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An Iraqi-Kurdish MP discusses the importance of good relations with Baghdad

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

Iraqi MP Sarkawt Shamsulddin addresses the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. on August 6. (Brennan Thorpe)


Sarkawt Shamsulddin left the ’New Generation’ party to start the ‘Future Parliamentary Group,’ a rare voice in calling for more cooperation between Erbil and Baghdad

Kurdistan’s future will be decided in Baghdad, freshman Kurdish-Iraqi lawmaker Sarkawt Shamsulddin said during a visit to Washington D.C. this week.

Despite efforts and symbolic gestures of goodwill, clear tensions remain between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi Central government, two years after Kurdistan launched a controversial referendum on independence and the country continues to grapple with the repercussions of Islamic State (ISIS).

“I believe that Baghdad is an opportunity for Kurdistan, not a death threat. The KRG leadership should also see it that way,” Shamsulddin said in remarks to the Atlantic Council on Tuesday.

The Kurdish Regional Government has announced intentions to reset relations with Baghdad, and newly-elected KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani visited Iraq’s three leaders, the prime minister, president and speaker of the parliament, in the capitol city in July.

Yet Shamsulddin, on Tuesday, said he has no plans to meet with the KRG representative office in D.C.

“I’ve been in touch with the Iraqi embassy because I am an Iraqi MP. But KRG, I am fine to visit them, to talk to them, but I’m not sure they are allowed to invite me.”

I reached out to the KRG representative office in Washington D.C. to ask if Shamsulddin was in contact with them and if they are willing to meet him.

The KRG representation in Washington responded that, "Sarkawt did not inform us of his visit, which we learned of from the Atlantic Council event announcement. He has not requested a meeting with Representative Abdul Rahman, and we’re not aware of his schedule while he is in Washington." 

Shamsulddin, a former Washington D.C. based journalist for Kurdish news station NRT, is a controversial figure in Kurdish politics, bucking the mainstream talking points of autonomy for more cooperation and integration with Baghdad.

He was elected to the Iraqi parliament in 2018 as a representative of the Kurdish political party New Generation Movement, started in the same city as the politician is from, Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi-Kurdistan.

"As a young MP and a freshman lawmaker, I still [am] optimistic about the future of Iraq. But at the same time I’m worried about it, because it is so fragile."

"As a young MP and a freshman lawmaker, I still [am] optimistic about the future of Iraq. But at the same time I’m worried about it, because it is so fragile," he said in his opening statements.

His own political career is a testament to the difficulties in opposing tradition in Iraq. The goal of his party New Generation was meant to be a counterpoint to the established, political-family dynasties of the Kurdistan region. These include the ruling KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), largely associated with the Barzani family; the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) founded by the Talabani family and the Gorran movement, founded in 2009 by the late Nawshirwan Mustafa.

“We formed the New Generation, that was supposed to be something, completely new,” Shamsulddin said at the Atlantic Council.

Yet within a couple months, dramatic allegations arose that the ‘New Generation’ was looking very much like the old, where leadership was concentrated in the hands of one family instead of a diverse group of leaders.  

"After the elections we found ourselves, that we are being controlled by — which is, this is the same nature for KDP, PUK, Gorran, and also new generation — one family, one person, one company, controlling everything," he said.

In April, Shamsulddin and another party member, Rabun Maroof, accused party head and businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid of tying the political group to his family and businesses, penning a lengthy statement on Facebook and in interviews with Kurdish media.

“We will not accept the dominance of family over the movement anymore,” Shamsulddin told Rudaw at the time.

Within the Iraqi parliament, Shamsulddin broke away from New Generation and started the coalition ‘The Future’ parliamentary bloc, promoting the vision that “Baghdad is an opportunity,” he said.

“This is how we should see it. Our future is in Baghdad and it is not in Ankara, or it is not in Washington, or it is not in Tehran. These capitols can be helpful, can be our partners, but when we work together with Iraq… we see that as peaceful coexistence in Iraq, for Kurds is the only way forward, not the other way.”

This, however, puts him at odds with the Iraqi-Kurdish political establishment.

Shamsulddin’s political stance is “very distant from Erbil politics”

Diliman Abdulkader, Middle East analyst and director of external relations at Allegiance Strategies, said that Shamsulddin’s political stance is “very distant from Erbil politics” and that, while slightly on the fringe at the moment, is gaining more traction.

“We’re losing Kurds to Baghdad, largely because they are isolated, they feel isolated. The KDP is a closed circle, the KRG is a closed circle unfortunately, and it shouldn’t be,” he said.

“The KRG should welcome him [Shamsulddin], not isolate him, because this only strengthens Baghdad and weakens Erbil. It’s in KRG’s interest to reach out to individuals like him and to strengthen the institutions within the KRG, within Iraqi-Kurdistan, because that’s what he’s ultimately trying to do.”

The freshman MP’s statements put him in line with long-standing U.S. policy, which promotes “one Iraq.”

Last month, at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the near east, the top State Department official for policy in the Middle East, Joan Polaschik, said that “A strong Kurdistan Regional Government within a unified and federal Iraq is essential to Iraq’s long-term stability and the enduring defeat of ISIS. This is a top priority for us.”

Shamsulddin, on Tuesday, however, criticized that Washington’s focus on personal relations between Kurdish and Iraqi leaders is “short sighted,” and that investing in securing government and civil institutions will promote a more stable Iraq.

“Washington also can help us to build, both Baghdad and Erbil, stronger institutions. If we have [a] stronger legislative branch, in both government regions, Baghdad and also in Erbil, and if we have a stronger court system and judicial system… it’s going to be more stable relations than based on personal relations,” he said.

“Washington has been trying to put, for example in the past, [Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki and [former KRG President Masoud] Barzani together, just cuff them together to force them to talk to each other. That’s really a short sighted policy, not going to work for a very long time.”

Shamsulddin praised the U.S. and Iraqi alliance on military issues, especially the continuing threat ISIS fighters pose in the country, but called for more engagement on the economic and diplomatic front with the U.S.

“Politically or diplomatically, when was the last time that President Trump called the Iraqi prime minister or Iraqi president? Except for when he was surprisingly in Iraq. That is making us feeling like we are not seen as a true partner. We are seen as a burden. We don’t want to be like that.”

In December, President Trump surprised U.S. troops at the Al Asad Air Base, west of Baghdad and, in a telephone call, invited Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to the White House, although the Mahdi has yet to visit D.C.

Shamsulddin made the case that Iraq can be a stabilizing force in the Middle East and should be looked to by Washington as an honest broker in the conflicts between the U.S. and Iran.

“We can play a positive role in easing the tensions in the region, now as we are moving forward, not becoming a factor of instability in the region,” he said. “We normalized our relations with Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries, and Jordan. Turkey and Iran, there is some progress. These are the things that we would like to see Washington is paying more attention diplomatically.”

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