MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing – The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.


By Winthrop Rodgers, a journalist and analyst based in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

March 22, 2023, 3:56 PM : Chamchamal is a dry, dusty city with a rough-and-ready reputation. Midway between Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan Region, the city—known sometimes by its nickname “Texas”—lies near significant reserves of natural gas. But locals hardly benefit from the lucrative resource buried beneath their homes. Most get by on a few hundred dollars a month, and unemployment is widespread—particularly among young people.

Twenty years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is often held up as an island of democratic promise and economic development in an otherwise illiberal Middle East. Iraqi Kurds strongly supported the United States’ toppling of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and continue to regard it as a positive development.

Iraqi Kurds have long fought Baghdad for self-determination—efforts met mostly with cruel oppression. During the genocidal Anfal campaign in the 1980s, Saddam’s army used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. Since the 1990s, Iraqi Kurds have been close partners of the United States and other Western countries, working together to topple Saddam and then the Islamic State. While most observers agree that the Iraq War did not make Iraq more prosperous or democratic, Iraqi Kurdistan seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by regime change.

But today, things look bleak. The region’s political institutions are riven by partisan divisions and leaders who regularly deny citizens freedom of expression. Entrenched economic inequality and lack of opportunity are driving waves of migrants to seek a better life abroad. The day-to-day experience of most Iraqi Kurds, especially in smaller cities such as Chamchamal, is a far cry from that of the politically connected elite who live in luxury residential developments in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. This distinction is often overlooked by Western diplomats and visitors who meet regularly with party officials, business leaders, and young people educated at private universities.

If the Iraq War and its aftermath have taught us anything, it is that Western relations with the region should reflect the interests of its people rather than those of its political leaders. Democracy, unity, and self-determination are deeply held ambitions of the Kurdish people—and three decades of intense foreign support have so far not helped them fully achieve these goals. As Iraqi Kurdistan faces a crisis of democratic legitimacy, the West must use its considerable leverage and capabilities to hold Iraqi Kurdish leaders accountable for corruption and human rights abuses rather than reinforcing them through unyielding military and political support.

While Western governments largely ignored Saddam’s Anfal campaign in the 1980s, they were more supportive of Iraqi Kurds in the aftermath of the Gulf War, instituting a no-fly zone to protect them against aerial attacks. Kurdish self-governing institutions were established during the early 1990s.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq enabled the emergence of Iraqi Kurdistan on the world stage, free from the yoke and shadow of Saddam’s dictatorship. Established in 2005 under the new Iraqi Constitution—which was developed with extensive U.S. and foreign support—Iraqi Kurdistan has its own parliament and judiciary. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also has a full range of ministries with significant devolved powers, and the region enjoys its own foreign relations, security forces, and military, known as the Peshmerga. Nearly all matters of governance are handled by KRG institutions rather than those in Baghdad.

But in reality, power rests with the region’s two ruling parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP controls Duhok and Erbil governorates—the latter of which is Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital—and the PUK dominates Sulaymaniyah. In each zone, party officials are responsible for setting policy. Party connections are viewed as key to getting a job, starting a business, and winning legal disputes. The Peshmerga and security forces in each zone have partisan affiliations, too.