Saddam Hussein once described Sulaymaniyah as the “head of the snake”. In the long years of Kurdish opposition to Baathist rule in Iraq, it was Kurdistan’s easternmost city that was the source of most of Saddam’s problems in the north.

The city, part of Iraq president Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) run fiefdom, is once again living up to its reputation as a front of unrest. Since mid-February 2011, thousands of protesters have been thronging the city’s Freedom Square on a daily basis to demand substantive political change.

At least five people have been killed and hundreds wounded since the protests began, and the offices of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have been ransacked.

“The younger generation doesn’t realise how sensitive our position is. They aren’t thinking ahead”

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party official

The demonstrations have rattled the north’s political establishment. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) areas have been mercifully free of the violence and instability that have wracked the rest of Iraq since Saddam’s ousting in 2003. But the events of recent weeks suggest that Kurdistan’s reputation as an oasis of calm is under threat.

Kurdish psyche

The KDP asaesh (party-controlled security forces) have been stopping protesters from Sulaymaniyah heading to the capital, Irbil. It is a sign of the heightened anxiety about the ‘poison’ in the second city spreading to the seat of government further west.

All this is a major shock to the collective Kurdish psyche. The KDP/PUK leaderships have until now faced little internal opposition. Since self-rule began in 1991 following the creation of the US no-fly zone, the Kurds have forged some effective national institutions and laid the foundation for an autonomous statelet in which suicide bombings are rare. Power and water supplies also run largely without interruption in sharp contrast to the rest of Iraq.

The Kurdish civil war of the mid-1990s is now a distant memory. With a Kurdish president in Baghdad, the only non-Arab head of state in the Cairo-based Arab League, and a 50-strong contingent of Kurdish MPs in the Council of Representatives, Kurdish interests have been well served nationally.

The north has proved a magnet for foreign investment, headed by a phalanx of mainly Turkish construction companies, and a series of international oil companies that since February this year have been pumping upwards of 100,000 barrels a day.

But like their Arab neighbours, the younger generation of Kurds appear unimpressed with the status quo. They are vocally expressing their dissatisfaction against the lack of transparency and the perceived corruption associated with a well-connected political elite that earned its stripes in the long years of struggle against Saddam’s rule.

The complaints are familiar to those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and which are now echoing in neighbouring Syria, which earlier in April granted citizenship to its own Kurdish minority. “The KRG has succeeded in attracting billions of dollars from oil companies, but we’re not seeing any of that and there is no real democracy here,” says Aso, one of the thousands of demonstrators, who converge on Sulaymaniyah’s Freedom Square every day.

The danger for Iraq is that if its model region – held up as a paragon of democracy and stability – falls prey to internal strife, the chances of other parts of the country emerging from the chaos of the post-Saddam era must appear increasingly slim.

The political establishment in the KRG is anxious that the protests could imperil Kurdistan’s regional position, surrounded as it is by external foes in Ankara, Tehran, Damascus, not to mention Baghdad.

Impatient youths

“The younger generation doesn’t realise how sensitive our position is. They aren’t thinking ahead with their protests and it could destabilise,” says a PUK official in Sulaymaniyah.

The generational challenge is palpable on the streets in Iraqi Kurdistan. The era of struggle that defined Iraqi Kurdish identity for previous generations is more history than experience for younger people, says Andrew Parasiliti, a director at the UK’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in a note issued in March. Reformers are now seeking greater political freedoms, economic opportunities and an end to corruption.

Calls for change in Kurdistan were brewing well before the tide of unrest hit the Middle East in early 2011. The wellspring of reform can be traced back to the formation of Gorran

(Movement for Change) in 2009, following a split within the PUK. Nawshirwan Mustafa, one of the PUK’s founders, had earlier established the infrastructure of an opposition movement in 2007 with the formation of the media group Wusha that includes a newspaper (Rozhnama), a satellite television channel (Kurdish News Network ), and a radio station (Voice of Change).

Gorran scored an early success, taking 25 seats in the 111-member Kurdistan parliament in July 2009, against 50 seats secured by the KDP and PUK. Gorran has capitalised on the regional political turmoil, calling on 30 January, for the abolition of both the KRG and parliament. After two months of protests, the demands for reform have only grown stronger.

Positions which once seemed far-fetched in Kurdistan, are now the common currency for the demonstrators. In April, they called for the resignation of the president, parliament and government and the establishment of an interim government in the north, ahead of full elections.

Government response

KRG president Massoud Barzani, head of the KDP, had sought to outflank the protesters, discussing plans to introduce reforms, improve government efficiency, tackle corruption and merge Kurdistan’s myriad security agencies. Barzani issued a statement on 26 February, making the case for social and political reforms and an end to corruption “wherever it is found”.

The protesters and Gorran’s political agenda has converged around an insistence on constitutional change.

“The main common ground between protesters and opposition is that they both ask that the KRG system should be parliamentarian and not presidential,” says Ali Kurdistani, a Sulaymaniyah-based political analyst.

According to the IISS, Gorran has capitalised on frustration among many Iraqi Kurds about the slow pace of change and the need for a more dynamic political opposition to the KDP and the PUK.

“Calls for change in Kurdistan were brewing well before the tide of unrest hit the Middle East in early 2011”

In the recent protests, however, Gorran has not been calling the shots, but has been coordinating and calculating its actions to maximum effect. Like other governments across the region, the Kurdish leadership appears undecided about how best to respond to the challenge from the streets. Talabani, on whose doorstep the protests are at their fiercest, is showing his 77 years, and much of his attention is absorbed by his presidential role in Baghdad.

Barzani is hinting at further reforms, asking parliament to consider the possibility of holding early general elections – currently scheduled for 2013.

At a meeting of the KRG Council of Ministers, Barzani issued a tough statement saying it was not ready to give in to the opposition agenda as it was trying to impose itself on the legitimate government. A joint statement from the KDP and PUK politburos rejected attempts to dissolve the government and create a transitional administration, instead requesting opposition groups to resolve their problems via dialogue.

“Both sides are still a long way from each other. They agree there should be early elections. The problem is the demand for the dissolution of the government and the creating of an interim government,” says a local analyst.

The KRG leadership has little room for manoeuvre. If its reforms fail to quell the protests, the knock-on effects could be considerable. It could fracture the model of Iraq as a federal state in which key provinces retain a strong degree of autonomy. Such concerns barely register with many of the younger generation of Iraqi Kurds, who have little patience with the existing order.

Some of them are now openly calling for the creation of a greater Kurdistan, incorporating Kurdish areas of Iran, Syria and Turkey, a dream that few in the KDP or PUK leaderships dare articulate in public.

For the KRG leadership, the internal challenge is doubly inopportune, coming at a time when they need to maintain unity to ensure that their key strategic demand to Baghdad – control of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk – is not fatally undermined.

Oil interests

Kirkuk, which sits atop one of the country’s largest oil fields, is a mainly Kurdish city, lying outside KRG territory, that also contains large Arab and Turkmen populations. For the KRG, it is an article of faith that the ‘Kurdish Jerusalem’ forms part of an integral Kurdish province.

It is ready to defend Kurdish interests in Kirkuk and other parts of the disputed territories adjoining the three KRG provinces, with force if necessary.

Tensions were raised in February/March when paramilitary peshmerga units were deployed around the south and west of Kirkuk, fanning well beyond their normal positions in the north and east of the city. The deployment is a sign that the security situation has become more precarious in the run-up to the final withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2011.

For now, US forces have been inserted into the city to keep the peace between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. But for the Kurdish leadership, the steady erosion of domestic legitimacy represents an existential threat, given the high stakes at play in the key battleground of Kirkuk.

For if the KRG is unsuccessful in meeting the protesters’ demands for change, the ramifications will ripple well beyond Irbil and Sulaymaniyah.

According to Parasiliti, the Kurdistan region is a counterweight within Iraq to the ascendancy of radical religious parties. It is also emerging as a major oil-producing region within Iraq.

If the Kurds fail to resolve their differences and evolve a new political system that redistributes political power away from the old established order to a younger generation impatient for change, it is not just Kurdistan that could pay the price. Baghdad and Basra too must hope that Kurdistan can meet the challenge of reform.