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Kurdish political division before Iraqi election weakens Kirkuk claims

By Paul Iddon 28/4/2018
A picture taken on April 14, 2018 in Kirkuk shows campaign billboards for candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Photo: Marwan Ibrahim  | AFP
A picture taken on April 14, 2018 in Kirkuk shows campaign billboards for candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Photo: Marwan Ibrahim | AFP
Following the demoralizing loss of Kirkuk last October, Kurdish parties remain divided on whether or not they should campaign there in the national Iraqi election in May. The region's leading party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), decided to boycott the elections in Kirkuk, declaring that the province is under Iraqi military occupation and campaigning there could therefore be interpreted as a way of legitimizing Baghdad's forceful takeover of that disputed region. 

The party has since clarified that it will not encourage any of its supporters to vote for any of the other parties campaigning in the city. 

"The KDP said it would not run in Kirkuk because it considers it occupied by Baghdad," Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, told Rudaw English. "The other Kurdish parties are campaigning there. This is part of the fallout from the [September 25 Kurdish independence] referendum and subsequent federal occupation of Kirkuk and other occupied territories." 

Wing argues that the real issue does not revolve around Kirkuk city or the wider province but on "whether the Kurdish parties can come together and provide a united front in Baghdad. That does not look to be happening any time soon as there are still very bitter feelings over the referendum, and the opposition parties have other complaints about the KDP and PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and their rule in Kurdistan as well." 

Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst and the Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute, also pointed out that the Kurds, as is the case with all participants, "are going into these elections more divided than they have ever been." 

"This will probably drive all factions to patch up their internal differences temporarily during government formation, including the Kurds," Knights told Rudaw English. "If the Shia parties coalesce first – which is a good bet – then the Kurds will lose leverage and be included as a 'nice to have' with no leverage, not a 'must have' partner."

Former Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, who was ousted by the Iraqi takeover of Kirkuk and replaced by an Arab governor appointed by Baghdad, predicted in a February interview with Rudaw that the PUK will "suffer the heaviest loss in these elections."

Karim is a member of the PUK which has long been the most powerful and significant party in Kirkuk. Elements in that party are accused by Karim and others of making a secret deal with Baghdad to surrender the entire province in exchange for some unspecified reward. 

The deposed Kirkuk governor has also called for a boycott of the elections in the region. One reason he gives is the large-scale displacement of Kurds caused directly by the Iraqi takeover. He estimates that 60,000 of those who fled Kirkuk are eligible voters who are presently unable to return to their region to vote. Karim has consequently vowed that he will "not take part in an election held in an occupied city, void of freedom."

Dylan O'Driscoll, a Researcher at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester, England – and formerly of the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) in Erbil – points out that "Kurdish parties in Kirkuk face a significant battle for support in the upcoming elections in Kirkuk." 

"Kirkuki Kurds feel let down by the PUK and the KDP has never had significant support in Kirkuk," he told Rudaw English. "New political parties have never really managed to take much votes away from the PUK, largely due to the fact that they do not seem to invest much time and energy in campaigning in Kirkuk." 

O'Driscoll estimates that as things stand now the Kurdish parties "are likely to lose out in the elections and although a return of the Peshmerga would help the PUK, Baghdad seems to be intentionally delaying this until after the election."

He doesn't anticipate that this will necessary "impact decisions on the future of Kirkuk" but points out that it will nevertheless "weaken the Kurdish position in negotiations to form a government." 

"Realistically, recent Kurdish losses meant that Kurdish desires for Kirkuk would not have formed part of these negotiations, so the loss would be felt elsewhere in Kurdish negotiations to improve their position in Iraq," O'Driscoll concluded. "For Kirkuk I think the local elections will prove important, but again this is unlikely to change the status quo." 

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