As tension has been rising in recent months between the central Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdistan, an opposition figure from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has said that this is all about propaganda in the run-up to the approaching elections.
“Next April, there will be elections in Iraq for provincial councils. [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-] Maliki needs his propaganda,” said Nawshirwan Mustafa, leader of the Gorran Movement for Change, which has 25 seats in the 111-seat KRG parliament, which reserves 11 seats for minorities.
Baghdad's Arab-led central government and Arbil's KRG agreed on Thursday to calm a tense standoff between their troops by gradually withdrawing them from disputed territories along their internal border. Their military build-up has threatened the country's fragile unity since US troops left about a year ago.
Local residents in the contested areas would oversee their own security, under the plan announced by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's office, and committees will be set up to form the security forces according to the percentage of ethnic groups in each area, after which Iraqi and Kurdish military forces will start to pull back.
In November, there were clashes in Tuz Khurmatu between Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraqi Dijla Operations Command (DOC) troops, during which two people were killed and 10 others wounded. The two sides have previously come close to confrontation only to pull back at the last moment.
Mustafa, sometimes referred as the “legendary peshmerga commander,” elaborated on the issue and explained how and why the Gorran movement has emerged as an influential opposition force in the KRG, answering our questions in Sulaimaniya.
Would you tell us about the Gorran Movement for Change? It started as a movement but it is now a political party, right?
Still, it is a movement, but this is the case: In Iraqi Kurdistan, you need to obtain a license from the Interior Ministry to engage in political activity. Gorran obtained the license two years ago. And the elections were held three years ago.
You left the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Why did you make this decision?
In Iraqi Kurdistan, we have had different priorities at different stages. After the 1991 uprising, there was no administration in this area; there was a power vacuum in security and administration. At that time, we had to fill the vacuum. And then there was internal fighting. We were thinking about how to bring about a cease-fire. And then there was work on how to draft an Iraqi constitution, and for that, we needed to work altogether. After the constitution was made, we thought about starting an internal process of reform in different sectors of society -- economy, culture, administration, ending corruption, providing social justice, bringing transparency in regards to the budget and local revenues and expenditures. Gorran was a political and social movement in the beginning, and then it became a political party.
What is the ideology that the party affiliates itself with?
It has no ideology. We are neither social democrats nor nationalists. We have people who subscribe to various ideologies within Gorran. We can say that we are working toward social justice.
An election to elect the new KRG parliament is scheduled for July of next year. Do you expect to increase the number of seats in the KRG Parliament after the elections?
The Gorran movement is very strong at the moment and has the largest proportion of popular support in the region. Over the past three-and-a-half years, we have managed to gain the people's support and trust. In addition to this, during the previous election, the Gorran movement was still very new, and as such was very disorganized. However, we have since had sufficient time to organize our movement in a far more democratic structure than any of the other political parties in the region. So, as far as the next election goes, I believe that we should be much stronger going into it; however, the outcome depends on how fair the elections will be, as vote rigging and intimidation by the government plagued the previous election.
‘Inequality, corruption rampant'
And why do you think the people should vote for Gorran?
Gorran stands on a platform of social justice in a country where inequality and corruption are rampant. Over the past three-and-a-half years, Gorran has overcome many obstacles and has stayed true to this platform, fighting stringently to bring equality, democracy and transparency to this region, and will continue to work to bring positive change.
What is your opinion about the formation of the DOC as it was established upon orders from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki in August 2012 in the three provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala and Saladin, which are considered disputed regions?
Gorran has prepared a paper with regard to how to solve the problem. We suggested that parliament establish one delegation and not send different delegations each time. There are different levels to solve it, but it should be solved according to the Iraqi constitution and through dialogue.
There have been delegations between the KRG and Baghdad to solve the problem. Have you been involved in this work?
From our point of view, there is no need for such delegations. That is the job of the gentlemen in Baghdad. In Baghdad, we have President Jalal Talabani and several Kurdish ministers. In addition, the number of Kurdish members of parliament is 58. There is no need to send a delegation from here. However, we have prepared a project for the Kurdistan parliament to build a permanent delegation.
The latest news reports indicate that Baghdad and Arbil agreed to defuse the standoff between their troops by gradually withdrawing them from disputed territories. Do you expect this conflict to re-emerge between Baghdad and Arbil? Do you think Mr. Maliki has the tendency to take unilateral action?
Next April, there will be elections in Iraq for provincial councils. Maliki needs his propaganda. Therefore, in the disputed areas of Kirkuk, Diyala and Saladin, he needs a political discourse to get the support of Arabs in those areas. Most of the population in those areas is Sunni Arab. Maliki is trying to get the support of the Sunni Arabs, and so this is why he acts this way. He is not acting alone. There is Iranian influence, Turkish influence, American influence, etc. It is an open area for competition among regional and international superpowers.
‘Political situation unstable in Iraq'
Some international observers note that this power play has the potential to lead to an Arab-Kurdish war. Do you agree with this?
According to my information, there will be no war, no battle; both sides are putting pressure on each other. In the end, they will avoid a military clash.
It seems like the Kurds here are mentally divorced from Baghdad. Do you see independence for Kurds in the future of Iraq?
It is the dream of all Kurds to have an independent state. However, one has to take into account the realities of the situation and realize that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done before we can start thinking about independence. So, as it currently stands, I believe it will be some time before we can start considering this realistically.
What do you see in the future of Iraq?
The political situation in Iraq is not stable. There is no strong central government. There is a high level of corruption, there is terrorism, there is nepotism, and there is interference in political affairs by different countries. There is polarization in the world; there is Russia and China on one side, and there are European countries and the United States on the other. There is also polarization in the Middle East; on one side, there is Iran, on the other, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Inspired by the Arab uprisings, there were the Sulaimaniya protests in February 2011. The demonstrations started peacefully, but then there were clashes between security forces and the demonstrators. What were the people asking and what happened?
They were demanding political, economic and social reforms. They were suppressed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and PUK. They killed 10 people, and there were more than 500 injuries.
Why did the protests stop?
In part because of the violent crackdown by the government, which resulted in the deaths of 10 people, several of whom were children, and many others being injured. We also wanted to provide the government with an opportunity to engage in peaceful dialogue in the hope that we could reach a peaceful resolution to our internal issues. However, there is no guarantee that protests won't start again if the government fails to bring forth the necessary changes.
‘We have Iranian, Turkish influence'
Observers point out that there is Iranian influence in Sulaimaniya and Baghdad. Do you agree?
Many of the Iraqi opposition leaders and many of the Kurdish leaders were in Iran for a long time. There are many Iranian companies here; they share a religion; there is a 1,000-kilometer-long border between Iraq and Iran. With Turkey, it is the same. There are 1,000 Turkish companies in Arbil; there are Turkish schools, Turkish universities and Turkish hospitals. It is normal to have Iranian influence and Turkish influence here.
What would you say about the economy in the Iraqi Kurdistan?
The KRG's budget comes from the central government in Baghdad. The KRG gets 17 percent of the Iraqi budget; 97 percent of the KRG budget comes from Baghdad, about $14 billion. We have no economy. Only 3 percent comes from local revenue. Iraqi Kurds usually invest in the construction business, building hotels and houses.
How did you make Sulaimaniya so beautiful? Do you have a municipality here?
Yes, we have a municipality. There was a municipal election 12 years ago. Mayors now come through appointments, not elections. We also have a Governing Council, and we have a governor to take care of some city services.
You are an influential political figure in Iraq. And some observers see you as having the caliber to be a successor to Talabani when he leaves office. Do you have plans for the future in that regard?
Neither in Baghdad not in Kurdistan do I have such plans. We have our own political organization, and in the future I will never take an official position in the Iraqi government or the KRG. Twenty or 50 years ago, I was able to take positions of high rank. But I spend all my time serving the people. I hope to see my people happy with the political system, social situation and economy. This is my goal. I spent many years in the mountains. Many of my comrades died or were injured. I'd like to remain grateful for my position to serve the people.
‘Kemalist parties were never friendly toward Kurdish national movement'
How do you evaluate Turkish relations with the KRG and the whole of Iraq?
Turkish relations with the KRG are good, and it is developing day by day. We see it positively. I hope relations between the Turkish government and the central government in Baghdad improve. At the moment, it is not good. The tension between Baghdad and Ankara might be an obstacle to develop these relations further. Finally, the KRG is part of the Iraqi state, not an independent state.
As you know, relations between Ankara and Arbil were not really good in the past…
Maybe trade and oil are playing a role for a correction in relations between Turkey and the KRG. The Turkish policy change toward the Iraqi Kurdistan was after the [Justice and Development Party] AK Party came to power, and the AK Party opened the door for better relations between the KRG and Turkey. It was because the AK Party was not adhering to Kemalist ideology. It was the AK Party that recognized the Kurdish problem for the first time. Kemalist parties were never friendly toward the Kurdish national movement. Kemalist parties still do not recognize the Kurdish national identity.
‘Turkey's Kurdish problem impossible to solve militarily'
How do you see Turkey's Kurdish issue from here?
Turkey's Kurdish problem is very old. There has been a Kurdish issue since the establishment of the Turkish state. According to our experience, this problem is impossible to solve by military means. You can solve it, a nationality problem, only through political means, by recognizing the Kurdish identity in the Constitution; having Kurdish songs on television is not enough. In Iraq, the Iraqi army and the Iraqi government have fought against Kurds since 1919, when the British army came to Kurdistan. From that time until now, they have not been able to defeat the Kurdish movement. The Iraqi government has tried to solve the Kurdish problem by military means; it was not successful. When they recognized Kurdish national rights, the Kurdish identity, then it was some kind of a solution to the problem. In addition, the key point for Turkish foreign policy is to build good relations with Baghdad. From that time until now, the Iraqi government has tried to solve the Kurdish problem by military means, but it was not successful.
Nawshirwan Mustafa has been the leader of the Gorran Movement for Change since 2009. He is leading the official opposition in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with 25 seats in the 111-seat KRG parliament. He has been referred as the "legendary peshmerga commander” because he was the architect of the Kurds' 1991 uprising against the regime of President Saddam Hussein, when Mustafa was commander-in-chief of the peshmerga forces (1976-1992).
Born in Sulaimaniya in 1944, he completed his primary education in the same city, where his family roots lie. He studied political science at the University of Baghdad. He also worked as a journalist and published a political magazine. In 1971, Mustafa went to Vienna to study at the University of Vienna. He was one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and served as deputy secretary-general in the PUK from 1976-2006. His father was an employee in the Iraqi government, and they belonged to the middle class.