Iraqi protests highlight importance of autonomous Kurdistan region

During the recent protests in Baghdad, the difference between Erbil and Baghdad was clear.

Iraq Protests 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Iraq Protests 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
As protesters gathered in Baghdad this week, an important forum took place in the autonomous Kurdistan region. Titled ‘The Kurdistan Regional Government’s emerging strategy for stability in Iraq and the Region,’ it sought to emphasize the important role that the Kurdish region of northern Iraq plays in the country. Yet as guests gathered and speeches were given, including by the Prime Minister of the KRG, Masrour Barzani, the protests in Baghdad were harshly suppressed by the security forces.
The two scenes symbolize two parts of Iraq, one of which has gone through economic difficulties but emerged more stable and secure, and the other of which has large numbers of young people who wonder about the future.
It wasn’t this way two years ago. In the fall of 2017, the Kurdistan Region held a referendum on independence. Kurdish flags blanketed stadiums and a vote was held, overwhelmingly pro-independence. But Baghdad would have none of it and sent its tanks, soldiers and militias into Kirkuk to remove the Kurdish Peshmerga from the disputed city. It was a message to the Kurdish region: Don’t challenge Baghdad, we can sweep you aside.
Iraq has, since its foundation, been a contest between its center and periphery. When it was under the British and King Faisal, it was cobbled together with parts of Ottoman provinces. Mosul, which some thought might end up in the hands of a re-surging Turkey under Atatürk, was tacked on to Iraq to make sure the country had more Sunnis. The Faisal regime eventually was overthrown and a revolutionary Ba’athist Iraq emerged, full of the arrogance, social engineering and genocidal intentions that revolutionary nationalist regimes tend to have. Shi’ites were crushed and Saddam Hussein used gas against the Kurds.
Things changed after the 1991 Gulf war and after the 2003 US-led invasion. Now the center is dominated by Shi’ite political parties, many of them close to Iran. For the US, after 2009, this has been seen as a way to stabilize Iraq. Strengthen Baghdad, disregard the periphery.
However the KRG is rapidly become more central than Baghdad in some ways. Its cities like Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, are cleaner and function better than many other places in Iraq. The region has been free from the extremist terrorism that affected other parts of the country. It has challenges, such as political impasses between its two leading Kurdish political parties and their dominant families. However, there is deeper investment and new infrastructure in the KRG.
The Kurdistan region which obtained its autonomy after years of hardship has nevertheless been treated shabbily by some western powers that should have admired its stability and success. Instead they seem generally to want to strengthen Baghdad and not hold Baghdad to the same standard as Erbil.
During the recent protests in Baghdad, the difference between Erbil and Baghdad was clear. Baghdad used heavily armed police and security forces against the protesters, shooting dozens. It then cut off social media and sought to block Internet access. Locals even report that it is difficult to text and call friends.
This is not how a stable democracy that Washington or London claim to support usually behaves. The security forces of Iraq, many of them trained by Western governments as part of the anti-ISIS operations, now may be used against protesters. This is alarming. But it is also a tactic Baghdad learned from the 2017 operation in Kirkuk, understanding that heavy-handed methods will not receive much pushback. It has support from Iran, Turkey and other countries. Most of the region today fears the protests of the Arab Spring of 2011. They don’t want a free press or social media calling for uprisings. Some fear that the protests in Baghdad might have gotten wind from protests in Egypt last month or might lead to other protests in neighboring countries.
Many of the protesters are young men who have only known war and austerity. Many were born after 1991 – they were only kids during the years of sanctions and were in their teens when ISIS was rising. Today they face a bleak future with a government that does not invest in infrastructure and oil wealth that appears squandered. Instead, they are subjected to some pro-Iranian sectarian propaganda, which has not gone over well in the mostly Shi’ite south. This is an area that Iran and militias linked to it should have a hold over. But there was unrest last year as well. There is a pool of resentment. Baghdad pretends it is foreign actors that are responsible, the typical claim of paranoid regimes. But it is Baghdad that removed a famed and beloved commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service last week, angered people. It is Baghdad that has largely failed to fix things in areas liberated from SISI or provide a way for Yazidi minorities to return home.
At the conference in the Kurdistan region, speakers discussed the important role Erbil can play in stability. This is now clearer than ever. The question is whether neighboring states and international actors will begin to see this, or continue to sink costs into Baghdad where protesters are being shot. Baghdad can improve of course, but it must take the steps to do so. So far, it is not clear it has the leadership to reform.