Twenty-Five Years of Uncertainty, Hope, Challenge and Progress

A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Tears, A Thousand Revolts, and A Thousand Hopes

An old Kurdish poem


Ancient maps and treaties attest to Kurdistan’s everlasting distinctiveness. With a natural desire to control their own destiny, after passing many obstacles and milestones with sincere attempts at autonomy within a democratic Iraq, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan arrived at another threshold on their journey toward a secure and stable future.

For much of the past nearly six decades the journey has been struggle and suffering through episodes of forcible displacement, disappearance, community destruction, chemical weapon attacks, and genocidal campaigns. It is also a journey where viable and progressive self-governance has taken root.

The latest stage, a significant turning point in Iraqi Kurdistan’s history, was born from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, its reversal by an international military coalition in the 1991 Gulf War, and a general uprising that led to the liberation of major parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. This was followed by brutal suppression, resulting in a major mass exodus of over two million civilians.

In response, UN Security Council Resolution 688, with the force of international law, demanded Saddam Hussein’s regime refrain from harming its citizens. It was used as a legal basis by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States to establish a no-fly zone, with Turkish operational participation, over a safe haven to protect civilians.

With the regime of Saddam Hussein in late 1991, establishing an east-west -from Iranian to Syrian borders- militarized demarcation line that effectively divided Iraqi Kurdistan almost in half, the regime withdrew its administration from the northern half, which became known as the Kurdistan Region. The Iraqi government removed archives, administrative and finance records, office equipment and emptied the banks, thus abandoning a major portion of the country with over three million citizens.

This separation was shortly followed by forced dislocation of thousands of families, mostly Kurds, from Kirkuk and other areas of Iraqi Kurdistan south of the demarcation line that later became known as the disputed territories. These displaced families fled to the Kurdistan Region where they survived for more than a decade as forcibly displaced people.

At the time when Iraq, including Kurdistan, was subjected to a United Nationsimposed international trade embargo due to its invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi government imposed a second trade embargo on the Kurdistan Region. Food, medicine and fuel were prohibited from entering the Kurdistan Region, and the Region was disconnected from the national electricity grid.

In addition, Iraqi Kurdistan had witnessed, three years earlier, a dreadful genocidal campaign, known as Anfal, conducted by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Chemical weapons were widely used against the civilian population, over 4,000 villages and townships out of 5000 were destroyed, over 180,000 civilians perished and hundreds of thousands of others were forcibly displaced and settled in collective camps. Thousands of others fled to neighboring countries where they lived as refugees.

This was the reality the Kurdistan political leadership inherited when it took over the control of the Region in 1991: A devastated land, under a double embargo.

Under these dire circumstances, to administer the Kurdistan Region, the Kurdistan Front, a coalition of political parties, agreed to hold an election towards establishing a regional parliament and government. Conducted in May 1992, the election was deemed free and fair by international observers.

Soon after this election, the Kurdistan National Assembly, later renamed the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament, and the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, were formed in mid-1992. The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament and government adopted and functioned in accordance with Iraqi law except for those laws determined to be oppressive, which were either rescinded or revised.

From 1992 until 2003, when Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown, the KRG struggled in isolation to establish a personally secure and politically and economically stable environment. Throughout this period, a critical challenge centered on effective management of internal rivalries and political divisions, along with handling armed threats and incursions from all four neighbors.

In an area of thousands of rural communities, over many decades the people of Kurdistan acquired experience with forced displacement when their homes and communities were repeatedly destroyed and they were disconnected from their lands and livelihoods. From the earliest days of the Kurdistan Region when many thousands of displaced families returned to reconstruct their homes and communities, the Region also became a safe haven for refugees fleeing strife in Iran and Turkey.

Further, throughout the 1990s citizens from other parts of Iraq sought refuge in the Region, including members of the current national Shia leadership. Forcibly displaced persons from Iraq-controlled areas of Kurdistan, particularly from Kirkuk, also took refuge in the Kurdistan Region. During those earlier times of isolation and scarce resources the KRG had little to offer other than relatively secure space where the UN and other international organizations provided limited humanitarian assistance.

With notable setbacks, the Region’s leaders eventually found their way to a level of confidence and cooperation that has grown and contributed to one of the most personally secure and politically stable areas of an Iraq that acquired an image of a country of violence within a very troubled Middle East.

The Kurdistan Region distinguished itself from other areas in Iraq where disparate groups were instigated against each other as a divisive means to keep a country together through fear and force. In the Kurdistan Region, sincere and generally effective efforts have been made to govern with the consensus of all groups in the interest of all the Region’s people regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds who seek a peaceful and prosperous future.

The challenges faced during the 1992- 2003 period were exacerbated also by threats from neighbors.
None supported the formation of the KRG and the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran, and Syria would occasionally meet to discuss their opposition to the situation. The militant PKK occupied parts of the Kurdistan Region and engaged in armed conflict that caused evacuation of numerous rural communities that were reconstructed and resettled with the assistance of the international community. The conflict between Turkey and the PKK caused instability in Kurdistan Region’s norther border areas.

Iranian security forces shelled border areas and on occasion invaded deep into the Region with heavy artillery. The regime of Saddam Hussein conducted ambushes and explosions inside the Kurdistan Region, and obstructed humanitarian assistance to the extent that international NGOs found it necessary to employ teams of armed guards.

Due to the persistent scarcity of public revenue, the 1992-2003 period included intervals when teachers, health workers, and other essential public service staff continued performing their duties without salary for many months. For some families, this was a time of hardship when, for instance, chicken was a luxury that some hadn’t eaten in five years while in the rest of Iraq the Iraqi government operated a public distribution system that provided free food to all residents.

From 1996 until 2003, the UN-managed oil-for-food programme assigned to the Kurdistan Region more than $8 billion for humanitarian goods and services. This was a boon to the people of the Region, after years of severe financial insecurity, shortages of food and other basic necessities, and a very uncertain future. Under the oil-for-food programme, a basic food basket of ten items was provided free to every resident and public services were improved, including basic housing for IDPs, health and education, water and sanitation, electricity, and telecommunications.

The programme also made funds available for agricultural development and landmine activities (education, minefield demarcation, demining, and medical assistance to landmine victims). During the eight-year Iraq-Iran War the Iraqi military placed an estimated ten million landmines along border areas and around inland military facilities.

Despite the shortcomings of the oil-forfood programme, the KRG provided active support through its ministries and other government organizations. Notably, personal security and political stability were enhanced so that the program could be effectively implemented. As a result, life for the population throughout the Kurdistan Region markedly improved.

The 2003 overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein removed all barriers blocking a future that had been virtually unthinkable, ushering in a period of the impossible becoming possible. Personal security in the Kurdistan Region was further enhanced, as widespread looting, explosions, and other terrorist and criminal activities erupted elsewhere in Iraq.

The year 2004 began a decade of rapid economic growth that transformed lives and landscapes with greatly improved basic public services and a marked expansion of commercial activities by the private sector.

In 2005, with a view toward becoming an integral, respected part of a democratic, pluralistic, and federal Iraq, a new Iraqi Constitution overwhelmingly passed by 98 percent of the Region’s voters in a countrywide referendum. On paper, the Constitution fulfilled the long-held demand for autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan and democracy for Iraq.

Iraq became a federal state, and the new Constitution officially recognized the Kurdistan Region, the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and all the Region’s laws and contracts in force since 1992.

Except for a few exclusive powers of the federal government, substantial autonomy was granted to the Kurdistan Region with the right to challenge federal legislation on powers that are shared. The Iraq Constitution recognized Kurdistan’s exclusive right to manage its internal security and accepted the Peshmerga as a lawful army. It declared Kurdish an official language of Iraq and granted the right of the KRG to have offices to represent Iraqi Kurdistan wherever Iraqi embassies and consulates are located.

By the terms of the Iraq Constitution that affirms all Iraqi oil belongs to all Iraqi people, the KRG is entitled to control petroleum exploration, production, and revenues flowing from all oil and gas fields that were new (unexploited) before approval of the Iraq Constitution in 2005. It is the Iraq Constitution and the KRG’s Oil & Gas Law that serve as the legal basis on which the world’s largest oil companies have invested heavily in exploration and production in the Kurdistan Region.

Energy security was thus enhanced with accelerated development of an oil and gas industry along with the rapid establishment of major electricity power plants using the latest in gas turbine technology. Based on the new Constitution, revenue security was initially assured by an agreed share of national public revenue from the federal government to support the public responsibilities of the KRG, which was later suspended.

Beginning in 2004, a strong surge in the availability of public revenue from high oil prices fueled a decade of remarkable expansion of public construction projects and services. Alongside public sector expansion, was rapid expansion of the private sector. Following decades of neglect and restraint relative to other areas of Iraq, the KRG boldly favored the private sector. This approach accelerated planning and implementation that dramatically changed the skyline of major urban and other areas and supported important improvements in rural areas as well.

While 1992 to 2003 was a period of scarce resources and passive make-do, 2004 to 2014 was a decade of active, indeed rapid, catch-up and pursuance of the future. New, modern urban villages and apartment complexes, schools and universities, hospitals and clinics offering a wide variety of medical services, hightechnology water and electricity plants, hotels and restaurants, shopping malls and amusement parks, airports and highways, mobile phone and high-speed internet services, and numerous other infrastructure projects in both the private and public sectors are observable all across the Kurdistan Region.

Then came the four shocks. First was the federal government’s suspension of the Kurdistan Region’s agreed share of national public revenue in February 2014 that left the KRG with no income, and in severe difficulty to pay public salaries, allowances and other monthly obligations. And soon thereafter, in mid-2014, ISIS posed an existential threat that was met at great expense by effective response of the Region’s Peshmerga forces with the support of the international community. The ISIS onslaught was accompanied by a rapid influx of close to two million internally displaced persons seeking safety and security from armed conflicts in other parts of Iraq and neighboring countries. As the Kurdistan Region’s oil and gas industry progressed from exploration to production, oil-marketing difficulties were exacerbated by a dramatic fall in oil prices. The thread running through all four shocks has been financial crisis.

The financial crisis triggered a series of government operational reforms to diversify public revenue sources beyond oil and gas, and to exercise improved control over government expenditure. The mechanics of financial management are being enhanced with external professional expertise. An excessive number of government employees are being addressed through a series of measures, including biometric identification towards eliminating fraud, eg. ghost workers, and offering selected staff long-leave without pay to work in the private sector. Job expansion in the private sector is critical and the KRG is accelerating expansion in private and public attention, and investment in agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing.

Security is the essential key to progress during the Region’s 2004-2014 “golden decade” followed by the four shocks of the past three years. Recovery results are becoming increasingly evident. Oil production and export continues, and concerted attention to increasing revenue from applicable taxes and fees has led to a markedly reduced budget deficit. Tourism has also increased. Despite the financial crisis, road and telecommunication networks have improved.

Over the past twenty-five years the Kurdistan Regional Government has made substantial strides in serving the best interests of its citizens. Compared to the 1990s and earlier, life has never been better. Personnel security remains very good. Energy security remains promising. Public revenue security remains challenging. With its human, land and water, and mineral resources, the Kurdistan Region has substantial capacity to meet its challenges.

Within Iraq, the failure of the federal government to develop and implement an approach and process toward correctly and completely implementing the Iraqi Constitution has been the main source of division, discord, and disunity within the country. The KRG seeks to face and address this situation on the basis of the Constitution that is applicable to everyone throughout the country.

No longer is Iraqi Kurdistan isolated from the global environment by the nonexistence of international relations, severely restrictive movement, and extremely limited telecommunications. Iraqi Kurdistan is inherently connected to the rest of the world and is no longer separate and isolated as it was in the past.

The Kurdistan Regional Government has come a long way and continues to develop its leadership and management capabilities as it continuously pursues a better future for all citizens of the Kurdistan Region today and beyond.