Halabja Province Monument in the sun's ray
Peshraw Mahdi - Used with permission

Halabja: A Province in waiting

On March 13, 2014, Halabjayis, myself included, finally saw their devastated city become the fourth province in Kurdistan, winning recognition by the KRG’s eighth cabinet. People filled the streets, engaging in joyous Halparke (Kurdish dance) and celebrating for two days, hoping the move would revitalize their city. However, their dreams have not come to fruition.

The primary goal for Halabjayis in seeking provincial status was to obtain specific privileges and benefits to alleviate the suffering caused by the infamous chemical attack in March 1988 under Saddam’s regime. This devastating event claimed the lives of five thousand people and left ten thousand others injured. Many of those later succumbed to their injuries.

Although Halabja was recognized as the fourth province within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), it did not achieve the status of the 19th province of Iraq. For that, it needed Iraqi federal government approval as well. On December 31, 2013, the Iraqi parliament began the process of recognizing Halabja as a province, but the process has stalled.

Amanj Raheem, the KRG Cabinet Secretary who drafted and submitted a new bill to the Iraqi Council of Ministers, told NRT English, “After the fall of the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki which began with the tenure of former PM Haider al-Abadi, the bill was abolished due to the subsequent deterioration of relations between Erbil and Baghdad, the bill did not receive the necessary legislative approval to be enacted.” He added, “The KRG financial crisis and the fight against ISIS were two other major factors.”

On February 2, 2015, the Kurdistan Parliament issued Law No. 1 of 2015 to form the Halabja Provincial Council, which consisted of 25 members and a specified budget. However, although this council was established on paper, it never saw any practical implementation.

Khadija Abduljabbar, a member of the Sulaymaniyah Provincial Council who is from Halabja and represented the city before it became a province, told me, “The very first step toward being a province is to have a provincial council, but even after eight years since the law was issued, due to political tensions and unwillingness, there is still nothing!”

We are called the next generation, but we are actually a lost generation.

According to Abduljabbar, Halabja should have numerous general directorates established, but only a limited few have been created. The city lacks a comprehensive master plan to guide its development and growth, operating without a cohesive and coordinated vision for its future.

While strolling through the main Bazar, which has the same layout and map as before the 1988 chemical attack, I spoke with Khelan, a 25-year-old graduate, about the financial situation in Halabja. He complained, “You can see almost nothing but tea shops and cafes full of jobless people, or maybe some with very low payment jobs.”

He added, “Is it really possible to consider a job offer for two complete shifts, paying 300,000 ID? It’s nonsense!

“We are called the next generation, but we are actually a lost generation.”

Data obtained by NRT English shows that between 2020 and early 2023, more than 500 families moved from Halabja, with a population of 132,500, to other cities, mostly Sulaymaniyah. The high rate of unemployment, lack of private sector activities, and poor public services are key factors, according to Abduljabbar.

On September 14, 2022, the KRG Ministry of Reconstruction and Housing announced the foundation stone of the road and bridge project of Twaqwt, which links Halabja to Garmian areas. Abduljabbar expressed frustration, saying, “But like other projects, nothing happened.”

Kawa Ali, deputy governor of Halabja, said, “Halabja lacks the infrastructure that a province needs, there wasn’t any special budget to reconstruct the devastated areas, it is suffering fiercely from continuing political disputes between the ruling parties.”

Ali explained that more than 200 suspended projects require about 234 billion Iraqi dinars to restart, but unfortunately, the budget allocated to Halabja isn’t enough to resume even 10% of the suspended projects.

Ali also mentioned that more than 30 government offices and general directorates have not been opened yet, especially the customs administration and major cross-border gates, “which can be a rich source of revenue for the province.”

Another ray of hope

The new bill to elevate Halabja to a province was approved by the General Secretariat of the Iraqi Council of Ministers on March 15, 2023, and was sent to the parliament. Last week, Iraq’s federal parliament finished the second reading and discussion on the bill regarding the establishment of the Halabja province.

Amanj Raheem, the KRG Cabinet Secretary who presented at the session, told me that “today, the parliament added one more article to the bill which is giving the KRG the authority to add any new areas to Halabja province and expand it, especially Said Sadiq and Penjwen districts.”

“We hope that parliament can vote for the bill before the approval of the Iraqi budget law so that Halabja as a province can enjoy all the entitlements that the budget law has given to the provinces,” Raheem said.

“Once finalized, Halabja can use half of the non-oil revenues for its own reconstruction,” Raheem added, whom the Halabjayis call the architect of Halabja’s provincial elevation.

Previously, Musana Amin, an Iraqi MP representing the Halabja constituency, had informed NRT English that some political parties, particularly those with Shia-majority areas such as Tal Afar and Amreli, are attempting to extract concessions for their own constituencies by demanding certain districts get upgraded in status before voting to confirm Halabja’s upgrade to a province.

However, according to Amanj Raheem, who presented at the session, “unlike the first reading, it went very smoothly, there was a lot of support and consensus among all factions and no objections against the bill at all.”

Hawraman Hamasharif, a former Kurdistan Justice Group MP at the Kurdistan Parliament, said that “we have seen almost nothing after 2014 as Halabjayis, we hope that formalizing it as the 19th Iraqi province can result in reconstructing Halabja and provide comfort to some of the 1988’s chemical attack’s victims.”

Hamasharif, who is also from Halabja, urges political parties “to put Halabja’s interests over their own interests.”