Monday, January 4, 2016

Iraq’s Divided Kurds, Political Divisions Amongst The Peshmerga Interview With Wladimir van Wilgenburg

While the Kurds are facing the Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq they are dealing with their own deep political divisions. The Peshmerga facing the insurgents are divided along partisan lines with politicians and members of the two ruling families the Barzanis and Talabanis controlling the units. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have also taken shots at each other in their respective media outlets about how they are doing in the war. To help explain these differences is Wladimir van Wilgenburg a freelance journalist and analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, who recently contributed to a recent Carnegie paper on Kurdistan’s political armies as part of a project on civil-military relations in the region. He can be followed on Twitter at @vvanwilgenburg.

1. Officially there is a Peshmerga Ministry and several unified Peshmerga Brigades that have both KDP and PUK fighters, but the majority of units are actually under political control. Not only that but the front with the Islamic State is divided up along partisan lines and under command of various political and family figures from the two ruling parties. Can you explain how Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala provinces are split up between the KDP and PUK, and who some of the commanders are and their affiliations?

The Kurdish areas were divided into two territorial zones of party influence:  one ‘green’ zone (Suleymaniya province) controlled by the PUK, and one ‘yellow’ zone (Erbil and Duhok provinces) controlled by the KDP as a result of the Kurdish civil war (1994-1998) and power sharing agreements between the PUK and KDP. Following the US-led overthrow of Saddam in 2003, Talabani’s PUK Peshmergas played a role in Kirkuk, while Barzani’s KDP forces played a role in Mosul in coordination with the US. The 1,050-kilometer front line between the Islamic state and the Kurds is divided into eight sectors after IS attacked the Kurds in the summer of 2014:  four under the control of the PUK including Diyala and Kirkuk close to the Iranian border and bordering Shia militias, and four under the control to the KDP including Ninewa close to the Syrian and Turkish border. Therefore, Baghdad needs the KDP and it’s leader Masoud Barzani for future operations in Mosul. This while the PUK initially cooperated with Shia militias to secure areas around Diyala (and parts of Kirkuk and Saladin province). An exception is the sector of Dibiz controlled by KDP-member and former parliament speaker Kemal Kirkuki in the Kirkuk region. 

One of most famous KDP Peshmerga commanders is Barzani’s nephew Sirwan Barzani, known as the black tiger in Kurdish from his days in the mountains. He is the owner of the biggest telecommunications company Korek, and sector commander of the black tiger forces for the frontline in Makhmour and Gwer. One of the most famous PUK commanders is Mahmud Sangawi, who commands the Jawlala sector, and was accused of playing a role in the death of a journalist but cleared by the courts. Family members of the Barzani and Talabani family also play an important function in the security forces, such as within the PUK’s Counter Terror Group (CTG) run by the cousins of Jalal Talabani, the two brothers Lahur and Polat and Talabani’s son Bafel Talabani, while Barzani’s son Mansour Barzani plays a major role as a special forces commander in the frontlines around Zummar and Mosul dam, and his other son Masrour Barzani heads the KRG’s security council.

2. One reason why the Kurdish forces have never unified is the historical rivalry between the KDP and PUK. How has that kept the Peshmerga, Asayesh and other intelligence agencies divided?

Officially, the Ministry of Peshmerga controls 14 unified brigades of roughly 40,000 Peshmerga personnel.  But around 120,000 Peshmergas remained outside the control of the Ministry of Peshmerga (MoP), and instead under the control of the political parties (the PUK’s 70th Brigade, and KDP’s 80th Brigade). Furthermore, more importantly even the unified Peshmerga brigades are influenced by the parties that dominate certain sectors. Therefore the sectors closer to the Iranian border are influenced by PUK politics, while the sectors closer to the Syrian and Turkish borders such as the frontlines around Ninewah are influenced by KDP politics. In addition, the KDP and PUK run their own intelligence and internal security police forces (Asayish), that compete in cities like Kirkuk, and Sinjar (PUK is close to the PKK there). The speech of CTG head Lahur Talabani in Washington further exposed these divisions, saying that both KDP and PUK intelligence agencies never meet, and accusing the KDP of carrying out the Hawija raids without his knowledge. Technically speaking the CTG falls under the KRG Security Council led by Masrour Barzani, but in reality Masrour and Lahur never work with each other.

3. In the last Kurdish elections the Gorran/Change list became the second largest party disturbing the power sharing agreement between the KDP and PUK that had split the government administration 50-50 between them. Because of Gorran’s success at the ballot box it was given the Peshmerga Ministry. What have they been pushing for with the Peshmerga and have they been successful?

The main campaign slogan of Gorran was Change. They wanted to reform the political system and stop the parties from using the security forces as part of the clientelistic system. Owing to its stellar performance in the Kurdish elections, the Change list was given the portfolio of Peshmerga affairs in 2014. The Peshmerga Minister Mustafa Sayid Qadir’s goal was to attempt to unify more Peshmerga brigades under the Ministry of Peshmerga, and to decrease the influence of political parties by attempting to delink the parties from giving salaries to Peshmergas directly. For instance, he stopped parties influencing the distribution of weapons delivered by the West. However, the war against the Islamic state and the political crisis in the KRG over Barzani’s presidency made it more difficult for Gorran to make reforms.  In October, four of Gorran’s ministers were removed from the cabinet by the KDP after Gorran and KDP failed to reach a consensus last August if Barzani should stay as president or not. Now Gorran’s Peshmerga Minister, and his advisor Saeed Kakei, are no longer part of the Ministry of Peshmerga Ministry.

4. Finally, you recently wrote that there is little chance that the KDP and PUK will give up their control of their military units. Why don’t you think there will be much change, and how will that affect the political development of the Kurdistan region?

The distrust between the KDP and PUK are too high. This distrust extends to the foreign relations of each party with the KDP being close to Turkey, and the PUK closer to Iran and Baghdad. The current highly volatile political situation and war does not improve the trust between the parties with the KDP growing even closer to Turkey. The KDP works with Turkey to train Sunni forces in Bashiqa, which is now opposed by Iran and Baghdad. The KDP only has a better working relationship with former Peshmerga Minister Jafar Mustafa Ali, who heads the PUK Peshmerga forces. So far the distrust has not hampered the war against the Islamic State much due to the division of the territorial frontlines into KDP and PUK zones, apart from in special operations and intelligence sharing. Furthermore, the dominant role the PUK plays in the frontlines with Shia militias prevents the tensions from escalating in the areas around Diyala, Saladin and Kirkuk due to PUK’s good ties to Iran and Baghdad, while the dominant role the KDP plays in Sinjar results in more tensions between the Peshmerga and PKK forces, which delayed operations. However, the KDP’s closer ties to Turkey could hamper cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurds over Mosul, due to the fact Turkey wants to play a role in the ‘liberation’ of Mosul.

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