Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has dismissed four ministers and KRG parliament speaker Yousif Mohammed has reportedly been prevented from entering the regional capital Erbil by security forces loyal to President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
All of the four ministers and the parliament speaker are members of the Gorran movement which is the second strongest party in the autonomous region and is led by the former Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) commander Nawshirwan Mustafa.
He established the Gorran (meaning "change" in Kurdish) movement in 2009 which now has more deputies in parliament than its predecessor the PUK.
The PUK was established by former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the 1960s as a result of prominent disagreements between Talabani and Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who was the founder and lifelong leader of the Iraqi KDP and the father of the current president of the KRG.
The PUK was the arch rival to Barzani’s KDP until Mustafa created the Gorran movement. Both parties have strong popular support in the southeastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan where the province of Suleymaniye has been their traditional center.
Barzani’s power has mostly been based in the northwestern part of Iraqi Kurdistan where the provinces of Arbil and Duhok are located.
The dismissal of the ministers by the KRG and the refusal of Barzani’s security forces to allow the parliament head to enter the capital indicate that old divisions of the region, having a deep history going back to the political factionalism of the 1960s, are quite alive and will play out when the balance of power is substantially upset.
This time it seems that the current political conflict has been provoked by the continuing debate on an extension of Barzani’s term in office which ended on August 20 and what kind of governance model is viable for the Iraqi Kurds for the time being.
Barzani has been in power since 2005. He was first elected to the regional presidency in June 2005 by the members of the KRG's parliament and reelected in July 2009 by a popular vote in the first direct presidential election in the region.
His term should have ended in 2013 according to KRG regulations, however, backed by the PUK he was able to extend the legal two-term limit in his favor for two more years.
Since then, the main political forces in the KRG have not reached an agreement over both Barzani’s presidency and the election process. The KDP says the president of the region should be elected by popular vote while the PUK and other parties like the Goran Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komela Islam) argue that the president should be elected by the parliament, demanding a reduction in presidential powers.
In mid-June 2015, the high election board of the KRG announced that the presidential election could not be held on August 20 due to inadequate budget and limited time, the pro-Barzani media outlet Rudaw reported.
The Judicial Council of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, the highest judicial authority in the region, extended Barzani's term for two more years on August 17 with the same authority, despite the ongoing disagreements over the election process among the parties.
The judicial decision needs parliamentary approval in order to become legally valid. The judicial ministry spokesman Nariman Talib said an extraordinary meeting of parliament will consider the recent decision on August 19.
However, no agreement has emerged over the judicial decision in the KRG parliament and the main Kurdish parties have blamed each other for the political deadlock since then.
The deadlock has also caused an economic crisis in the region, inciting people in particular living in the anti-Barzani quarters of the region like Suleymaniye which is a stronghold for both the PUK and Goran to demonstrate against Barzani's leadership.
The demonstrations turned violent on Oct. 8 in Suleymaniye where protesters attacked and set afire to the KDP's political offices. Media outlets have reported that five protesters have been killed and more than two hundred have been wounded during the demonstrations.
Three more protesters died on Oct. 9 during the demonstrations in the Kaladize district of Suleymaniye.
The KDP, which has been led by Massoud Barzani since 1979, accused the Goran Movement and its leader Mustafa of violent attacks against the party offices on Saturday, according to media reports.
The Goran on Sunday denied that it was behind the attacks.
Reuters has reported the KDP in retaliation closed down the offices of Goran’s TV channel KNN in the provinces of Erbil and Duhok and said that KDP security forces also stormed the offices of the Suleymaniye-based NRT news outlet following the protests.
Furthermore, KDP parliamentary panel head Umit Hosnav accused the Gorran of “efforts to break down the national unity” of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish media has reported.
He declared, “The Gorran is not part of the [KRG] government. Our previous agreement concerning the establishment of the government and presidency of the parliament has effectively ended,” signaling that the political crisis in the region has become significant.
Parliamentary speaker Mohammed described his treatment by the KDP-affiliated security forces and other measures taken by the KDP as a “coup,” warning that “The Kurdistan region is heading towards a much worse situation,” according to Reuters.
Hosnav reassured that the government will not let the old divisions overwhelm the KRG and said, “have positive expectations from the PUK [leadership] on this issue,” possibly implying a resolution to both the violent protests and the issue of Barzani’s presidency.
PUK parliamentary panel head Begerd Talabani announced that his party does not support a divided governance in the region, the Turkish Anadolu Agency reported on Tuesday.
However, he added that protesting the government is a legitimate right of the people and the Gorran cannot be expelled from the KRG by another party, referring to the KDP.
In the past the KDP and PUK were able to agree to lead the region jointly and establish the regional assembly of Erbil following the First Gulf War, ending their long-held differences on the governance of northern Iraq. However, they did not succeed in sharing power over the long-term and eventually a civil war between the parties broke out in 1994.
Another external intervention persuaded both leaders to cooperate again in 2003 after the US-led occupation of Iraq changed the whole equation of the country’s politics. Talabani became Iraqi president while Barzani headed the presidency of the KRG according to a new accord between the Kurdish leaders.
Talabani has been sick since mid-December 2012 and practically out of Kurdish politics. His party the PUK has already been shaken following the major split that led to the establishment of the Gorran by Mustafa.
KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee said, “These measures were primarily to contain the situation," speaking to Reuters following the dismissal of the ministers.
But Sheik Salar al-Hafeed, a prominent member of the Kurdish Berzenci family from Suleymaniye, said “What happened yesterday is wrong” at a “historic” level, speaking to the TRT World.
Hafeed is a founding member of the Mosul Vilayet Council which was established in 1992. The KRG claims the territory of the former Ottoman province.
Hafeed also stated that KDP and PUK top officials met on Tuesday in order to find a resolution to the current conflict.
Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a member of the PUK, also called all the sides to come back to the negotiating table to resolve the escalating political crisis.