Politics, Economy, and Ideology in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2003: Enduring Trends and Novel Challenges

By Leezenberg, Michiel | Arab Studies Journal, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Politics, Economy, and Ideology in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2003: Enduring Trends and Novel Challenges


Leezenberg, Michiel, Arab Studies Journal


In the months preceding the 2003 US-led war against Iraq, area specialists and humanitarian agencies issued dire warnings and predictions, especially concerning the Kurdish-controlled region. Humanitarian organizations feared a new chemical strike by the Iraqi army against the local civilian population, which would provoke a refugee crisis similar to the one that occurred in the a ftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Others argued that a Kurdish move against, and perhaps conquest of, the oil-rich city of Kirkuk would automatically draw Turkey into the war, with wholly unforeseeable consequences. For the longer run, some commentators voiced fears that the Kurds risked losing everything they had achieved. Others argued that regime change would inevitably lead to Kurdish secession from Iraq. More than ten years after the war, however, none of the above scenarios has played out, and none of them is very likely to do so in the foreseeable future. Instead, the Kurdistan region has on the whole remained remarkably stable politically, and even flourished economically. It has largely been spared the economic and political instability and the horrendous violence that the rest of Iraq has suffered under and after the US occupation-at least until the meteoric rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. Although, obviously, one should not trivialize or underestimate the potentially disruptive character of major economic and other changes, this relatively stable and peaceful character of the Kurdistan region calls for explanation, and requires us to nuance generalizations about post-war Iraq's instability.1

In the present contribution, I will sketch some of the main political, economic, and ideological developments the region has witnessed since 2003, and point out some of the continuities with the more remote past. Economically, I will argue, the region remains characterized by, and dependent on, oil extraction and export. Politically, or more precisely organizationally, it displays a continuing Leninist tradition, in the sense of a persistent attempt to have a single party dominate political life as well as civil society (or, put differently, by pervasive and tenacious forms of party patronage). Ideologically, secular Kurdish nationalism continues to flourish. The first of these continuities is not very surprising. The second is rather more unexpected, especially in light of the various uprisings and protests against the nepotism of ruling elites that occurred throughout the Arab world in 2011. The third continuity is perhaps most remarkable of all. Until 2003, Iraqi Kurdish nationalism primarily positioned itself against Ba'thist Arab nationalism. However, Arab nationalism has ceded a lot of ground over the past decades. For a long time, even progressive and otherwise critical Western-based thinkers, like Edward Said, continued to see Iraq as a selfevidently Arab state.2 Since then, in Iraq at large, secular Arab nationalism, though by no means dead, appears to have largely been superseded by territorial Iraqi nationalism, Islamist discourse, and sectarian identity politics. In the Kurdish region, however, secular nationalism is alive and kicking. Although there are several Islamist parties, and although Kurdish society is visibly more Islamic than it was two decades earlier, political Islam and sectarian identity politics are nowhere near as influential as in central and southern Iraq, not to mention neighboring states. Again, the main challenge is to explain this distinct trajectory.

Below, after a brief account of the crucial years following the 1991 uprising and establishment of a de facto (though unrecognized) Kurdish statelet, I will trace the main political, economic, and ideological developments of the decade following the 2003 US-led war. Two caveats are in order: first, given this focus on political, economic, and ideological factors, this article will hardly address social and cultural developments. Thus, I will have little to say concerning ethnic relations and minorities, the development of civil society, changes in gender identities and relations, and the dramatic shift to nearly universal Kurdish-language education. …

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