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Domestic Divisions: Internal Conflict Confronts Iraqi Kurdistan

With recent offensive successes in Sinjar widely covered in the Australian and Western media, the Kurdish peshmerga of Iraq have been presented as one of the most formidable and effective forces in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). What is less apparent is the internal fissures that are currently consuming the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, and threatening to undermine efforts against IS.

The rise of the Islamic State, which swept across much of Iraq and Syria in mid-2014, has had serious consequences for Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Regional Government, while being one of the key players in the current conflict, has experienced severe internal ruptures. In the midst of a war with external forces, political and social divides in Iraqi Kurdistan are being exacerbated, which further undermines stability and security in the region.

It is widely acknowledged that fractures within the Kurdistan Regional Government have increased since the rise of the Islamic State, with the presidential crisis of August 2015 (which saw President Massoud Barzani’s term controversially extended beyond its constitutional tenure) an apt example of the many schisms occurring. The two major players in the internal politics of Iraqi Kurdistan – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – have attempted to present a unified front to the outside world, particularly those who arm and aid them. Despite this, the many deep fissures that divide society in Iraqi Kurdistan have become all too evident, in particular with widespread strikes and sometimes violent protests in the second half of 2015. Citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan are widely dissatisfied with the dire situation of the economy, delays in salary payments for public servants and a lack of infrastructure development. These issues have been compounded by the nearly 1.2 million internally displaced Iraqis who have sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, generating further pressure on the state.

The combination of tensions within the Kurdistan Regional Government have made many fearful of a disintegration of the security situation in the region. In the mid-1990s – within living memory for many – Iraqi Kurdistan erupted into civil war, and there is significant potential for the current political crisis to trigger the same violence in Kurdish society. Such a conflict would undermine the ability of the Kurds to fight IS, and also make them more vulnerable to attack.

In the wake of enormous internal tension, the rise of the Islamic State has been used by the PUK and the KDP to consolidate arms, manpower and influence. Both parties control armed peshmerga factions loyal to them. Foreign governments who have been arming peshmerga militia should remain cautious that they are possibly adding fuel to a fire that will implode on Iraqi Kurdistan. Nevertheless, some observers, including Denise Natali, see that the current war against the Islamic State is one of the forces holding the fractured region together, as most politicians are aware that infighting would significantly weaken efforts against IS.

For now, a political stalemate exists in Iraqi Kurdistan. Elections are not due until 2017, and given current conflict conditions, many reluctantly accept that little will change until that time. With the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul less than one hundred kilometres away from Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil, circumstances are not ideal for internal political dispute.

The struggle against the Islamic State is helping to hold an impending political crisis at bay. If not unifying, it can at least be viewed as a common enemy that galvanises majority public opinion in Iraqi Kurdistan. It will remain especially important for those foreign governments, who are investing in Kurdish forces as the best line of defence against IS advances, that meaningful political solutions are found that ensure the lasting internal stability of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Alexandra Biggs recently completed a Bachelor of Arts at the Australian National University. She has previously undertaken cross-institutional study at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: jan Sefti (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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