In Iraq, the Kurdistan Region’s Political Fortunes Are Fading

In Iraq, the Kurdistan Region’s Political Fortunes Are Fading
The Kurdistan flag is seen waving over a statue of Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Dec. 17, 2021 (Sipa photo by Ismael Adnan via AP Images).

Last month, the Iraqi army clashed with Kurdish peshmerga forces in the district of Makhmour, leading to multiple injuries and killing three soldiers on each side. While such clashes have featured prominently in the region’s history over the past century, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq 20 years ago ushered in a new political settlement in Baghdad, by which the country’s Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders began sharing power. This new reality shifted the logic of the country’s ethno-sectarian violence from exclusive, meaning aimed at toppling the government, to inclusive, which is instead a way to negotiate power within the political system. The recent violence in Makhmour should be seen in this light.

On the surface, the clash was the result of a power vacuum created by the departure from the district in October of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a transnational Kurdish militant political organization that fights for Kurdish rights in Turkey and Syria. The PKK has increased its authority over many parts of the region, particularly in the wake of the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in 2017. Both Baghdad and Erbil—the capital of the Kurdistan Region—view the PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S., as a problem. Together with Turkey, they effectively removed it from Makhmour.

That they then turned their guns on each other has to do with the broader shifts in post-Saddam Iraq, when Makhmour and other areas in northern Iraq became known as the “disputed territories”—a stretch of land that Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic and religious minority groups all claim to be theirs. Although the 2005 Iraqi constitution outlined a process to settle these claims, the conflict in these areas has never been resolved. Instead, the territories have become arenas in which the “equilibrium of violence” is periodically tested as part of negotiations between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, in Erbil. The resulting equilibrium that is created then indicates the changing state of power relations between the two sides.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.