Alwaght- Although the two major political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan region, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), agreed in October on a candidate for the post of president in Baghdad after a long-term difference and both were recognized as partners in the central Iraqi government, their relations in the north where they rule are way different from what they are in the Iraqi parliament. In recent months, they have shown that their tensions are growing deeper and more dangerous day by day and sinking autonomous region’s political, economic, and security outlook into ambiguity. Recently, Nichervan Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) warned that the Kurdistan region is facing serious dangers and threats due to the ongoing disputes between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, bastions of KDP and PUK consecutively.
Aspects of tensions and differences
The differences between the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties are growing intractable day by day. These tensions have caused the members of the PUK, including Qubad Talabani who is the current deputy prime minister, to boycott the weekly meetings of the local cabinet.
Bafel Talabani - the head of the PUK and brother of Qubad believes that this gap is caused by several different issues. A few weeks ago, in an interview with Kurdish-language Rudaw news network, Bafel said the KDP punishes PUK-dominated Sulaymaniyah province and its management, does not pay people’s salaries, and does not even allow the deputy prime minister to do his duty. Specifically, he said that the KDP “does not allow Qubad to replace ministers or officials who have been involved in corruption cases.”
The prime minister of the KRG, who is the son of the KDP chief Masoud Barzani, has so far not given a meaningful response to concerns and criticism expressed by the PUK leadership, and even shifts the blame to the performance of the rival party. For example, referring to the tensions, Hemin Hawrami, the deputy speaker of local parliament and a KDP member, said that the two are at loggerheads over a set of issues, including the incomes of Sulaymaniyah.
The issue of oil revenues and the way they are spent and the accurate audit of the sales has always been one of the great ambiguities and important demands of the public opinion and Kurdish citizens in the region where economic problems in recent years have increasingly affected the living conditions and led to the formation of protests against corruption in the bureaucratic structure and the power pyramid in this region.
From another aspect, the tensions between the two parties derive from intensification of rivalry and change of the power equations of the past. In recent weeks, the assassination on October 7 of Hawker Abdullah Rasoul, an officer of the Kurdistan security council in Erbil who recently defected from PUK and joined the rival KDP, strained the autonomous region’s security atmosphere. The PUK strongly denied involvement in the assassination and demanded a full investigation into this incident, but also asked the government not to publish the names of the suspects of the incident until a conclusion of the probe is reached. But the security department led by Barzanis released the names and confessions of the suspects of the attack, triggering escalation of tensions.
Masoud Barzani is trying to crack the ranks of the PUK and weaken the traditional rival by capitalizing on its divisions and turn into undisputed power in the autonomous region. This means the unraveling of the old power-sharing mechanism in Kurdistan, which was reached after the civil war of the 1990s between Masoud Barzani, and PUK leader Jalal Talabani. A clear example of the breakdown of this agreement is the extensive efforts of the KDP to win the Iraqi presidential post, which has always been in the hands of the PUK after 2003.
Today’s tensions are, no doubt, an outcome of a 60-year dispute started by Mullah Mustafa Barzani and Ibrahim Ahmad who divided the KDP in 1964. The decision has caused historical, ideological, geographical, and even lingual differences. Now Masrour Barzani and Qubad Talabani are heirs to this dispute and the borders between the green and yellow parts of the Kurdistan region are practically returning, with many observers warning that should their differences are not solved, two-administration system can return and Sulaymaniyah would break from Erbil administratively and politically.
Dispute over financial resources
The PUK has been complaining about KDP punishment of Sulaymaniyah for over a year. In other words, sharp cut of Sulaymaniyah budget takes a center stage in their dispute. This is causing trouble to Sulaymaniyah paying its state employees and even security forces’ salaries. Currently, the PUK leaders claim that Sulaymaniyah province’s income - from oil sales, taxes, international border crossings - is still insufficient to meet the its basic needs. The shortage of funds has caused a payroll crisis in Sulaymaniyah areas such as Halabja, Garmian and Raprin.
Such financial problems originate from structural issues. The Kurdistan region is mainly dependent on a number of sources of income, the most important of which is oil. Oil has been distributed between KDP and PUK. Although the majority of these sources are under the control of the KDP, the oil produced from KDP-controlled areas is very low-quality and should be mixed with oil from PUK-controlled areas in order to be sold.
Most importantly, the differences between the central government in Baghdad and the KRG have not yet been resolved, and the decision of the Iraqi Federal Court to outlaw all independent oil exploration and sales operations in the Kurdistan region has become a major obstacle for the region’s oil sector, causing more financial challenges to the Kurds.
This instability in financial resources has become one of the biggest points of contention between the PUK and the KDP, particularly over the plan to export natural gas. Contrary to the KDP’s impatient efforts to start it, the PUK is strongly opposed. These disputes naturally led to bigger financial problems.
These problems are causing severe concerns among the citizens, as deeper disputes evoke the memory of civil war, financial crisis, and division of administration of the region.
Nobody is sure what comes next for the Kurdistan region, as the PUK and KDP are going their separate ways which are increasingly opposite.