading to a break away in 1993.

For the first time in the history of South Kurdistan, as a political institution, the Community of Darker was established in 1937 by a cohort of intellectuals who were concerned with the development of a national paradigm. The Community was later transformed by Refîq Hilmî into Hiwa Party in 1945. The latter’s life, however, came into an end when the KDP was formed.

At its initial stage, the KDP adopted the slogan of autonomy for the Kurds. It however never practised this slogan in the areas under its control, because it was a copy of the Baath party in South Kurdistan, which was based on centralism, the solidification of the power of the Barzanî family, and the physical removal of political opponents.

In the second half of the 1960s, political confrontation emerged among the rank-and-file of the KDP. This is because in the first stage of the Baathist reign, Abdulsalam Arq asked the KDP for negotiation. A faction among them, consisting of Ibrahim Ehmed, rejected the offer, arguing that the Baath government was intending to save time. Mela Mistefa, also, rejected the proposal, accusing the pro-negotiation circle of being pro-Iran. Additionally, there was a class conflict among the KDP. Having a tribal status, Mela Mistefa pursued a tribal line inside the party, making it one of the most conservative groups in the region. This came into a direct conflict with the intellectual circle, led by Ibrahim Ehmed and Jalal Talabanî. Most of them being university graduates, the latter group organised themselves as a separate faction inside the KDP.

In the 1970s, the Community of Kurdistan Toilers came into life. As a leftist movement, it was spearheaded by Şêx Şehab Nûrî. Its leaders, however, including Şêx Şehab himself, were executed. Not long after Aram Şaswar taking the Community’s leadership, he was killed in a suspicious event, which has not so far been exhumed.

When Ahmad Hasan Bakr was the president of Iraq and Saddam Hussein the prime minister, the Alger Pact was signed in 1975 by the Iraqi and the Iranian governments. Following this, the Iranians stopped backing the Barzanî Revolt, leading to the collapse of the whole Kurdish movement in South Kurdistan, and the route of Mela Mistefa and his hundred thousand of pêşmerges.

The dissenting group within the KDP that has been organising themselves under the leadership of Jalal Talabanî established in 1976 the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The emerging political vacuum gave rise to a number of other political groups such as the Kurdistan Socialist Party, led by Mehmûd Osman and Seyda Selah Yusefi. Their efforts, however, remained limited as they had been stifled by the KDP, especially when the latter came back to the political arena.

The emerging conflict of the 1960s was intensifying through the 1970s. In the 1980s, it opened the way for a civil war, whose bloodiest instances were recorded in the 1980s and 1990s. Both Turkey and Iran took advantage of this war, which made it easier for them to pursue their policies in Iraq and South Kurdistan. The post-1991 era, particularly as the result of American intervention and the Kurdish uprising in north Iraq and the Shia insurgency in the south of the country, offered a good opportunity for the establishment of self-administration. The South Kurdistan’s federal system which was announced in 1992 was never a federal one, because as a result of the ongoing civil war, the political structure was divided between two local administrations, one led by the KDP in Hewlêr, the other based in Silêmanî and directed by the PUK. By 2003, when the US-led coalition forces attacked Iraq, this division became institutionalised. Taking advantage of this circumstance of social, political, and economic collapse, radical Islamist groups made their appearance.

The KDP and the PUK became the owners of the vast financial companies, laying their hands on the oil and gas reserves of South Kurdistan. Through their mass media outlets, which have become their principal vehicle for partisan propaganda, they have sought to legitimise their erroneous policies. Led by the old affiliate of Jalal Talebanî, the Goran Movement began to split from the PUK from 2007 onwards. At the initial stages, Goran attracted a significant number of people, voting for it in the 2009 election. Putting emphasis on legal reforms, it entered the government in order to change its monopolised character.

As its long-adopted approach towards other political groups, the KDP however refused to acknowledge Goran. It expelled the head of Parliament, Yusif Mihemed, along with four Goran deputies, as they tried to legally check the authority of the two dominant parties, which, following a strategic agreement between themselves, monopolised the whole political and economic apparatus. Even though the PUK seemed apparently unhappy about the KDP, it has underhandedly allied with it, as its military, economic and media advantages are served in this way.

The greatest problem in South Kurdistan is the lack of a democratic mentality among these political groups as well as Kurdish society. After the emergence of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in 2014, a significant change has been brought about. In fact, the emergence of ISIS unveiled many tragic issues which had hitherto been kept hidden. When it occupied Mûsil in 2014, KDP pêşmerges left the city of Şengal behind, exposing its population to brutal ISIS jihadists, who not only committed genocide in the town, but also posed a serious threat to Hewlêr. It was PKK guerrillas who rushed to the scene, rescuing the population of Şengal, Mexmûr, Kerkûk, and Jalawla. They have so far remained side-by-side with Pêşmerge Forces in South Kurdistan, fighting ISIS extremists.

After half a century of negotiation between the Iraq government and the Kurdish groups, the Kurdish issue has remained unsolved, and its current status cannot be guaranteed. The Kurdish groups in the South have not overcome their non-democratic mentality, based on which they have also approached the central government. Owing to this, they lack any political significance both in Baghdad and in the Kurdish provinces. Currently, all three branches of judiciary, executive and legislative have been paralysed by party politics.

After 25 years of regional governance, the most basic rights such as monthly salary, the supply of water and electricity, health and education have not been provided. Although Kurdistan is rich in natural and mineral resources, the central government in Baghdad demands its oil revenue, cutting relation with South Kurdistan. In such as situation, it is Kurdish society which suffers the most. According to evidence revealed by Kurdish deputes, South Kurdistan is in debt of 18 billion dollars to petroleum companies. The South Kurdish movement has a patriarchal character, lacking a serious programme for a democratic change.  Its main objective has been to accumulate more power, assuming the character of the same authority it had fought against.