While the economy and corruption seem to be the dominating discourse in the run-up to the Iraqi elections, the Kurds in Kirkuk are not only entangled in infighting but also at odds with Baghdad. Political uncertainty looms over the city's prospects.
Jalal Talabani, one of the most prominent Kurdish leaders in Iraq, always wanted to describe Kirkuk, Iraq’s oil-rich multilingual and multiethnic city, as the Jerusalem of the Kurds. Talabani was also the founding leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a major Kurdish party in Iraq.
Talabani, who was the first Iraqi president of Kurdish origin, passed away several days after the Kurdish independence referendum was held on September 25, last year. Most Iraqi Kurds supported the referendum, but it collapsed as central government forces took over Kirkuk, a long disputed city between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Baghdad government.
KRG forces claimed the city using the Daesh attacks as a pretext in 2014.
The PUK’s Kurdish peshmergas, who just like their leader, revere the city, reportedly struck a deal with the Iraqi military through Iranian political operators led by Iran’s powerful General Qasem Soleimani. They left the city without any serious resistance against the marching central government forces.
Masoud Barzani, the KRG’s former president and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), another powerful Kurdish party in Iraq, called the PUK withdrawal a betrayal, reflecting some of the tensions between the Kurdish factions.
Now, on the eve of Iraqi parliamentary elections, Kurdish factionalism may also cost Kurds their majority in Kirkuk, considered a mini-Iraq due to its distinct mix of Turkmen, Arab and Kurdish populations.
The city has seen many changes throughout its history. During the Ottoman period, the Turkmen political presence was more powerful than any other ethnic group in the city. But under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s policies, the city’s ethnic balance changed considerably, at the expense of Turkmens. With the KRG’s takeover of the city, Kurdish migration to Kirkuk increased, making the Kurdish population the largest in the city.
Although this should be reflected in the election, the reality may be different. In Kirkuk, there are 13 seats to contest. Of the 13 seats, one is always reserved for the Christian minority. Consequently, in the last parliamentary elections, eight seats were claimed by Kurds and four were evenly divided between the Turkmens and the Arabs. There are more than 900,000 registered voters and nearly 300 candidates in the city, representing more than 30 different parties.
Barzani’s KDP boycotts elections in Kirkuk and other disputed areas, which the party believes were unlawfully occupied by the Baghdad government after the unsuccessful referendum bid. But Baghdad believes the city had been illegally occupied by KRG forces.
Nonetheless, the KDP decision to boycott the elections will have a lasting effect on Kurdish votes in the crucial city, which has also been known for its oil-rich fields, located in the middle of the country.
“On October 16, Kirkuk fell. The KDP boycotts elections and the party leadership has advised its base to vote for either the Kurdistan Socialist Party, an ally of the KDP, or the Islamic Union Party in Kirkuk,” said Mehmet Bulovali, who served in 2010 as the head advisor to Tariq al Hashimi, a former vice president of Iraq.
Some of the KDP votes will also go to the PUK and the National List, which includes the Coalition for Justice and Democracy, a new party established by Barham Salih, the former deputy leader of the PUK and other Kurdish parties like Komal and the Gorran movement, Bulovali observed.
While the city is widely considered a loss to the Kurdish community in these elections, there is still debate on how exactly the loss will play out.
“One Kurdish seat could go to either Turkmens or Arabs. But because of the constitutional requirement, three seats out of 12 seats have been reserved for women. As a result, Kurds might lose another seat because of the women quota,” said Bulovali, who is a Kurdish native from Kirkuk.
“At the end, Kurdish and Arab-Turkmen seats could even be split as 6-3-3,” Bulovali told TRT World. If Bulovali is right, Kurds would lose their majority in Kirkuk.
But Avni Lutfioglu, a Turkmen political analyst and a former adviser to Iraqi Turkmen Front leadership, thinks differently. “At most, Kurds will lose one seat and defend their majority in Kirkuk,” Lutfioglu told TRT World.
Iraqi elections: A political deadlock?
After the US-trained Iraqi army and its Shia allies backed by the US air force defeated Daesh last year, Iraq appeared to be a more united state than ever under the new prime minister Haider al Abadi. But the parliamentary elections do not seem to reflect this newfound unity.
“The biggest political group can just win 30 seats. That’s all. If at least four or five or 10 different groups join for a coalition, then, they can establish a government,” Bulovali observed.
Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – who are the three major populations and make up a majority of the country’s social fabric – are more politically divided than ever.
Although both Abadi and his predecessor, Nouri al Maliki, two Shia Arab politicians who served in the governing State of Law coalition as members of the Dawa Party, will contest these elections under new separate alliances they established.
Hadi al Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organisation, which is a powerful Iran-linked Shia militia alliance, will also contest the elections under a separate alliance, the Fatah Alliance. He was previously part of Abadi’s governing coalition, but decided to withdraw from it last December.
Muqtada al Sadr, a powerful Shia cleric, who is heavily criticising the Abadi government, has established a political alliance with the country’s communists.
“Amiri, Abadi and Sadr are leading the most powerful alliances. Abadi seems to be more powerful than others. He can even receive votes from Sunnis,” said Lutfioglu, a Sunni Turkmen activist.
On the Sunni side, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is closely tied to Iraq’s Muslim Brotherhood, has established an alliance with Iyad Allawi, one of the strongest Shia leaders, who is leading the secular Wataniya Party.
Kurds seem to be more divided than ever, especially since their referendum bid hit the wall last year. Talabani’s death and the fall of Kirkuk exacerbated tensions, within Kurdish political groups. Even the Gorran movement – a splinter group from the PUK – is losing some support after their charismatic leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, unexpectedly died last year.
“Let’s have their elections and then, we can say that they have done their elections as democracy requires,” said Bulovali, referring to the mindset of US power brokers. “The US will ultimately design the formation of the governing coalition according to its own vision because it knows there will be no big political block at the parliament.”
He exemplifies his point with the 2010 parliamentary election, when Allawi’s alliance got most of the seats. “Constitutionally, Allawi should form the government. But [the] US pushed the button and Maliki established the government,” Bulovali recalled. Maliki also resigned from the prime ministry under US pressure, leaving his place to the current Prime Minister Abadi.
Iranian influence is also very powerful in Iraq, but Bulovali thinks it will decrease because the country is now facing enormous pressure from the US and Israel. In the past, the US and Iran have worked together to form governments in Iraq, Bulovali pointed out, however, this may prove difficult in these current circumstances, with only the US proving to have a continued, lasting influence.
Lutfioglu agrees with him. “American intervention will determine the formation of the Baghdad government after the elections.”