Iraq Protests Spark Fear Among the Kurds of Wider Constitutional Review

Burcu Ozcelik

AFP Photo: Safin Hamed

The anti-government protests in Iraq began as a reprimand of the government for failing to provide adequate basic services and for the rise in unemployment and corruption. The prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, was forced to resign last week. But as is the nature of protest movements everywhere, this one, too, has evolved, and Iraqi demonstrators now are making far-reaching demands, including an end to Iran’s caustic meddling in Iraqi politics and calls for constitutional reform. Yet, while the intent may be understandable, the ramifications of subjecting an “agreed” document on Iraq’s domestic arrangement to renewed negotiations will open up a Pandora’s box. And the Kurds of Iraq are perhaps the first to notice this.

Following the death of civilian protesters at the hands of snipers, protesters now demand constitutional revisions and changes to laws governing elections that they believe will ensure in the future a representative and transparent government free from Iranian meddling. The heavy-handed influence of Iran and its proxy force – the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU – is a source of the growing resentment that is now fuelling the protests. Iran, historically adroit at the game of geopolitical chess, has steadily escalated its sway over Iraq’s national politics since 2003, implanting and influencing political leaders such as ex-prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who helped deliver Iraq into Tehran’s orbit from 2006 until 2014, when Mosul fell to ISIS.

The Kurdistan region of Iraq, once branded the “Other Iraq” by American lobbyists to highlight Kurdish exceptionalism in a post-occupation country, has managed to remain on the margins of the protests that began in early October. While youths may make up the majority of protesters taking to their “Tahrir Squares” in the south, young Kurdish men and women see themselves as unconnected to the chaos gripping the remainder of the country. They see the demonstrations as an uprising by Shia youth against an elitist Shia establishment that oversees bureaucratic cronyism that disadvantages the poor, the working class and the throngs of unemployed young people of the south. As for themselves, many Kurds do not identify as Iraqis, and perhaps have never done so, coming of age in the relative stability of the autonomous region that was secured in 1991 by the US-led Operation Provide Comfort after the First Gulf War.

As a local journalist and resident of Erbil told me: “We grieve for the tragic deaths of the protesters. Kurds know too well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of disproportionate state violence. But many also think, ‘Why should I sympathize with the Iraqi today in Basra, when they did not stand up for my rights for decades? Why should I support their needs when they rejected the results of our democratic referendum for independence in 2017?’”

However, the Kurds are not entirely impervious to the political vicissitudes that preoccupy greater Iraq. The president, Barham Salih, formerly premier of the Kurdistan Region, visited Erbil in early November to discuss with Kurdish parliamentarians the constitutional amendments that are part of the reform package proposed to appease the protesters. Kurdish politicians, however, expressed reservations about amending the existing constitution. Indeed, some were alarmed that other provisions of the constitution might eventually be revisited once it is opened up for reconsideration. Ratified in 2005, the charter recognizes the Kurdistan Region as a legitimate federal entity.

And as the president of the Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, stated, “The main problem is not the constitution, but… that this constitution has been ignored.” Specifically, over the intervening years, Kurdish parties have repeatedly objected to Baghdad’s failure to implement Article 140 of the constitution, which sets out a political process to determine the future of Kirkuk.

Now, reopening the constitution to debate has reignited anxiety over what this may mean for Kurdish claims to Kirkuk. Najmaldin Karim, a former Kirkuk governor, warned: “There are threats on Kirkuk and Kurdistan and the main threat will be the denial of Kurdistani identity of disputed areas.”

Indeed, recent reports describe how posters of Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the highest Shia religious authority in Iraq, are being hung in front of government buildings and on security vehicles in the disputed city of Kirkuk.

The province of Kirkuk has been subject to a long-standing dispute between its Kurdish, Arab, Turcoman and Christian residents, and in the wider politics of possession between the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and the federal government in Baghdad. The visibility of Al-Sistani’s persona across Kirkuk is probably the work of a Shia political faction that seeks to exert a claim to religious and political legitimacy over the divided city. This mirrors the kind of vitriolic factionalism playing out elsewhere in the Iraqi state and could spell trouble in Kirkuk.

The decision by the Iraqi government to pursue national dialogue to review the ruling system and the constitution risks being little more than a symbolic gesture unless genuine improvements are made to the way the state of Iraq is governed. For, in fact, the current crisis is about poor governance, not the constitution. Indeed, opening up debate over a national document that was painstakingly ratified over a decade ago may eventually lead to greater centralization and less regional representation and plunge the country into greater disarray.

The protesters in Iraq need to be careful of what they wish for.

Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow at Cambridge University.