- - Wednesday, October 14, 2015

IRBIL, Iraq — Iraq’s Kurds, who have emerged as the most effective U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group, have been plunged into a violent political crisis that threatens to split their government, adding a level of instability and division to the troubled region.

The crisis exploded after Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani refused to step down when his term ended Aug. 19. The decision has divided the autonomous Iraqi region’s leaders as they grapple with rising public discontent, the difficult war against Muslim extremists and frosty relations with the Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

It has revived long-simmering tensions between the two main Kurdish political forces, tensions that had been subsumed in recent years during the Kurds’ battle for greater autonomy from the central government in Baghdad.

Barzani wants to remain powerful, and the president has more power than the prime minister and parliament,” said Kamal Chomani, a Kurdistan-based independent analyst.

Mr. Barzani first won office in June 2005. The Kurdish region’s presidency is technically limited to two four-year terms, but in 2013 he extended his second term by two years in a deal between his Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK — the two main Kurdish political parties.

A 2013 law stipulated that Mr. Barzani’s term cannot be extended again, and the other parties have objected to his determination to stay put. But KDP leaders claim the president can be replaced only via elections. A parliamentary electoral commission rebuffed a call for new elections, leaving the situation in legal limbo.

In the meantime, Mr. Barzani remains in power. His high-handed approach and his rivals’ failure to challenge him and achieve political reforms are fueling popular discontent, critics say.

For the first time since the Arab Spring in 2011, demonstrations erupted this weekend in the Kurdish city of Qaladize over the presidency question. One person was killed and five were wounded, marking the worst political violence the region has seen in years. The incident was sparked when a crowd of demonstrators from Gorran, or the Movement for Change, a smaller opposition party in a loose alliance with the PUK, approached a KDP headquarters building, which was torched in the ensuing clashes.

KDP government officials responded by firing four Cabinet ministers and barring Yousif Mohammed, the speaker of parliament, a Gorran member, from entering the capital of Irbil over the weekend. Mr. Barzani and his allies say Gorran is largely responsible for the protests and escalating violence of recent weeks.

Mr. Mohammed denounced the move as a coup, telling reporters, “Everything that happened today and yesterday is a dangerous development for the political process in Kurdistan.”

Once considered a bastion of prosperity and stability in the era after Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurdistan has seen its image slip.

Residents are chafing under a creaking infrastructure, a stagnant economy and delays in paying civil servant salaries. Frustration with the bickering politicians is growing. Many Kurds suspect that money that should be used to improve public services is instead lining the pockets of politicians.

“There is a lot of corruption,” said Abubakir Haladiny, a member of parliament for the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), a third party. “Politicians are keeping the national resources for themselves.”

Both the KDP and the PUK acknowledge that popular discontent with the government is running high. Fundamental reform of the political system is necessary, and corruption needs to be rooted out, said Farid Asasard, a member of the Patriotic Union’s leadership council.

“Reform needs to be comprehensive and radical,” he said.

But KDP spokesman Mohammed ali Taha blames external factors for the Kurdish region’s problems, citing the financial toll of the war against the Islamic State, the influx of 1.5 million Iraqi and Syrian refugees into Kurdistan, and insufficient budget aid from Baghdad.

“All these issues aren’t related to the Kurdistan Regional Government,” Mr. Taha said.

Presidents and parliaments

Meanwhile, PUK leaders have been holding out for a major overhaul of the Kurdish regional government system, from a presidential to a parliamentary system, in return for their grudging consent to once more extend Mr. Barzani’s tenure. The proposed change would greatly reduce the president’s executive powers and increase those of parliament.

But Mr. Barzani has resisted demands to limit his office’s authority.

“We have stated that we can negotiate over the powers of the president. But if we look at those powers, his post is largely ceremonial,” Mr. Taha said.

A constitution drafted in 2009 has not come into effect, creating legal uncertainty that the KDP has been able to exploit. Analysts say the impasse likely will result in Mr. Barzani’s extension in office until the next scheduled elections in 2017, analysts said.

“All parties have realized that the deadlock will last until the next election or until a better environment is created for further debate,” said Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute, a Kurdistan-based think tank. “The negotiations became too protracted and have now lost momentum.”

The presidential dispute threatens to rupture the relations of the key parties at a crucial time for Kurdistan.

After the Persian Gulf War, the KDP and the PUK, which both command armed factions of the famous Kurdish peshmerga forces, fought a civil war from 1994 to 1998.

After the conflict, the groups divided Iraqi Kurdistan into two zones. The PUK governed its power base around Sulimaniyah, while the KDP ruled in an area including today’s capital, Irbil. The two parties reconciled in 2005 and reached a power-sharing agreement while maintaining their spheres of influence in their respective cities.

The system functioned relatively well in the early days, giving Kurdish leaders the stability they needed to expand the economy, attract foreign investment and pursue independence, a goal they have long sought.

Often over the objections of the central government, Irbil signed a string of contracts with international oil companies over the past 10 years to develop its burgeoning energy sector and built a pipeline to export crude via Turkey.

The success of the peshmerga at stopping the advance of the Islamic State — and even recovering some territory lost by the ineffective Iraqi government army — only bolstered Irbil’s calls for independence.

But Baghdad is resisting Kurdish moves to become more self-sufficient. Last year, the central government withheld budget payments to the Kurdish region, cutting off a prime source of revenue and strangling economic growth. A deal to resume payments in return for Iraqi control over Kurdish oil exports fell apart this summer.

The oil dispute has left the KRG short of funds to fight the Islamic State group on a front line that stretches over more than 600 miles, and to care for a continuing stream of refugees from throughout the region.

The peshmerga continue to hold off the Islamic State, and the resumption of the Kurdish region’s oil exports in June have brought in some much-needed cash. Even so, the political stalemate and a lack of reforms could further inflame public anger, the opposition warns.

“If things continue like that, the people will become more and more dissatisfied and tensions will boil over,” the KIU’s Mr. Haladiny said.

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