10/12/2015 09:03 pm ET

Crisis Brews Among Kurds In Iraq, Threatening Fight Against ISIS

The Kurds have an enemy at their door, but they're preoccupied with internal power.

WASHINGTON -- A worsening political dispute on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State group threatens one of the few silver linings for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Since last week, five people have died and four ministers have lost their jobs in Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region of Iraq whose Western-backed fighters have retaken nearly all the territory they briefly lost to the Islamic State group, or ISIS, and become heroes in the U.S.

A mix of political and economic issues are fueling the crisis. Many protesters accuse the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, of hoarding power because its leader, Massoud Barzani, declined to surrender the presidency when his term officially ended on Aug. 19. Many demonstrators also blame the KDP for failing to end economic difficulties caused by delayed government salary payments and the massive refugee influx into Iraqi Kurdistan.

The KDP has responded with actions that appear to target Gorran, the top opposition party. On Monday, it prevented a Gorran member who is the speaker of the Kurdistan parliament from entering the region's capital, removed Gorran members from the coalition government and shut down some offices of a Gorran-linked TV channel. Those actions came as the KDP-led government was already facing scrutiny over its treatment of dissidents in Kurdistan, including KDP critic Esa Barzani, and Yazidi and Sunni Arab refugees.

The situation threatens to distract the Kurds' attention from the battle against ISIS in Iraq and to damage the respect they have won in the West for their close cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group. Among the ministers who lost their posts on Monday was the top official responsible for the peshmerga, Kurdistan's formidable militia forces that have pushed ISIS back with coalition air support and arms.

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters pose for a photo next to a military vehicle bearing the Kurdish flag after they reportedly c
MARWAN IBRAHIM via Getty Images
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters pose for a photo next to a military vehicle bearing the Kurdish flag after they reportedly captured several villages from the Islamic State group fighters south of Kirkuk, Iraq, on September 11, 2015. (MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)

"The impasse over the presidency is unfortunate for Iraqi Kurdistan because it occurs at a moment when the Kurds are at the cusp of realizing their national aspirations and gaining greater international support for a sovereign and independent Iraqi Kurdistan," said David Phillips, a Columbia University researcher and former State Department official who authored the recent book, The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East.

Though the Kurdish leadership has said it will not move forward on the question of independence until the ISIS threat has been quelled, Barzani has promised an eventual referendum on the idea in the face of U.S. opposition to it.

A competition for leadership is unsurprising, Phillips told HuffPost, but the failure thus far to resolve the crisis is peculiar, given that varying factions within Kurdistan have previously reached negotiated settlements lest infighting weaken their region in relation to the central Iraqi government and other players in the neighborhood.

"From my 30 years working with Iraqi Kurds, they've always been able to resolve their differences, even at the eleventh hour," Phillips said. "They know what sacrifice and suffering are."

Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher on the Middle East at Human Rights Watch, told HuffPost that organizations like his were attempting to determine the circumstances of the deaths, which the ruling KDP blames on the opposition. Wilcke noted that countries like the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany often speak of Iraqi Kurdistan as "the quintessential and well-functioning government forces" in the Middle East, which he said was not always accurate.

The fractures within the region may become more apparent along geographic lines: The KDP is more popular in the northwest, while Gorran and other leading opposition party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have a greater presence in the country's east. The two areas were once run by separate administrations. But Barzani's presidency of more than 10 years allowed the KDP to solidify control over much of the state machinery, analysts told The Huffington Post.

"Unless negotiations between the KDP and the opposition parties reach a meaningful compromise in short order, the KRG could split or collapse as opposition leaders move their operations from the seat of government in Erbil [in the west] to Suleimaniyah," in the east, wrote Patrick Martin of the Institute for the Study of War.

Phillips predicted that the Kurds would reach a compromise soon -- though he warned that the Obama administration was unlikely to have significant influence over that process. Iraq's Kurds are angry with the administration for failing to change U.S. law so it can arm them directly, bypassing Baghdad, or to endorse their selling oil independent of the central Iraqi government, he said.

Phillips added that Kurdistan president Barzani might have avoided the crisis altogether by planning a way to step down from the presidency and maintain political coalitions in advance.

"I don't think that if the people were consulted that they would want to go through a dramatic change or a dramatic transition," Phillips said. "That being said, it is important for democracy to prevail in Iraqi Kurdistan and you can't rewrite the constitution every time the term expires in order for you to preserve the position."

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