Kurdistan tensions coincide with surge in security incidents

Tensions between the two ruling parties of the Kurdistan Region have provided opportunities for some to settle scores, exploiting the deteriorating security situation.

A series of security breaches in both Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, including high-profile killings, have raised concerns that cases of individuals avenging tribal disputes and settling old feuds are on the rise.

Relations between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have reached their lowest point since the infamous civil war of the 1990s, which left Iraqi Kurdistan politically divided. The bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and PUK leader Bafel Talabani has resulted in a dysfunctional governing system marked by minimal cooperation.

April has seen a noticeable rise in the number of reported cases involving retaliatory killings, injuries, kidnappings, and mistreatment of individuals. Observers point out that the presence of dual administration, mistrust in the legal system, a culture of impunity, and exploitation of gaps in security are major contributing factors.

On April 7, a shootout erupted in Khabat district, 35 km west of Erbil, between two families with light and heavy weapons. A man, father of three, was seriously injured in the fighting and later died in the hospital.

A week later, Mohammed Sofi, an Erbil-based lawyer, was subjected to a three-hour assault by four individuals. He had been representing a woman for two years and was due to attend a divorce hearing on the following Sunday when he was attacked by the husband of his client. The attackers subjected Sofi to verbal and physical abuse, including shaving his head as a form of humiliation, and even threatened to rape his wife and daughter.

On April 14, two people were injured in a shooting incident between two families due to an old feud in the town of Rzgari.

Kawa Baziani, a political, social, and military grandee, was shot on April 20. Local media outlets reported that the attacker accused Baziani of killing his father in 1985. In a separate incident on the same day, a police officer who is the brother of cabinet member Umed Sabah reportedly killed a young father in a road rage encounter.

On April 25, the son of Abdullah Kuekha Mubarak, a high-ranking official in the KDP, was killed due to an old family feud. The victim’s family allegedly set two of the perpetrators’ houses on fire.

Uncontrolled and unlicensed firearms

Aram Saeed, a Kurdish writer and journalist based in Sulaymaniyah, told NRT English that “when the judiciary system is not independent, the authorities themselves harbor suspects and criminals and do not allow the rule of law, then people will think of taking revenge on their own.” Saeed believes this is “creating the atmosphere that we have seen in recent days of killing, kidnapping, and abusing individuals.”

“It’s more painful that we see civil and political activists as well as journalists being unjustly arrested or attacked,” he said. “The perpetrators go unpunished or sometimes are rewarded or promoted by the ruling parties.”

The KDP and PUK each manage security within their respective zones in the Kurdistan Region. This arrangement means that neither party has substantial authority in the other’s territory. When KDP-PUK relations are more harmonious, criminals are less likely to seek refuge and protection in areas controlled by the opposing party.

However, during periods of heightened political tension, such as the present, opportunities emerge for settling disputes. There is an expectation that future agreements between the parties will either address these cases in a conciliatory manner or sweep them under the rug.

Although Kurdistan Region PM Masrour Barzani ordered the closure of all markets selling firearms and the seizure of unlicensed weapons in June 2022, the implementation of this process has been limited. Some families still try to use guns to solve their social problems.

On Tuesday, Interior Minister Rebar Ahmed issued a statement calling on the political parties to cooperate with the ministry to limit the spread of unlicensed guns and control the use of licensed firearms. The new measures include raising awareness among the members of the political parties not to store weapons in their homes, “unless absolutely necessary,” and call on guards not to take guns home but rather store them in dedicated storage in the buildings they work at. It also called on political parties not to gift guns to their members.

“The current measures taken by the KRG do not effectively tackle the issue of illegal weapons, as the KDP and PUK appear to be selectively disarming their rivals while arming their own militias. The military forces and security agencies still operate under the control of their respective parties rather than the government, making it difficult for ordinary citizens to comply with disarmament efforts,” Saeed said.

According to Article 6 of the 1993 weapons ownership law, any person over 18 and who is a permanent resident of the Kurdistan Region, and has no criminal record or mental illness can carry a weapon.

The Kurdistan Parliament’s Interior and Security Committee’s Vice Chair Balambo Mohammed admitted that “the lack of the primacy of law is the main reason behind increasing retaliatory killings. The perpetrators seek tribal, social, and political reconciliation after each crime; that is why the families of the victims will be disappointed and will try to take revenge themselves.”

Mohammed, a PUK MP, called on political parties to avoid providing refuge to individuals involved in criminal activities. Another reason, Mohammed believes, is the easy access to firearms and guns in Kurdistan region’s cities, and the government’s sluggish process of collecting unlicensed guns. “The government should treat all people, cities, and parties equally,” he said.

Public calls for dual administration

Despite being a minority view, there are calls to divide the Kurdistan Region into two distinct governing bodies in order to resolve ongoing problems and disputes. Ari Harsin, a former member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) faction in the Kurdistan Parliament, argued during a televised interview on Rudaw that “there is no solution to this situation” and advocated for the creation of “two separate regions, two governments, and two distinct parliaments.”

He pointed to the differences between the Erbil and Sulaimaniyah zones, citing separate security agencies, police forces, and traffic regulations, and noting that the Interior Minister has no authority over Sulaimaniyah, and that the Peshmerga forces are divided.

Warnings of escalation

Haval Abubaker, governor of Sulaimaniyah and poet, shared a poignant warning message on his Facebook page, cautioning about the potential for increasing disruptions to the security and economy of the Kurdistan Region. He alluded to the possibility of things spiraling out of control, leading to chaos or destruction.

Abubaker stated that while many opposing forces have eventually reconciled in the past, the KDP and PUK have yet to find common ground, reach an understanding, or achieve their goals.

He further added, “You played with fire, and you got burned. Now, the fire has taken control, and the fire has become the player.”

Although the parliamentary elections in the Kurdistan Region have been postponed by a year and are now slated for November, it remains uncertain whether the tensions between the two parties will subside or intensify as a result.