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Iraqi Court’s Decision Threatens to Undermine Kurdish Autonomy

FILE - An Iraqi Kurd holds a Kurdish flag while another holds lit torches during celebrations of Noruz (Nowruz), the Persian new year, in the town of Akra, in Iraq's northern autonomous Kurdish region, on March 20, 2022.
FILE - An Iraqi Kurd holds a Kurdish flag while another holds lit torches during celebrations of Noruz (Nowruz), the Persian new year, in the town of Akra, in Iraq's northern autonomous Kurdish region, on March 20, 2022.

A recent decision by Iraq’s top court has raised concerns among Kurdish groups about the future of their autonomous region in the north.

The country’s Supreme Court on Wednesday issued several rulings regarding the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including one related to the autonomous region’s election law.

The court ruled that KRG’s provincial election law’s article about the minority quota was deemed "unconstitutional." The current law, adopted in 1992 and amended in 2013, requires 11 quota seats in the regional parliament for ethnic and religious minorities.

The verdict also concluded that Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission will replace KRG’s own electoral commission to oversee parliamentary elections that are not yet scheduled but expected to be held this year.

The new ruling’s elimination of the minority quota system in the region’s parliament could particularly reduce Christian representation in the Kurdistan Region’s legislature, observers say.

Some Kurdish political parties condemned Wednesday’s ruling, describing it as an attempt to infringe on the authority of the Kurdistan Region.

The decision "is contrary to the spirit of the constitution, Kurdistan’s constitutional rights, and the principles of federalism" in Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan, said in a statement Thursday.

Parliamentary elections in the Kurdistan Region were initially scheduled to be held in 2022 but were postponed because of tensions between Kurdish political parties.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the U.S. was "reviewing the full scope of the decision" by the Iraqi court.

"We support holding parliamentary elections in the Iraqi Kurdistan region at the earliest opportunity. And as we do everywhere, we encourage those elections to be free, fair, and transparent," spokesperson Matthew Miller said during a press briefing on Wednesday.

Low trust

Kurdish autonomy has been enshrined in Iraq’s constitution, which was adopted in 2005, guaranteeing political and monetary rights of nearly 6 million people living in the Kurdistan Region. Experts, however, say trust between the Kurdistan Region and the central government in Baghdad has been low in recent years.

"A resurgence of Iraqi government influence, driven by a desire to reclaim past authority and power, has led to a systematic leveraging of the Iraqi federal court to erode Kurdistan’s legal and constitutional powers," said Yerevan Saeed, director of the Global Kurdish Initiative for Peace at American University in Washington.

"However, Kurdish internal discord, characterized by deep partisan divisions, failure to hold elections, and zero-game approach to resolve internal issues, has provided Baghdad with leverage to undermine Kurdish interests," he told VOA.

The current Iraqi government is dominated by Shiite groups that have the backing of Iran, a major regional actor.

In a deeply sectarian and polarized government, observers say the dominance of Shiite political groups has even influenced the independence of Iraq’s top court.

"Because of this hegemony, there have been constant attempts to dissolve the Kurdistan Regional Government," Yahya al-Kubaisi, a Baghdad-based Iraqi affairs analyst, told VOA.

Four judges of Iraq’s nine-member Supreme Court are Shiite Muslims, while three are Sunnis and two are Kurds. The court has said in the past that it maintains its independence from political influence.

Internal Kurdish divisions

The Kurdistan Region and its legal and political institutions are largely dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). But other parties such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) maintain significant political and military sway in local affairs.

Despite being partners in a coalition government, the two political powerhouses have had long-standing tensions, mostly about power and revenue sharing.

The recent ruling from the Iraqi court was the result of lawsuits initiated by some Kurdish political parties that reject the dominance of the KDP in domestic politics in the Kurdistan Region.

"This tactical maneuvering is often employed to signal discontent to the dominant political party in the Kurdistan Region, namely the KDP, implying that alternative arrangements can be pursued if cooperation is not forthcoming," analyst Saeed said.

He added that the onus falls heavily on the KDP and other parties to engage in real dialogue and address internal conflicts.

"Failure to do so will inevitably result in the diminishment of the Kurdistan Region’s political, legal, and economic influence, and could potentially lead to its dissolution," Saeed said.

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service with contributions by Balen Salih and Herow Zangana.