"Iraqi Kurdistan's 2014: A Year of Unexpected Changes, Nasty Surprises"

A man gazes towards Kawergosk refugee camp, Erbil governorate, Kurdistan region of Iraq.

In 2014, every time locals in Iraqi Kurdistan thought it was safe to relax, the next surprise would keep them reeling. The shocks kept coming all year, ranging from political upsets to economic issues to floods of refugees to armed confrontations with the extremist Islamic State group. No wonder they're asking, what next for 2015?

The last year has been one of radical changes for the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. It would be safe to say the region, which has its own military, borders and political system independent of the rest of Iraq, saw some of the most fast moving political and economic developments for years – in fact since 1991's Kurdish uprising against former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and 2003's US-led invasion of Iraq, which toppled Hussein's regime.

Sanctions From Baghdad

In February, the political tension that already existed between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership in the northern city of Erbil worsened. And these tensions continued to be ratcheted up until almost the end of the year. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began to impose sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan because, he said, the region was not contributing its share of oil exports to the federal budget and therefore why should the region get it's share of the federal budget? Iraqi Kurdistan had been doing deals with oil companies and countries like Turkey independently of Baghdad – in June, the region announced its first shipment of oil through Turkey.

All of this caused Baghdad to cut off federal funding to Iraqi Kurdistan. The region managed to carry on business as normal for a while but towards the end of the year, the lack of federal funding really started to hurt. Government employees were not paid on time and the lack of circulating cash saw many building or other investment projects stalled.

Under the new government led by Haider al-Abadi and in the face of the threat of extremists from the group known as the Islamic State, this issue appears to have been resolved. However it is highly likely that this relatively peaceful and prosperous region will feel the effects of the “financial blockade” for some time to come, well into 2015.

Changes in Balance of Political Power

The various elections in Iraq in 2014 resulted in significant changes in the balance of political power both for Iraqi Kurdish politicians working in Baghdad and within the regional Iraqi Kurdish government itself.

After provincial elections were held in Iraqi Kurdistan in April this year – on the same day as the national general elections - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, managed to make a comeback, having lost votes the year before. This changed the balance of power making the formation of a government more difficult.

Adding to the problems around government formation was the fact that another party – the Change movement, a break away from the PUK – became the region's third most popular party and gained enough votes to be able to pressure both the KDP and the PUK, which had basically split ruling the region for over 20 years.

The Change movement managed to gain a significant percentage of votes in the Sulaymaniyah district – a traditional stronghold for the PUK – and this led to wrangling over who ran the provincial council right up until December this year. That’s seven months after the actual elections were held. The two parties have now agreed to share the job of heading the council for two years each.

It also took until mid-June for the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament to announce it's official formation.

The Magic Man's Return

One of Iraqi Kurdistan's strongest leaders and one of Iraq's most senior statesmen, Jalal Talabani, left the country for medical treatment in Germany in December 2012 and remained there for over 18 months. He returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in July of 2014 but he returned a diminished figure. Having left a power vacuum – his position in Iraqi Kurdistan and his post as the President of Iraq were both left vacant in his absence – it was hoped he might be able to help resolve some of the country’s political crises. However this was not to be.

Halabja Now A Province

Early in 2014, just days before the anniversary of Saddam Hussein's attack on the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja with chemical weapons, it was agreed that the area should become Iraqi kurdistan's fourth province – alongside Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk – and Iraq's 19th. 

As local news agency, Rudaw reported, Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani said in an official statement “that Halabja is a city that has suffered and sacrificed a lot and that, their wounds should be healed”. 

Extremist Nightmares

In early June this year, Iraqis of all kinds found themselves witnessing extraordinary events in the city of Mosul. The extremist group, now known as the Islamic State but previously recognised as both the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), had been present in Mosul for years. But now they had managed to take the city over. The Iraqi army had left the city without a fight.

As most readers know, the Islamic State, or IS, group's advance did not stop there. And suddenly the relatively safe area of Iraqi Kurdistan was flooded with refugees fleeing the extremist nightmare. Although the IS group's advance has been halted, stories about the extremists' brutal behaviour remain part of daily conversations all around the country. These conversations are particularly poignant in Iraqi Kurdistan, where many of Iraq's displaced remain in camps or other shelters.

The other major event brought about by the IS group was due to their attack on the city of Sinjar, north of Mosul, populated mostly by the ethno-religious group, the Yazidi. The massacres of those Yazidis who did not convert to IS' strange brand of Islam, the kidnapping and abuse of Yazidi women and the humanitarian crisis presented by Yazidis who fled the extremists and were left trapped in the wilderness captured the world's attention and was part of the reason that an international coalition, led by the US, began to fight the IS group. 

Displaced People And Diplomatic High Fliers

As a result of the crisis caused by the IS group and reactions to it in Iraqi Kurdistan, the region gained more attention – and some would say, respect - from the rest of the world. Almost 2 million displaced people from around Iraq and Syria have flooded the region and international humanitarian aid was required. Additionally, several nations have given weapons or training to the Iraqi Kurdish military because they are seen as one of the only bulwarks against the extremists' advance.

As a result, Iraqi Kurdistan saw many high ranking diplomats and politicians visit the area, including German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Renzi, and perhaps even more significantly for Iraq's Kurdish people, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Prime Minister (and former Foreign Minister) of neighbouring Turkey.

Up until relatively recently the relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey had been improving after years of conflict – those fighting for Kurdish independence in Turkey are considered terrorists by the Turkish government. And Turkey supported Iraqi Kurdistan in its somewhat ill fated bid for oil exporting independence from Baghdad. However the budding friendship chilled again when Iraqi Kurdish politicians accused the Turkish military of aiding extremist fighters in skirmishes on the Turkish-Syrian border and turning its back on the Kurdish military during the Sinjar crisis. 

Extremist Shadows Loom Over 2015

In general Iraqi Kurdistan has been one of the most peaceful and prosperous parts of Iraq. It's often described as “the other Iraq”. However since June, the proximity of Sunni Muslim extremists from the IS group has meant that the region is at more risk than before. At one stage, the IS group seemed to be advancing on the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil – no doubt this is another part of the reason that an international alliance against the extremists took shape. Erbil is home not just to the Iraqi Kurdish government but houses a large international community, including NGOs, aid organisations and oil industry offices.

Even though immediate danger from the IS group seems to have passed, the region is still labouring under the extremists' long shadow. Late in 2014, a car driven by a suicide bomber exploded near government buildings in Erbil, killing five and wounding over 20 others. At the time local military said, that with the extremists so close, they would expect more of the same and that they were tightening security even further.

And in the meantime, border security remains tough, refugees continue to strain Iraqi Kurdistan's infrastructure and local feelings about who is to blame, and who is a suspicious character on the street, are still running high. It seems that that long shadow will continue to cast a pall right through into 2015.

Written by Kawa Sheikh Abdullah for Niqash.org

Photo credit: European Commission DG ECHO

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"Iraqi Kurdistan's 2014: A Year of Unexpected Changes, Nasty Surprises"
"Iraqi Kurdistan's 2014: A Year of Unexpected Changes, Nasty Surprises"
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