How the no confidence move against Iraq’s premier split the Kurdish parties

By Joel Wing – Joel Wing, with an MA in International Relations, Joel Wing has been researching and writing about Iraq since 2002. His acclaimed blog, Musings on Iraq, is currently listed by the New York Times and the World Politics Review. In addition, Mr. Wing’s work has been cited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Guardian and the Washington Independent. You may visit his Blog Musings On Iraq at

In March 2012, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani came out against the continued rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He gave repeated interviews where he called Maliki an authoritarian who had to agree to real power sharing or be removed. At one point, he threatened Kurdish independence if this did not happen. The President then helped spearhead a no confidence drive against the premier, which failed. Barzani always talked as if he was representing all of the Kurdish parties and the regional government. In fact, differences between the various Kurdish factions had been building up beforehand. Barzani’s actions ended up making this split public, and was one reason why the no confidence move failed.

In the spring of 2012, President Massoud Barzani began to publicly express his discontent with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. On March 20, Barzani gave a speech saying that the national unity government put together after the March 2010 parliamentary elections was dead. He went on to state that Maliki was trying to take over the armed forces through his control of the security ministries, and because of this, the Kurdish parties would no longer cooperate with him. Ten days later, on Al Sharqiya TV, the president claimed Maliki was moving towards authoritarianism. That led Barzani to call the prime minister a new dictator the next month. Towards the end of April, he gave an interview to the Associated Press where he upped the ante again by threatening Kurdish independence if a new political deal with Maliki was not forged. Barzani’s chief of staff added that the president was tired of the prime minister failing to fulfill his promises to other politicians, and wanted him out. Through these statements President Barzani was staking out his position as one of the main opponents to the prime minister. This was two years in the making.

After the 2010 elections, the Kurdish Coalition solidified Maliki’s second term in office when it sponsored a meeting in Erbil in October of all of the winning parties who came to a rough power sharing agreement. Politicians then scrambled to divide up the top positions in government to ensure their own personal influence, and forgot about placing any checks on the premier, which had been the main reason why creating a new government had taken so long. Barzani was caught up in that process as well, and ended up signing off on the new ruling coalition in December despite the fact that Maliki was made acting Defense, Interior, and National Security Ministers. Unsurprisingly, the prime minister did not follow through with the Erbil Agreement as it became to be known, because he was safely back in office, and would face no penalties since his rivals had abandoned any restrictions upon him in their own pursuit of power. As Maliki continued to solidify his hold, Barzani became increasingly upset, which led to his verbal attacks in 2012.

That all culminated in President Barzani leading the charge for a no confidence vote against Prime Minister Maliki. On April 28, 2012, Barzani brought together President of Iraq Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Speaker of Parliament Osama Nujafi from the Iraqi National Movement (INM), Iyad Allawi the head of the INM, and Moqtada al-Sadr. Together they warned Maliki about the need to share power, and issued a 15-day ultimatum for him to comply with the Erbil Agreement. Maliki never responded. Barzani and the INM then tried to put together as many parliamentarians as possible to sign a letter that was sent to President Talabani expressing their desire for a no confidence vote. That was delivered in June. Talabani ended up rejecting it, because it did not have the required 163 signatures necessary for a majority in the legislature to take action against Maliki.

One major reason why that number was not achieved was because of Barzani’s actions. All along, Barzani claimed he was representing the Kurds, and all their different parties. It was he who escalated the charges against Maliki, and pushed for the no confidence vote. That didn’t go over well with Talabani and his PUK, and the Change List. While Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Kurdistan Islamic Union, and the Kurdistan Islamic Group all signed the letter, some of the PUK parliamentarians, and the entire Change List delegation did not. A lawmaker from Change said that the no confidence vote had nothing to do with furthering the goals of Kurdistan, while another charged Barzani of acting unilaterally. Before that, Talabani stated that he was neutral in the no confidence measure, that he considered the prime minister a partner, that he didn’t believe Maliki was responsible for the political crisis, and later told Hurra TV that he would resign if parties kept on pushing the matter after he had found the letter lacking the required number of signatures. The PUK leadership had also not agreed with Barzani’s attacks on Maliki, and had been snipping with KDP officials over it. The PUK and Change List saw Barzani’s insistence on taking on the prime minister, hosting conferences with other political leaders, and threatening Kurdish independence as an assumption of power. More importantly for Talabani, he did not want to see Barzani become a kingmaker in national politics if he was able to remove Maliki. This was a result of the shift in stature between the two parties. In the past, the KDP and PUK were roughly equal and had a power sharing agreement that in part gave Barzani responsibility for Kurdistan, while Talabani would handle affairs in Baghdad. Now Barzani was trying to control both. Not only that, but the balance between the parties has decidedly shifted in favor of the KDP, making the PUK feel like it was being left out in the cold politically. Overall, these splits showed that the KRG president did not speak for all the Kurdish parties, and that his aggressive policy towards the premier caused the Kurdish Coalition to fracture, and helped sink his proposal for a no confidence vote.

Beforehand, there were signs of these divisions between the Kurdish lists. One example was the handling of fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. In December 2011, Hashemi flew from Baghdad to Kurdistan to escape an arrest warrant, and ended up staying there for several months. By March, Talabani said that Hashemi’s presence was an embarrassment to the KRG, and that he should leave since he was wanted on terrorism charges. The next month, a Change List parliamentarian commented that Hashemi should not return to Kurdistan after he was done with a tour of neighboring states. He went on to say that Hashemi’s stay was only increasing attacks upon Kurds by other parties, and asked why the KRG should pay the price for Hashemi’s actions. Similarly, PUK deputy secretary general Barham Salih stated that the Kurds should not be involved in Hashemi’s case, because it could blow back on them. Unsurprisingly, the PUK and Change List who were critical of Barzani hosting Hashemi, while he was trying to get out of his court case, were the same two parties that did not join Barzani on the no confidence vote. Some of their complaints about the Hashemi issue were similar to those over Barzani’s handling of Maliki. Namely, that Barzani did not consult with the other Kurdish parties, and acted by himself when he decided to take Hashemi in.

There was a more recent sign of this Kurdish split as well when Barham Salih travelled to Baghdad in August. Salih was supposed to represent a new Kurdish council meant to repair relations between the regional and central government after the no confidence vote. The two leaders of the Kurdish Coalition in parliament welcomed his arrival, and Salih went on to meet Maliki and other officials. At the same time, a source told AK News that Salih did not represent the Kurdish Coalition. Instead, the source claimed that Salih was only there for the PUK, and that he would have no role in mediating between Maliki and Kurdistan. A telling sign was that Salih’s delegation was only made up of PUK members, with no one from Barzani’s KDP. Here, Salih’s group was supposed to represent the Kurdistan Regional Government, but he was attacked in the KRG press. It was also an obvious partisan move, because the source claimed that any delegation made up only of the PUK could not represent the region. The fact that no one from the KDP was present in Salih’s party might have been payback for the PUK failing to come through on the no confidence letter.

When Barzani was leading the charge against Prime Minister Maliki, the president was making his presence known in Iraqi national politics, while overlooking those in Kurdistan. Barzani had grown angry about Maliki’s policies, and decided that the time was ripe to move against him, and try to remove him from office. He consulted with likeminded politicians from around the country, he made a series of sharp verbal attacks upon the premier, and then helped organize the no confidence letter. All of this caused resentment and fears within some factions of the Kurdish Coalition. The Change List never seemed to buy into Barzani’s insistence on confronting Maliki, while the PUK thought that the president was attempting to usurp too much power. Both felt left out of any of the decision making as well. Today these divisions still exist, despite some public statements that all the Kurdish parties are working together. The PUK used to have a more equal footing with the KDP, but has been losing stature in Kurdistan in the last several years. The Change List on the other hand, is one of the newest parties in the region, and has tried to challenge both Talabani and Barzani. Neither was therefore happy with the political situation within the region, and that ultimately was why they dissented from Barzani over Maliki and the no confidence vote. These larger issues are as of yet unresolved, so the next time there is a political crisis in Iraq, they will come to the fore publicly again.


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