How US-Iran tensions have destabilized the most stable region of Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan has had good relations with the US and the West since its inception.

DEMONSTRATORS ATTEND an anti-Israel, anti-US rally in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2019. (photo credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO / REUTERS)
DEMONSTRATORS ATTEND an anti-Israel, anti-US rally in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2019.
(photo credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO / REUTERS)
The Kurdistan region of Iraq has become the next battle ground between the US and Iran while it experiences its worst economic, social and political times. Lack of monthly salaries for the last six years has angered the population. Despite a costly and still continuing war with ISIS, the region has been stable since the last decade.
However, violent protests have erupted in the last days, claiming almost 10 lives in just three days. People’s final hope were lost in the regional government after three years of unproductive continuous negotiations between the two sides, when eventually the Iraqi parliament voted to stop spending all financial expenditures of the region, leaving the region’s population financially in ruins. The Kurdish regional government’s main term in the negotiations was to secure enough to pay its employees, while Baghdad wants to pay the region’s employees itself, which would undermine the KRG’s social base.
Iraqi Kurdistan has had good relations with the US and the West since its inception. No US soldier has died on Kurdish soil and the US has relocated its main diplomatic and military headquarters to Erbil, planning to open the largest consulate in the world in Erbil. US presence in Iraq both politically and militarily is almost over in most of Iraq; it is beginning its new entrenchment in Iraqi Kurdistan. Last year, the US State Department declared that NATO forces would be deployed in the region.
Despite having more than a thousand kilometers of borders with ISIS for four years, coupled with a financial and economic crisis, the Kurdistan region experienced no instability, to a degree that when European cities were targeted by ISIS suicide bombers thousands of kilometers away, no bomb was detonated in the Kurdish cities that were just kilometers away from ISIS headquarters. However, the US presence has rendered the region volatile.
US bases are frequently targeted by Iranian-backed militias throughout Iraq, yet it is not the case with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran uses its political clout in Baghdad to force the authorities in Erbil to cut their ties with the US and Erbil refuses to do so. Baghdad demands handing over all their authorities, including taxing, defense and paying the region’s governmental employee’s wages from Erbil to Baghdad. This would effectively lame the government as it would have no money to run the government. The authorities would collapse without financial backing from Baghdad to support the region’s armed forces and its employees. As time goes on, more pressure builds up, the employees’ hatred increases toward the KRG and increasingly they want their salaries to be paid from Baghdad.
The KRG’s revenues can pay only four to five wages a year. Since 90% of consumers’ money comes from the government, the private sector has suffered gravely as well. Therefore, governmental employees, including the armed forces, sustain the rest of the population. About 1.2 million out of 5 million are employed by the government, which is more than 95% of total employment. Thus the government’s inability out pay for its employees would affect almost everyone in the region and this has rendered the regime illegitimate. Coupled with people’s belief that the government is to blame for this disaster has got the region’s stability on the hook. Therefore, if outside pressure doesn’t work on the KRG, then pressures within would work and this is where protests come in.
IRANIAN-BACKED groups such as Kurdish Society Freedom Movement, the organizational unite of the PKK has its headquarters in the green zone and has participated in Iraqi elections securing two seats in the parliament.
Most of the protesters are young. They are idle, schools are closed mostly because teachers refuse to go to classes because they can’t live without wages. The youth are angry and indiscriminately attack all party and governmental buildings. For instance, a local headquarter of Islamic group of Kurdistan was burned down despite its members urging that there were hundreds of copies of the Quran inside the building.
The movement’s members participate in the protests and encouraging people to go to the streets. The youth are easily manipulated since the region’s educational institutions are one of the poorest and it relies on memorization of texts, and logic is not taught at all. The PKK has been under severe criticism from the KRG for stabilizing the region and the KRG’s attempts to oust the group from the region. Recently, the PKK and the KRG forces were about to clash. An Agreement reached by Erbil and Baghdad would end PKK presence in Shingal and hence cut PKK’s main supply line from Syrian Democratic forces in Northern Syria to the PKK in Qandil.
Similarly, this would cement Iran’s influence in Syria by keeping this corridor through Iraq. People’s Protection Units, the main component of SDF, is an offshoot of the PKK. Its commander was educated in PKK headquarters in Qandil. By setting this chain reaction, the protests would grow and force the KRG to reconsider its position.
The protests have been limited to governorate of Sulaimaneyah controlled by Patriotic Union of Kurdistan while governorates of Erbil and Duhok controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party are silent because in the past the KDP shut down all organizations and parties linked to the PKK. In this way, Iran could force the PUK to pressure the KDP, which dominates governmental apparatuses in Erbil to sever their relations with the US or lose their power by agreeing to Baghdad’s terms.
The KRG agreeing to Baghdad’s plan to pay the KGR’s employees allows Baghdad to secure all votes of the region in the upcoming elections scheduled for the next year, as the employees have no incentive to vote for a region that has kept six years worth of salaries. This would also pose an existential threat to the Kurds of Iraq, as it would dismantle its security forces. The Peshmarga forces have been maintained by the collation both financially and logistically. If the KRG doesn’t reach an agreement the protests would undermine and possibly end the KRG’s status as an autonomous region. However, KRG’s only salvation is financial expenditure from Baghdad since 95% of the region’s revenue comes from Baghdad. The US-Iran tensions prevent from Baghdad and Erbil from reaching an agreement. Unless the US steps in to help the region financially, which is not probable for now, the region faces a dark future both for the Kurds and the US.
The writer is a researcher at the political room of Gorran movement, Kurdistan.