Feature Story

The True Face of Kurdistan: Family Ruling, Oppressing Freedom of ‎Speech, Corruption & Nepotism

Hakeem Dawd

The first version of the story was updated.

Kurdistan Region of Iraq faces many challenges; the most immense one is economic crisis which is the result corruption. After 30 years of self-ruling, KRG has gone bankrupt and has no financial capacity to pay public employees.

For the last five years, public employees in Kurdistan neither have been paid full salary nor received on time. Aras Muhammad is one of more than 120,000 teachers who have been protested their salary delay since 2016

KRG’s main sources of income are oil revenue and federal budget from central government. Now Bagdad has halted budget contributions to the KRG, stating that Erbil shouldn’t sell oil independently.

The tension between Bagdad and Erbil is on oil and gas, but oil price shrank below 30 dollars a barrel in May. Kurdish government sells at least half a million barrels on daily basis. Before the shocking decline of oil price the income from oil revenues stood at $700 million dollars a month… Now it is less than $100 million

Four years ago, KRG reduced public employee’s salary to almost %50.  However, that measure was still not supportive. The Prime Minister Masrour Barzani criticized previous cabinet led by his cosuin for its huge misspending and mismanagement.

He said: “It is clear that in the past government spending has been both unjust and mismanaged. 80% of our revenue goes to public sector salaries; public sector beneficiaries make up 20% of the population. This ratio, according to common global standards, is far more than necessary for the Kurdistan Region. In the best of financial circumstances, 15% of the budget was used for running government and services, leaving less than 5% for investment”.

Apart from struggling to pay civil servants, KRG is also under a huge debt: Almost 27 billion dollars. PM Masrour Barzani said: “most of the responsibility for this debt rests with previous Iraqi governments for their failure to deliver the budget of the Kurdistan Region. As a result, unfortunately the government has no reserves, forcing us to depend on revenues received monthly. This leads to great uncertainty whenever financial crises emerge”.

Masrour Barzani’s criticism of previous cabinet is also part of his problems with his cousin Nechrivan Barzani, current President of Kurdistan Region and was former prime minister for almost 20 years.

It is not only public employees who are suffering, There is no social insurance for people with special needs and their monthly salary is less than $90.

In an interview with me, Head of Disabled Syndicate in Sulaymani Saman Hussain described the critical situation of more than 100,000 people with special needs in the region and begs for international support

He said “Disabled people have not been paid for the last four months. Their salary is only $80 per month. Their situation is catastrophe; we can describe their life as one from hell full of disaster! Thousands of disabled people are starving now; they even do not have a proper meal for one night. As we are approaching Eid of Ramadan now, everyday more than 700 people register themselves at our syndicate only to receive one kilo of rice, a chicken or are waiting to have one meal for them. There is a huge injustice in distributing salaries: for example a member of parliament has $80,000 every month while a disabled person has only $80 per month”.

Since its establishment as an autonomies region in the early 90s, KRG has been run by two traditional rival revolutionary parties; Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Barzani Family and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Talabani Family.

KRG’s deputy prime minister is Qubad Talabani, the younger son of Jalal Talabani who grew up in the UK. He acknowledged the number one challenge faces Kurdistan is not war with ISIS or political turmoil but it is unstable economy.

In the past, some western diplomats praised Kurdistan for its pro-western democratic values such as transparency and respecting freedom of expression. Now, their tone has changed. Special Representative of the United Nations for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert says Kurdistan region has no apparent difference with the rest of country.

She told the UN Security Council: “in the Kurdistan region as elsewhere in Iraq: transparency, freedom of expression, fundamental reforms, fighting corruption are of critical importance, as is political unity. Recent internal tensions do not serve the interest of the Kurdish people, far from it”.

Kurdistan’s population is around six million but almost one and a half million people are governmental employees. There are also ghost employees mainly members of two ruling parties, paid just to obtain the guarantee of their votes in elections

Opposition parties say the two ruling parties are the source of corruption, they claim both parties have billions while government is bankrupted.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi answered one of my questions in a Chatam House webinar last week, when I asked him about the reason behind Baghdad’s decision to halt federal budget to the region. He clearly says that KRG sells its oil but the revenue is nowhere to be found and no one know where that money goes?

After 2003, Kurdistan region has expanded and public service have improved, but still national electricity in average is less than 15 hours a day, many schools have two or three shifts; there are many problems with health system, water and roads.

In addition to other problems, with the new cabinet led by Masrour Barzanu, the oldest son of Masoud Barzani and New PUK co-leader Bafel Talabani and Lahur Talabani, the freedom of press and opinion is also under threat.

In the last decade several journalists have been killed and now as critics say, there is no independent media outlet in the region.

Kurds with 40 million populations are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. The only hope they have is the Kurdish region of Iraq, but that single hope is facing many challenges in the Middle East now, where they have no friends but the mountains.

New update:

According to by New Republic, Back in 2014 when Peshmerga forces were defending Kurdistan from ISIS & Erbil was under threatPDK & PUK officials were busy with their business. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars in bribing to secure monopoly on Pentagon fuel contracts.

Listen to the details of the report where I talked about it on NRT TV channel.

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