Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Northern Iraq Notes II: Sulaymaniyah Observations

After completing our Arbil assignment observing the elections for the Kurdish Regional Government Assembly and the presidency, the ORSAM team went to Sulaymaniyah in order to conduct field research about how different political groups perceive the election results. We present our observations concerning Sulaymaniyah in this short article as a follow-up to our observations regarding Arbil.

The trip from Arbil to Sulaymaniyah takes 2.5 hours by shared taxi. The trip should be shorter, but passing through check points all the way to the city makes it longer. Since it’s a two lane road and the terrain is flat, you drive straight most of the time. On the way to Sulaymaniyah, you pass by Kirkuk without entering it, and the northern parts of the city can be seen there. You also pass the valuable oil fields in the Baba Gurgur region where the Kirkuk Oil Refinery is located. The oil fields, shooting their flames, are one of the causes of the current problems and conflicts in Kirkuk. The large number of lorries with Turkish plates was an important point that caught our attention during the trip. The vast majority of the lorries carrying goods come from Turkey. You can also see billboards advertising Turkish companies on the roadside.

Since we’re used to the situation in Arbil, we aren’t surprised to hear people speaking Turkish. One of the passengers in the taxi is Turkmen, another is a peshmarga who worked in Turkey for years and speaks Turkish very well, and the last is a person from Sulaymaniyah who knows little Turkish. So our observations concerning Sulaymaniyah began with the people in the taxi even before we arrived in the city. People in Sulaymaniyah are extremely comfortable discussing politics and criticizing politicians. They fearlessly criticize the KDP and PUK in a manner that we didn’t see in Arbil. They repeatedly denounce official bribery and corruption. These people probably want the “Change List” to win the regional assembly elections overwhelmingly, since that movement also tends to focus on the corruption and degeneration of the KDP and PUK. The citizens say that Arbil is oppressed, but that there is freedom in Sulaymaniyah, and you can talk to anyone. This gives us clues about the situation in Sulaymaniyah, as well as the rift between Sulaymaniyah and Arbil.

The first thing we notice as we enter Sulaymaniyah are posters for the various political parties hanging all over the place. As indicated during the trip, there is a more pluralist, democratic and comfortable atmosphere in Sulaymaniyah than in Arbil. For example, the day when the unofficial election results were announced, supporters of the “Kurdistan List” and vehicle convoys supporting the “Change List” were celebrating the results all together in the city. It would appear that the clashing voices had a negative effect on the security situation in the city. Some celebrations were boisterous enough to provoke the other party, and there was a bit of tension between partisans who had yet to accept their defeat. We found out that, for this reason, they took more security precautions in Sulaymaniyah than Arbil. The multi-party atmosphere in Sulaymaniyah is also reflected in press. The proponents of every political movement have their own media outlets. From interviews with the press and TV administrators supporting both the KDP and the “Change List” we have seen that they are free to criticize the government. That’s why we can say that the press is able to work in a relatively free environment.

In our interviews with Sulaymaniyah people, we found out that there is popular dissatisfaction due to the flow of investments to Arbil. A lot new modern construction is going on in Sulaymaniyah, although more active development was observed in Arbil. The statement of a high level authority concerning development in Sulaymaniyah was striking. He said, “Sulaymaniyah’s total budget used to be about 46 million dollars, and in 2009 46 million dollars were spent just for one project.”

Despite their losses in the elections, all the PUK authorities we interviewed said that the elections were a big gain for democracy. Probably, the reason for these statements isn’t only the development of democracy. We got the impression from interviews that the Change List formed by the PUK’s veteran high level leaders may reunite with the PUK in the medium term. Even if this unison doesn’t happen, the PUK see the presence of the Change List in the parliament as an instrument of superiority before the KDP since the Change List is composed of the veteran leaders of the PUK. That situation stems from the fact that the Change List is a movement closer to the PUK rather than the KDP. The PUK authorities state that they agree with the Change List on the policy to follow in important issues and the differences are just about the method. That opinion of the KDP authorities results from the fact that the Change List will reunite with them shortly, or even if it doesn’t reunite, it will tend to act in concert with them. However, the presence of the Change List as an independent and powerful movement, and becoming a party in the future, rather than reuniting with the PUK may start the process of questioning the PUK’s efficiency in Sulaymaniyah.

Iran has more influence on Sulaymaniyah than on Arbil. In the interviews, we discussed issues such as relations with Iran and the presence of groups supported by Iran in the border region. One of the authorities even said, “Iran is ruling Iraq at the moment,” to underline Iran’s influence. Although this claim seems exaggerated, it is important for showing Iran’s important role in the region and its perception by the authorities in Sulaymaniyah. Since Sulaymaniyah is located near the Iranian border, the situation there is normal. The authorities and the people giving great importance to their relations with Turkey show that the biggest problem is the PKK. Moreover, they say that this problem is beyond them, even beyond the Iraqi central government, and that the only power that can solve the problem is the USA.

One of the most important results of the Change List’s success in the elections is that it makes it harder to gain public trust by using nationalist propaganda. The stability and development in Arbil and Sulaymaniyah seems to increase people’s expectations with respect to public service and good governance. For this reason, along with the roadmap for big problems such as the relations with the central government, controversial regions and Kirkuk, we can expect the Kurdish Regional Government to focus on service, especially when it comes to Sulaymaniyah.

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