Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Systemic Crisis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Systemic Crisis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Systemic Crisis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Iraqi Kurdish Flag army uniform at Ibrahim Khalil Border Iraq (Source: Joaoleitao/WikiMedia Commons)

To achieve stability and prosperity, the Kurdish Region of Iraq needs to address the politicization of its institutions. This problem has been years in the making, and it will take considerable effort to enact meaningful reforms. However, doing so is the best path forward for Iraqi Kurds.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been facing a systemic crisis since its establishment in 1992. First, despite many attempts to depoliticize the KRG’s Peshmerga armed forces, they remain divided. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were two armed groups fighting the Iraqi state during 1970s and 1980s, and they have kept their military and security forces under their own control even after the rise of KRG.

In Need of Reform

Institutionally, the KRG remains underdeveloped and remains at an impasse with regards to the distribution of powers within the government and whether the government should be a parliamentary or presidential democracy. The region has yet to adopt a constitution. From 2005 to November 2017, the region operated with a presidential system with a weak legislature that mostly functioned to pass legislation drafted by the KDP and PUK in closed-session politburo meetings. In October 2015, the security forces loyal to the KDP prevented the Speaker of the Parliament, Yusuf Muhammad from the Change Movement (Gorran), the second-largest bloc in parliament, from entering Erbil. Muhammad was trying to attend a session to amend the Presidency Law, under which President Masoud Barzani’s term had legally expired, although he remained in office. The KDP referred to the session as an “attempted coup” and defended the decision to keep Barzani in office as a necessity of the war against ISIS.

The Kurdistan region also lacks an independent judiciary. In a survey conducted by the Democracy and Human Right Development Center (DHRD), among 300 people in the Kurdistan Region, 50% thought that the independence of the judiciary in Kurdistan is questionable, while 40% believe that its independence is at a medium level. The Ministry of Justice has a reputation for being an instrument of the ruling political parties to try political opposition. For example, in November 2017, the Attorney General brought charges against Rabun Maruf, a member of parliament who criticized KDP military commanders in a news conference for “endangering the security of the Region.” During an interview on Kurdstat News Channel, Karzan Fazil, a lawyer at DHRD, said that the courts cannot issue an arrest warrant to someone who commits a crime if they are at the level of officer in the security forces. He further mentioned a case where a member of the security services (Asaesh) was accused of murder, but was not brought to court because Asaesh refused to surrender him to justice. Instead, Asaesh asked for his case files telling the court that they will try him themselves. This may increase the number of retaliations carried out by civilians in society because people do not trust the courts. 

The lack of institutional coherence and the influence of the KDP and PUK politburos over the political process have facilitated corruption and mismanagement of public funds. These funds are fueled by the windfall in oil rents from the region’s rapidly growing oil and natural gas industry. Despite the introduction of reforms, including biometric employee registration and wage austerity, the reforms have barely scratched the surface of the deeply embedded system of patronage that has dominated KRG budget expenditures. While some low-level administrators have been summoned on charges of graft, so far no prominent officials such as ministers, deputy ministers, general directors, and governors have been prosecuted for corruption charges.

In 2016, the KRG requested a roadmap from the World Bank for regional economic reform. The World Bank prepared a detailed report, which recommends that the KRG take steps to diversify its economy by reducing obstacles to private enterprise, bolstering domestic agricultural and industrial production, and lessening reliance on imports. The report also recommended that the KRG increase access to credit for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), cut subsidies, reduce public sector employment, improve accountability, and tackle corruption. The report also recommended a need-based pension and welfare system that would reduce the number of public sector employees collecting multiple pensions.

However, the KRG could not follow the report on the grounds that it was in the middle of war with ISIS. To reduce its billion dollar budget deficit by limiting public expenditures, the KRG announced a new “savings plan” in February 2016. This plan proposed wage cuts to all public employees, ranging between 15 and 75 percent, depending on their position and pay-grade. The cuts disproportionately affected lower salary earners. Furthermore, the KRG was unable to consistently pay salaries based upon this plan, and civil servants’ pay backlogged for months on end, causing widespread poverty, particularly in the governorates of Sulaimaniyah and Halabja in which public sector growth lagged behind the other governorates. Residents in those areas were also overwhelmingly dependent on the welfare system for food, fuel, and income.

The Iraqi government cut the Kurdistan Regional budget every year since 2014, and therefore the KRG could not pay its employees. The results are clear: economically speaking, people live in severe conditions, forcing tens of thousands to migrate from the area. Another consequence is that, according to recent reports the crime rate is going up in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi has recently stated that his government is willing to pay the Kurdish salaries; the KRG has welcomed the call and said that doing so requires the Iraqi government to pay 1.2 million people. Paying that many people will cost Iraq 897.5 billion Iraqi dinars ($772 million). However, Abadi does not believe KRG could have 1.2 million actual employees on its payroll. He said, “The Kurdish parties have long employed people to buy their loyalty or for corruption. . . . Something that has to be stopped.” Abadi recently announced that Baghdad would begin auditing payroll lists for civil servants in the KRG group-by-group, and they would be paid as they are checked. However, Abadi might be not honest in paying the KRG’s civil servants and the legal budget share as the KRG desires, since this might hurt Abadi’s position in the upcoming May 2018 general elections.

The failure to integrate and reform the KRG’s security forces also weakened the position of the KRG vis-à-vis the Iraqi government. This is evidenced by recent attacks by the Iraqi forces on Kirkuk. According to Kaderi Haji Ali, a prominent Kurdish politician and founder of the PUK intelligence agency, “If the Iraqi forces had never attacked Kirkuk, they would not know the divisions amongst the PUK forces.” He said, “The PUK unit of 70[1] is very strong and had very good skills in warfare; Iraqi security forces could not fight them. But the Iraqi officials already knew that the PUK forces in the Kirkuk province were divided and received orders from two different sources, and therefore they attacked Kirkuk and then the Kurds lost all those areas previously under the control of the Kurdish forces.”[2] A united Kurdish army receiving orders from one single source could strengthen the KRG’s status against Baghdad.

Danger on the Horizon

After three years of wage austerity, political crises, and military failures, protests erupted in Sulimania, Rania, Halabja, Koya, and other towns in December 2017 to put pressure on KRG officials to implement radical change. Officials instead responded by implementing martial law and arresting activists and journalists en masse. Not only is there danger that the Iraqi Federal Government or other regional powers will exploit the security vacuum, but the mobilization of KDP-controlled forces to the PUK-controlled governorate of Sulaimaniyah to control the unrest raises the prospect of renewed partisan warfare.

The politicization of KRG institutions, volatile growth, and lack of reform have many serious consequences for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. First, through a series of political crises in which the dominant parties circumvented the KRG’s democratic institutions to impose their will, the region’s political parties, particularly the PUK, lost the confidence of their constituencies. Delaying and denying reforms paved the way for violent protests, and some of these protests might challenge the current political system and present themselves in the form of uprisings. In the worst-case scenario, the unrest could lead to civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which could mean the end of the KRG, as it would provide a pretext for Iraqi military deployment in the region, a possibility that PM Abadi alluded to recently. Additionally, the lack of economic reforms makes the KRG vulnerable to economic sanctions, food insecurity, and the volatility of the global energy markets.

Depoliticizing the Region’s Many Politicized Sectors 

Reforming the security services of the Kurdistan Regional Government is a large task. The first necessary step is to depoliticize the security forces. For too long, they have answered to political masters. The security forces and the Peshmerga ought to answer to the people and no one else. Second, implementing a political system that relies on a strong parliament enables elected officials to monitor the security services. It will significantly strengthen the KRG‌’s status relative to Baghdad, and it would end any arguments that the KRG is non-democratic. Having a strong parliament would make the KRG politically strong in the eyes of the West, and it may be able to exercise greater influence on Baghdad. Moreover, reforming the political systems will enhance human security inside KRG, which is now under threat. By agreeing to this new arrangement, the two ruling parties could reemerge as strong and popular parties. Finally, it is clear that inclusive reform will bring about a strong and democratic KRG. This improves the KRG’‌s ties with Western powers, for whom democracy is paramount. Democracy is lacking in the broader Middle East and having a proper democratic partner in the fight against Salafi extremism is truly important to Western leaders. The only way for the KRG to draw the international community’s attention to the Kurdish cause is to become a true democracy and a model for the region.

[1] Unofficially called Yakakany 70, the unit consists of counterterrorism forces, Kosrat Rasul’s forces, two presidential brigades tasked with defending the Iraqi president, and Zanyarî Agency and Asayish, for more information on this issue look at:

[2] Author’s interview with Kaderi Haji Ali, 2017.