Iraq protests sparking fear among Kurds
The protests in Iraq began as a reprimand of the government for failing to provide adequate basic services, and for the rise in unemployment and corruption. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was forced to resign last week.
But as is the nature of protest movements everywhere, this one too has evolved, and Iraqi demonstrators are now making far-reaching demands, including an end to Iran’s caustic meddling in Iraqi politics and calls for constitutional reform.
While the intent may be understandable, the ramifications of subjecting an “agreed” document on Iraq’s domestic arrangement to renewed negotiations will open up a Pandora’s box. The country’s Kurds are perhaps the first to notice this.
Following the death of civilians at the hands of snipers, protesters now demand constitutional revisions and changes to laws governing elections that they believe will ensure a representative and transparent government free from Iranian meddling. The heavy-handed influence of Iran and its proxy force — the Popular Mobilization Units — is a source of swelling resentment now fueling the protests.
Iran, historically adroit at the game of geopolitical chess, has steadily escalated its sway over Iraq’s national politics since 2003. Iran has implanted and influenced political leaders such as former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who helped deliver Iraq into Tehran’s orbit from 2006 until 2014, when the city of Mosul fell to Daesh.
Iraqi Kurdistan, once branded the “other Iraq” by American lobbyists to highlight Kurdish exceptionalism in a post-occupation country, has managed to remain on the margins of the protests that began in early October. While youths may make up the majority of protesters in the south, young Kurdish men and women see themselves as unconnected to the chaos gripping the rest of the country.
They see the demonstrations as an uprising by Shiite youths against an elitist Shiite establishment that oversees bureaucratic cronyism that disadvantages the poor, the working class, and the throngs of unemployed young people in the south.
The current crisis is one of poor governance, not of the constitution. Opening up debate over a national document that was painstakingly ratified over a decade ago may eventually lead to greater centralization and less regional representation, and plunge the country into greater disarray.
Many Kurds do not identify as Iraqi, and perhaps have never done so, coming of age in the relative stability of the autonomous region that was secured in 1991 by the US-led Operation Provide Comfort after the Gulf War.
“We grieve for the tragic deaths of the protesters,” a local journalist in Irbil told me. “Kurds know too well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of disproportionate state violence. But many also think, ‘why should I sympathize with the Iraqi today in Basra, when they didn’t stand up for my rights for decades? Why should I support their needs when they rejected the results of our democratic referendum for independence in 2017?’”
But the Kurds are not entirely impervious to the political vicissitudes that preoccupy larger Iraq. President Barham Salih, formerly premier of Iraqi Kurdistan, visited Irbil in early November to discuss with Kurdish MPs the constitutional amendments that are part of the reform package proposed to appease protesters.
But Kurdish politicians expressed reservations about amending the existing constitution. Some were alarmed that other provisions of the constitution might eventually be revisited once it is opened up for reconsideration. Ratified in 2005, the constitution recognizes Iraqi Kurdistan as a legitimate federal entity.
As the region’s President Nechirvan Barzani said: “The main problem isn’t the constitution, but ... that this constitution has been ignored.” Specifically, Kurdish parties have repeatedly objected to Baghdad’s failure to implement article 140 of the constitution, which sets out a political process to determine the future of Kirkuk.
Reopening the constitution to debate has reignited anxiety over what this may mean for Kurdish claims to it. Najmaldin Karim, a former governor of Kirkuk, cautioned: “There are threats on Kirkuk and Kurdistan, and the main threat will be the denial of the Kurdish identity of disputed areas.”
Indeed, recent reports describe how posters of Ali Al-Sistani, the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq, are being hung in front of government buildings and on security vehicles in Kirkuk.
The governorate has been subject to a longstanding dispute between its Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Christian residents, and to the wider politics of possession between the Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil and the federal government in Baghdad.
The visibility of Al-Sistani’s persona across Kirkuk is likely the work of a Shiite political faction that seeks to exert a claim to religious and political legitimacy over the divided city. This mirrors the kind of vitriolic factionalism playing out elsewhere in Iraq, and could spell trouble in Kirkuk.
The decision by the Iraqi government to pursue national dialogue to review the ruling system and the constitution risks being little more than a symbolic gesture unless genuine improvements are made to the way the state is governed.
The current crisis is one of poor governance, not of the constitution. Opening up debate over a national document that was painstakingly ratified over a decade ago may eventually lead to greater centralization and less regional representation, and plunge the country into greater disarray. Protesters in Iraq should be careful what they wish for.
• Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow at Cambridge University.
Copyright: Syndication Bureau