Iraq’s Islamist Kurds under fire from both sides of the war

Kurdish Islamist politicians say criticism of their religious agenda has mounted after last month's ISIL assault that threatened to overrun Iraqi Kurdistan.

Soran Omar and his fellow Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan's parliament say navigating politics has become harder since ISIL overran vast tracts of Iraq in June. Hawre Khalid / Metrography for The National
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ERBIL // Islamist politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan say they are under fire from both sides as the region fights off an offensive by ISIL militants.

Navigating Islamist politics in Kurdistan has always been a struggle, but Soran Omar and his fellow Islamists in the region’s parliament say it has become even harder since the radical Sunni group overran vast tracts of Iraq in June.

Local media, rivals from secular-nationalist parties and ordinary citizens accuse them of being terrorist sympathisers and insufficiently pro-Kurdish.

Yet, in July, Kurdish-speaking members of ISIL threatened to behead Mr Omar for being a moderate who participates in democratic politics.

“They said that when they capture Kurdistan, I will be the first person they would behead here,” said Mr Omar, whose Komal party holds six seats in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament. He recorded the ISIL threats, which were made on Skype.

“We are being threatened by Da’ash [ISIL] and slandered by the media for not condemning Da’ash. We’re being attacked by all sides.”

In an interview last week, he repeatedly condemned ISIL as “fake Muslims” and accused them of “using religion to justify a violent political agenda”.

Politics in the autonomous Kurdish region have long been controlled by the two main secular-nationalist parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which run powerful, oil-funded patronage networks.

Mr Omar’s small and conservative party and two other religious parties managed to win just 17 of the 111 parliamentary seats in elections last year.

The political scene is dominated by nationalist issues — mainly an ethnic-based struggle for independence from Arab rule in Baghdad. But the Islamist parties have built a support base campaigning against corruption and for a greater role for Islam in public life in a predominantly Muslim society that observers say has become more religiously observant.

They also have renounced the violent agenda that their Islamist predecessors espoused during the 1990s civil war in Kurdistan. That war largely pit the KDP against the PUK, but the fighting also included members of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, a group that sought to build religious schools as well as its own police and hospitals at the time. Its influence has steadily declined.

Ansar Al Islam, a Kurdish Salafi group that was founded in 2001, carried out a number of attacks against US soldiers after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The US classifies it as a terrorist group and some of the organisation’s members have joined ISIL.

But Kurdistan’s Islamist parties say they prefer multiparty politics and peacefully rooting out corruption to violence, and they have become increasingly influential in regional councils, such as Sulaimaniyah, in part by running a number of charity organisations.

Although stopping short of calling for a hardline enforcement of Sharia, they advocate a socially conservative agenda that includes covering women.

The Islamist parties even decided to quit the opposition and join the government after last year’s polls, in part to demonstrate their national bona fides. They say they will withdraw from the government if no progress is made in political reform and reducing corruption, although no deadline has been given.

But criticism of their religious agenda has mounted after an ISIL assault last month that threatened to overrun Iraqi Kurdistan and stirred up nationalist passions. This despite what Mr Omar and other Islamist legislators say has been repeated criticism on their part of ISIL, which has committed mass executions and attempted genocides against non-Sunni groups. But that has not satisfied their critics.

“People and media are saying these people are like ISIL and that they want to take us back to the Middle Ages,” said Ali Mahmoud, a leftist political activist and critic of Kurdistan’s Islamist parties.

“The problem with the Islamist parties is that they haven’t condemned ISIL and they haven’t been supporting the peshmerga in the fight to defend Kurdistan from ISIL,” he added, referring to the Kurdish defence forces.

Asked about the Islamist parties’ public criticism of ISIL, he said that did not go far enough.

The drumming-up of anti-Islamist sentiment by political observers is also seen as a ploy to distract from the embarrassing retreat of the peshmerga forces, which are controlled by the two main political parties, during the ISIL attack last month.

The attack exposed serious deficiencies in the once-vaunted peshmerga defences. Foreign intervention, including airstrikes by the United States, helped enable the Kurds to stop ISIL from taking their capital, Erbil.

“I think what we are seeing is something similar to the rest of the region, where moderate Islamist parties are lumped in with radicals. It’s a fairly standard political strategy,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“In the Kurds’ case, it is likely intended to distract attention from the rather inadequate performance of the peshmerga against ISIL. I understand that there is a lot of anger directed at [Kurdistan’s president, Massoud] Barzani and the two main parties over the inability of the peshmerga to actually fight ISIL.”

Abu-Baker Abdullah believes this explains the criticism of his Islamist-leaning Kurdistan Islamic Union, or Yekgirtu Party. Yekgirtu holds 10 of the Islamist parties’ 17 parliament seats and advocates for an independent Kurdistan.

Editorials in Kurdish media regularly compare his moderate Islamist party “to Al Qaeda or ISIL” and television talk-show panellists “say we do nothing to support the peshmerga against ISIL”, Mr Abdullah said.

His party decided to send its parliamentarians’ personal bodyguards to fight with peshmerga on the front lines, and its humanitarian work includes helping the scores of displaced Iraqis in Kurdistan because of ISIL. His group has repeatedly denounced ISIL, he said.

His and other Islamist parties are also prohibited by the ruling two political parties from fielding their own peshmerga forces, he added. The two parties outrightly control the government, its resources and the KRG in general.

“We know we are being attacked in the media and in public circles because of campaigns against us by our political rivals, but what can we do in this system? It’s entirely controlled by the KDP and PUK,” he said.

Denise Natali, an expert on Kurdish politics and senior research fellow at the US-based National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, agreed that Islamist parties face an uphill battle to gain influence in local politics.

That is partly due to the fact that the KDP and PUK factions can buy far more loyalty by outspending rivals using expansive patronage networks that are financed by their near-exclusive control over the area’s oil production. These networks influence everything from access to government jobs to university admissions.

“It’s a highly controlled, centralised region where money and power are controlled by the two political parties, and an Islamic party, with or without the ISIL incursion, cannot compete in it,” said Ms Natali.

For Mr Omar, these obstacles are worrying. Younger Kurds are becoming more religious and, he said, need a viable representation in local politics, or else they could turn elsewhere for representation.

That may help explain why hundreds of Kurds from the area are believed to have joined ranks with ISIL — the same Kurds who Mr Omar suspects called him on Skype in July and threatened to behead him.

“We are moderates and we believe in democracy, but some of the Kurds who joined ISIL are also blocked by a political system here that is controlled by the PUK and KDP,” he said.