The KRG: Neo-tribalism in Practice (Part I)

The Kurdish Regional Government, celebrated as a promising liberal democracy by some, condemned as a Turkish Neo-colony based on the foundations of Neo-tribal Clientism by others was created following the popular revolt of 1991. The grand achievement of the Kurdish people of Basur was soon spoiled by the domination of the new business class, formed from the remnants of the old gentry and tribal sheikhs, over the newly created state thus cementing the foundations for a state adamant on protecting the personal interests of the neo-tribal regime. The goal of this article shall be to present a concrete critique of the systematic foundation of this state from the perspective of the Kurdish left.

The Client System:

The ‘’Oil Curse’’, a term used to explain the root of corruption in much of the global south by some political circles may be an easy answer to a complicated question but how accurate is it? Is there a prophetic curse that leads nations with access to oil towards a path of corruption and misery? Or does the problem lie much deeper? After all states such as Canada and Norway, which both extract a hefty amount of their revenue from the oil trade, do not face the same systematic issues as the people of the KRI face. Then what is the factor that has led to this abundance of corruption and nepotism? The answer lies in the system of patronage dominating Basur.

The client system is a network of clients and patrons based around the distribution of state resources (jobs, contracts, services, etc) by the patrons, i.e the ruling parties, in exchange for political support from the clients. This system in the KRI can be traced back to 1992 when the two ruling parties of Basur, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, arrived at a concession to share power following the success of the 1991 revolt. This took the form of a formation of a 50/50 coalition in parliament alongside the sharing of power within all levels of government. More importantly for this analysis was the agreement to split the public budget into two thus marking the beginning of what would become the patronage system. This factor would inevitably lead to the Kurdish civil war in 1995. This can be attributed to the breakdown of this system due to economic pressure from being cut off from Baghdad’s budget alongside international sanctions restricting the flow of revenue that the client relationship relied on. This would consequently lead to the intensification of hostility between the PUK and the KDP. With the former accusing the latter of extracting a higher percentage of shares of revenue than what was agreed upon. A major cause of hostility was caused by the controversy over the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing, which provided a steady source of income from trade with the Turkish state. It is important to note that it wasn’t until 2003 when the influx of revenue, coming from the newly US instated government of Iraq, caused an acceleration in the development of the patronage network.

But this begs the question, how is this system structured? The division of the KRI between the two parties has led to the establishment of a near totalitarian system as political society threatens to dominate and extend over civil society. The influence of the two parties can be seen in all facets of life from the military to the education system. The public sector comprises about half of all employment in the KRI with job opportunities being tied to approval from PUK/PDK party chapters. This isn’t limited to on-duty workers as according to recent data, about 40% ( 502,346 personnel) of those receiving salaries from the KRG are supposedly retired. Many of which receive salaries for jobs they have never held. Thousands have been registered as retired teachers, clerks, veterans, and special-grade officials despite having never held such positions. 47% of those aged between 45 to 54 who do not currently work have given retirement as a reason for their ability/reason to do so. In short many of those receiving both on duty and retirement salaries are ghost employees, meaning they’re members of society receiving salaries for occupations they do not or have never held.

This is especially apparent in the military where the salaries provided by the ministries rely on lists received from local party affiliated commanders. There is an epidemic of salaries received for soldiers who quite frankly do not exist. Despite the fact that the number of peshmerga fighters during the conflict against the Baathist regime numbered in the thousands with some estimates giving a figure of 15,000 to 25,000 as the maximum number, around 150,000 civilians receive military retirement salaries for their supposed military contribution during the struggle. We shall touch more upon the military later so we’ll leave this as it is for now.

As such it is of importance for those seeking employment to secure the patronage of the ruling parties in a region with an unemployment rate of 11% according to various estimates, some of which specify the number to be as high as 18%. The influence of the two major parties likewise extends to the private sphere where it’s highly risky for big businesses to operate without the blessing and partnership of one of the respective parties. The close kin of the party elites alongside loyal members of the two parties occupy a large portion of the private sector. Party-affiliated businesses have become multi-billion dollar operations with conglomerates dealing with activities ranging from logistics and import-export to real estate and construction such as the Diyar, Eagle, Falcon, KAR, Nasri, Sandi, Silver Star, and Ster Groups all being linked to one of the ruling parties. Those wishing to access government contracts are expected to pay 10% to 30% of the value of the contracts to ‘’partner’’ companies controlled by patrons while another 10% is given to government directors approving the contracts.

In turn, the ruling parties derive the revenue used to fund these networks from border-cross points, party-affiliated enterprises, and most importantly their domination of the oil industry. In contrast with most gov departments, the Ministry of Natural Resources is dominated entirely by the KDP following an agreement with the PUK to split its revenue by an even split, as such contracts are generally awarded to those affiliated with the KDP such as Lanaz, a refinery controlled by the Barzani clan. As such we end up with a system that uses its access to revenue to buy loyalty which it then uses to expand and maintain control over the previously mentioned sources of revenue.


In theory, the Kurdish Region of Iraq is a liberal democracy with a multi-party system that includes the separation of power alongside other features inherent in the system. In practice however, the presence of the client system has centralized power within the ruling parties, or more specifically the clans, in such a way that state institutions are merely a formality.

To begin it is important to explain the roots of Neo-tribalism. Historically the semi-nomadic tribes of the Basur region relied on tithes collected from peasants in a feudal style relationship. The triumph of Abdul-Karim Qasim’s July Revolution in Iraq threatened to disrupt this feudal relationship within Iraqi and Kurdish society due to the implementation of agricultural reforms, which were supported by several high-ranking members of the left-orientated KDP at the time. Fast forward to the Baathist coup of 1968 these policies saw an acceleration in implementation throughout the 70s. The 80 however is when it took an interesting turn. Saddam Hussein, who officially took power in 1979, started to revert these programs and turn towards the implementation of Neo-tribal policies. Although the agricultural reform of the 70s was struck as a failure in the Kurdish region due to the lack of mechanization. The end of it symbolized a revival and expansion of Kurdish tribal hegemony tho importantly in an urban context. Saddam’s reforms reintroduced a quasi-tribal relationship through the establishment of the Mustashar system. Essentially the Baathist regime encouraged the formation of loyalist militias centered around tribal chiefs which would be rewarded through patronage by the Iraqi government. Although farmers are to this day often sharecroppers to landowners living in the cities, the tribal chiefs, encouraged by Saddam’s privatization policies turned towards acquiring wealth through trade and contracting, especially in the construction of infrastructure. But how did this influence the ruling Kurdish parties?

Now both the KDP and PUK relied heavily on tribal support in terms of manpower and monetary support. Although in many instances radical nationalists within the PDK had confiscated land from tribal chiefs and redistributed them to the peasant population. Mustafa Barzani, the conservative tribal leader of the PDK and de-facto supreme leader following the purging of the previously leftist dominant politburo of the party, reversed these acquisitions by returning the confiscated properties back to the tribal aghas in 1970 following the first autonomy deal. Tribes of course fought on both sides but what happened during the Kurdish revolt of 1991 cemented the path the KRI arrived at years later.

The 1991 revolt was one conducted by the masses and was therefore a popular revolt that no party can take credit for. Communist-inspired groups within the masses went as far as to form urban councils known as Shuras yet this was not for long. The Iraqi army would soon crush any hope for popular rule and pressure from the Iraqi Kurdistan Front (Formed by the PDK, PUK, and other minor parties) prevented its continuation. The IKF would soon announce amnesty for Baathist collaborators as many had joined the revolt but also took the extra step of integrating the Mustashar system into their own ranks. As such instead of dismantling Neo-tribalism, they took the opposite route of adopting its organs. In the ensuing years, trade union leaders would be assassinated while those tied to the Neotribal network would get richer by acting as middlemen for the UN’s distribution programs. With unemployment and poverty on the rise, more and more people were forced to rely on the client system established by the PUK/PDK. The Neo-tribal system would henceforth be set in place with the KDP relying on the more traditional model of a hierarchy of tribes and clans with the Barzanis on the top while the PUK would be structured more on a network of warlords and militia commanders with the Talibani clan on the top.

As such the military is divided along party lines with the PDK commanding a force of 100,000 personnel while the PUK maintains a force of 90,000. These elements are in direct control of the respective party apparatuses. Within the PUK for instance different militias are controlled by different peshmerga commanders that have in the past come into conflict with each other such as during the controversy over Kirkuk when forces aligned with Lahur Jangi’s faction that had just sold the city off to Iraq appeared to have stabbed the forces under Kosrat Rasul’s command in the back by mounting an attack on them from the rear. The PDK on the other hand is much more centralized with a clear chain of command. These forces are certainly led by commanders from the clans in service to the PDK alongside the sons of the leader of the PDK Masoud Barzani, these include figures such as Sirwan Barzani, Mansour Barzani, and Masrour Barzani (The current prime minister). These forces serve two main functions. A. To buy the loyalty of servicemen through the patronage system and B. To quell opposition. During the Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2018 the militia forces under the control of Jafar Sheikh Mustafa, the commander of the PUK’s unit 70 forces, launched an assault on Goran’s HQ due to the latter disputing the results of the election. Similarly, these units also surrounded the headquarter of Barham Salih’s Coalition for Democracy and Justice party.

During the regional elections of 2009, those within the PUK’s security forces who voted for Goran soon faced punishment by being fired from their positions. Similarly, citizens under the patronage system who voted for Goran had their salaries frozen by the PUK as a form of intimidation.

Likewise, the Asaysh agencies (internal security) of both sides operate under the orders of the respective parties. These units that could be described as nothing but party bandits have been active in suppressing the rights of the free press. Accordingly to reports published by Human Rights Watch, there have been numerous incidents of journalists being assassinated for threatening to expose the party’s corruption. Kawa Garmiani was shot dead on December 5, 2013, after threatening to expose the party’s corruption. Soran Mama Hama was assassinated on July 21, 2008, after receiving threats concerning his investigation into police complicity in prostitution rings. Wedad Hussein Ali was found dead on August 13, 2016, in dead daylight following multiple interrogations by the PDK’s asaysh agency for his pro-PKK journalism. The MCDRJ documented 145 cases of attacks on journalists including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and assassination in 2015 alone. To quote Sarah Leah Whiteson, director of the Middle East department of the HRW org, “The KRG should provide serious answers about how it came to be that this journalist was kidnapped and killed in broad daylight, following repeated interrogations by Asayish forces, He is one of dozens of journalists in KRG territory who have been killed, beaten, detained, or harassed.”

Yet we hear apologists of the neo-tribal regime boast about the initiative of the PDK to form a united peshmerga force, despite the fact that this has been promised for years without that much progress. It also ignores a multitude of factors with the prime one being, what difference will it make? The current initiative is to expand the forces under the ministry of peshmerga affairs in joint forces known as Regional Guard Brigades which currently number around 40,000, but how do these forces function? In essence, each brigade is commanded by an officer from one of the two ruling parties while the deputy is appointed from the other. Furthermore, these brigades are then assigned to sector and front commanders who are, as opposed to what the apologists of the neo-tribal regime affirm, appointed by the party which the brigade deployment zone falls under as opposed to the ministry. In essence, the sole purpose of the ministry is to allocate funds to the party-aligned commanders making it nothing but a mouthpiece. What these apologists also ignore is that not only did party-appointed officers of the RGBs in Kirkuk withdraw from Kirkuk once ordered by their respective party. But we did previously have a united force during the 90s. Created in 1992 the united peshmerga forces at the time failed to prevent a civil war as the initiative is in name only. The patronage system still remains just as the politicized units.

Last but not least we arrive at the matter of nepotism. While the PUK is complicit in nepotism regarding the immediate relatives of the former leader of the PUK Jalal Talabani. The PDK’s network extends to that of clans and tribes subservient to the Barzani family. Nepotism can be seen in all facets of life: From a Barzani president, prime minister, army commanders, running media conglomerates, owning oil refineries, owning investments in foreign shares and most recently Idris Nechirvan Idris Barzani, the 24 year old son of the President, not only holding the position of ‘’President of the University of Kurdistan Hawler’’ but also having bought 9.9% of the shares of the Kurdistan International Islamic Bank. We could go on and on about the amount of corruption the tribal oligarchs are involved in but we recommend that our readers delve into the details of this issue in this recent investigative report as we can’t do it enough justice.

The Kurdish Region of Iraq is a democracy in name only, it can more accurately be described as a neotribal oligarchy using democratic institutions as a rubber stamp to attain legitimacy.


1. The Kurdish Duopoly: The Political Economy of Two-Party Rule | Middle East Centre

2. Kurdistan’s Political Armies: The Challenge of Unifying the Peshmerga Forces — Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

3. Iraqi Kurdistan’s Clientelistic Economy: Linkages Between Political Parties, Market, and Individuals in Iraqi Kurdistan

4. MEC_assessing_iraqi_kurdistans_stability_published.pdf

5. Kurdistan’s Politicized Society Confronts a Sultanistic System — Carnegie Middle East Center — Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

6. The Shaikh’s Republic: The Kurdish Regional Government’s Incorporation of Tribalism — The Shaikh?s Republic: The Kurdish Regional Government?s Incorpor.pdf


8. Kurdish Opposition Parties Lost in May 12th Election: Does Fraud Explain it? | The Washington Institute

9. Refworld | Iraqi Kurdistan: Kurdish Journalist Abducted, Killed


11. Urbanization, Privatization, and Patronage:
The Political Economy of Iraqi Kurdistan



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