Iraq tightens grip on autonomous Kurdish region

Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of Iraq's Autonomous Kurdistan Region, speaks at the World Government Summit in Dubai on February 12, 2024. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 07 April 2024

Iraq tightens grip on autonomous Kurdish region

  • Recent tension undermines Irbil’s relationship with Baghdad, analyst says

BAGHDAD: Iraq is using a period of relative stability to assert more control over the autonomous Kurdistan region that has long had fraught relations with federal authorities, analysts and politicians say.

Long-simmering disputes between Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of the northern region, came to a head recently after several Supreme Court rulings that the Kurds saw as an attempt to weaken the region’s autonomy.
Regional Prime Minister Masrour Barzani warned last week of “conspiracies aimed at undermining and dismantling the Kurdistan region” with “internal support within Kurdistan.”
The pressure is aimed at Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party or KDP, which has been locked in a never-ending rivalry with the other main party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or PUK.


Regional Prime Minister Masrour Barzani warned last week of ‘conspiracies aimed at undermining and dismantling the Kurdistan region’ with ‘internal support within Kurdistan.’

Kurds in Iraq were persecuted under the Sunni Arab-dominated regime of the late dictator Saddam Hussein but the 2005 constitution formalized their autonomy after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam.
But mending the volatile ties between the central government in Baghdad and Kurdistan has been a persistent challenge.
Consecutive federal governments have long been preoccupied with “crises and complex challenges,” said a senior official in Baghdad about years of war, the fight against the Daesh group, and anti-government protests.
“That is why they never looked into Kurdistan’s mistakes ... (such as) oil deals and exports, the region’s financial system, and several illegal decisions that have been made,” he added.
But, he added: “Now is the time to fix these mistakes.”
Despite facing the same problems as Baghdad, such as endemic corruption, fractious politics, and entrenched ruling elites, the US-backed Kurdistan region has portrayed itself as a hub of stability and economic growth in contrast to the conflicts and crises that have besieged federal Iraq.
Last year, civil servants and lawyers from the city of Sulaimaniyah, the PUK stronghold, had taken the regional and national authorities to court over unpaid salaries in Kurdistan, where officials have long accused Baghdad of not sending the necessary funds.
In February, the Federal Supreme Court in Baghdad ordered the federal government to pay public sector salaries in Kurdistan directly instead of via the regional administration under a previous long-standing arrangement.
It also demanded that Irbil hand over all “oil and non-oil revenues” to Baghdad.
In a separate case, the court ruled to reduce the number of seats in the Kurdish parliament from 111 to 100, effectively eliminating a quota reserved for Turkmen, Armenian, and Christian minorities.
In response, Barzani’s KDP, the largest party in the outgoing parliament with 45 seats against 21 for the PUK, said it would boycott legislative polls due to take place in June.
The tussle with the federal court has aggravated an already tense disagreement over oil exports.
In March 2023, the federal government won international arbitration, recognizing its right to control Kurdish oil exports through Turkiye.
The ruling led to the suspension of exports, which blocked a significant source of income for the regional administration.
Irbil later agreed in principle that sales of Kurdish oil would pass through Baghdad in exchange for 12.6 percent of Iraq’s public spending, but the agreement’s implementation has stalled.
When Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani first came to power in 2021, Baghdad and Irbil enjoyed better relations than they had seen in years.
But experts say that some parties that brought Al-Sudani to power are now determined to weaken the autonomous Kurdistan region.
“Some politicians desire to undermine the constitutional state of the Kurdistan region out of political vengeance,” said Ihsan Al-Shammari, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad.
Although court decisions concerning Kurdistan are “constitutional,” they are “political,” Al-Shammari said.
The recent tension undermines Irbil’s relationship with Baghdad and aims to “politically” weaken the KDP, Al-Shammari added.
Political bickering between the KDP and its main rival, the PUK, which enjoys friendlier ties with the federal government, has always shaped politics in the autonomous region.
PUK chief Bafel Jalal Talabani announced his support for the Supreme Court’s decisions — an institution he said helped “protect the political system in Iraq.”
But Sabah Sobhi, a KDP lawmaker, said the decisions undermined Iraq’s current political system.
He said some political parties wanted to replace “the federal and decentralized” system with a “centralized and authoritarian” rule.
“Disagreements among Kurds would undoubtedly” worsen the situation, Sobhi warned.




Hamas urges US to put ‘pressure’ on Israel for permanent Gaza ceasefire: statement

Updated 13 sec ago

Hamas urges US to put ‘pressure’ on Israel for permanent Gaza ceasefire: statement

GAZA STRIP: The Hamas militant group in Gaza called on Washington on Thursday to “pressure” Israel to accept a permanent ceasefire in the territory, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wraps up a Mideast tour.

“He continues to talk about Israel’s agreement of the latest (ceasefire) proposal, but we have not heard any Israeli official speak out on this,” Hamas said in a statement, urging Blinken to put “direct pressure” on Israel.

Iran expanding enrichment capacity after IAEA resolution, diplomats say

Updated 9 min 37 sec ago

Iran expanding enrichment capacity after IAEA resolution, diplomats say

  • Iran is only enriching to up to 60 percent at an above-ground pilot plant at Natanz and its Fordow site, which is dug into a mountain

VIENNA/PARIS: Iran is responding to last week’s UN nuclear watchdog board resolution against it by expanding its uranium-enrichment capacity at two underground sites, but the escalation is not as big as many had feared, diplomats said on Wednesday.
Iran bristles at such resolutions by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors, and it reacted to the previous one 18 months earlier by enriching to up to 60 percent purity, close to weapons grade, at a second site and announcing a large expansion of its enrichment program.
This time it plans to install more cascades, or clusters, of centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, at both its underground enrichment sites, five diplomats said. IAEA inspectors observing Iran’s progress plan to issue a report to member states on Thursday, three of the diplomats said.
“It’s not as much as I would expect,” one Vienna-based diplomat said, referring to the scale of Iran’s escalation.
“Why? I don’t know. Maybe they’re waiting for the new government,” they said, referring to the death in a helicopter crash last month of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, and the presidential election due to be held on June 28.
The IAEA Board passed a resolution a week ago calling on Iran to step up cooperation with the IAEA and reverse its recent barring of inspectors despite earlier US concerns Tehran would respond with atomic escalation. Only Russia and China opposed.
Diplomats did not go into specifics on the number or type of centrifuges being added or what level they would enrich to, though one diplomat said they would not be used to quickly expand Iran’s production of uranium enriched to up to 60 percent, close to the 90 percent of weapons grade.
The diplomats said they would wait to see what the IAEA said Iran had actually done but they were aware of Iran’s plans.
The move is “at the lower end of expectations and something we’re pretty sure they were going to do anyway,” one diplomat said, meaning it would have happened even without the resolution.
Iran did not fully follow through on its November 2022 announcement after the previous resolution. While it installed all the centrifuges it said it would at its underground enrichment plant at Natanz, 12 cascades of one advanced model, the IR-2m, are not yet in operation.
Iran is only enriching to up to 60 percent at an above-ground pilot plant at Natanz and its Fordow site, which is dug into a mountain. In November 2022 it started enriching to up to 60 percent at Fordow but it has yet to install all the additional cascades it said it would.

Houthis claim attack on merchant ship in Red Sea off Yemen

Updated 18 min 51 sec ago

Houthis claim attack on merchant ship in Red Sea off Yemen

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis on Wednesday claimed at attack on a merchant ship in the Red Sea off Yemen, in their latest such strike.

The Houthis have launched scores of drone and missile attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since November.

They say they are harassing the vital trade route as an act of solidarity with Palestinians during the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

In a statement on Wednesday, the group said it had carried out “an military operation targeting the Tutor ship in the Red Sea, using a naval drone, aerial drones and ballistic missiles.”

The ship was hit about 68 nautical miles southwest of the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida, maritime security firm Ambrey had said earlier in the day.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by Britain’s Royal Navy, said a ship was “hit on the stern by a small craft” 66 nautical miles southwest of Hodeida.

In a statement, UKMTO said the ship was taking on water and not under the crew’s command.

It added that the vessel was “hit for a second time by an unknown airborne projectile” and that military authorities were assisting.

Exodus of doctors and health workers leave sick and ailing Syrians out on a limb

Updated 4 min 6 sec ago

Exodus of doctors and health workers leave sick and ailing Syrians out on a limb

  • Sanctions, isolation, earthquakes and a grinding civil war have devastated Syria’s health system
  • Overwhelmed, under-resourced, and often unpaid, medical personnel are leaving for Europe in droves 

LONDON: More than a decade of civil war, economic sanctions, regional tensions, and a devastating earthquake have left Syria’s healthcare system in tatters and, according to a top World Health Organization official, forgotten by the international community.

Hanan Balkhy, WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said last week that almost half of Syria’s health workers had fled the war-torn country. She called for innovative approaches to halt the exodus of Syrian medical staff abroad.

In an interview with the AFP news agency, she said that young doctors needed to be offered better prospects than practicing “fourth-century” medicine amid dire conditions, “where you cauterize people and send them on their merry way.”

An injured man receives emergency treatment at the Samez hospital following bombardment by pro Syrian regime forces in rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib on October 6, 2023. (AFP)

The International Rescue Committee highlighted in a 2021 report that about 70 percent of the medical workforce had fled the country, leaving one doctor for every 10,000 people.

Balkhy told AFP that in addition to earning extremely low wages, if any at all, Syria’s medical staff faced a severe shortage of resources and equipment, including operating rooms, sterilization units, and medications.

However, according Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian-American critical care specialist and president of the medical NGO MedGlobal, every young Syrian physician he knows either plans to or dreams of leaving Syria and pursuing opportunities in other countries, “especially Germany, other European nations, or the US.”

“The flight is across the board and not related to war or conflict,” he told Arab News.

According to data released by the German Medical Association earlier this year, 6,120 Syrian doctors work in Germany without holding a German passport. These doctors account for 10 percent of the EU country’s foreign medical staff.


• 70 percent Proportion of Syria’s medical workforce that fled the country, leaving one doctor for every 10,000 people. (IRC, 2021)

• 6,120 Number of Syrian doctors working in Germany, accounting for 10 percent of the country’s foreign medical staff. (GMA, 2024)6,120 Number of Syrian doctors working in Germany, accounting for 10 percent of the country’s foreign medical staff. (GMA, 2024)

• 65 percent Proportion of Syria’s hospitals deemed fully operational, making access to healthcare heavily constrained. (WHO, 2024)

• $80 million Funding needed by the WHO for 2024 to ensure access to health services and prevent further deterioration in Syria.

Balkhy said many young doctors in Syria are learning the German language on the side “so that they can be ready to jump,” which she believes is a significant concern for the region and its population.

But she also believes that finding creative solutions may encourage Syrian doctors to stay or return to their country — a choice she says many would make “willingly” with access to adequate support.

A man stands at the entrance of Adnan Kiwan hospital that was hit during reported airstrikes by pro-regime forces in the town of Kansafrah, in the south of Syria's Idlib province on November 25, 2019. The patients of the hospital were reportedly evacuated shortly before the strike took place. (AFP/File)

Sahloul says the main reasons behind the exodus of medical workers “are the economic collapse, hyperinflation, corruption, the collapse of the healthcare system due to long years of war, the regime’s policies of destroying what is left and pushing away anyone who wants to leave, and the lack of a viable political solution.”

Following a brief visit to the country between May 11 and 16, WHO’s Balkhy described the healthcare situation as “catastrophic,” warning that the number of people in need is “staggering, and pockets of critical vulnerabilities persist in many parts of the country.”

In a statement published on May 18, the WHO official wrote that intensifying tensions in the region, including the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip and the Iran-Israel shadow war, have exacerbated this catastrophic situation.

The civil war has forced more than 14 million Syrians to flee their homes and seek refuge both within the country and beyond its borders. Among them, more than 7.2 million remain internally displaced, while about 70 percent of the population needs humanitarian assistance, according to UN figures.

Dr. Hanan Balkhy, WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean. (Supplied)

Balkhy said in her statement that she was “extremely alarmed” by the increasing malnutrition rates among children under 5 and nursing mothers as a result of rising poverty.

The UN warned last year that 90 percent of Syria’s population lived below the poverty line, with millions facing a reduction in food rations due to a shortfall in funding for aid agencies.

According to the WHO regional director, almost three-quarters of all deaths in Syria are caused by chronic conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and mental health disorders, many of which are going untreated.

She also noted the number of burn injuries in Syria has been disproportionately high, especially among children, as people, deprived of traditional means of heating and cooking, burn unsuitable materials, such as tires, plastics, and fabrics.

In this picture taken on May 2, 2023, male patients receive treatment at the Haematology and Oncology department run by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) at Idlib Central Hospital in the rebel-held northwestern Syrian city.(AFP/File)

Fumes produced by burning these substances also result in respiratory issues.

With just 65 percent of hospitals and 62 percent of primary healthcare centers fully operational, combined with a severe shortage of essential medicines and medical equipment, access to healthcare is constrained.

Before the war erupted in 2011, Syria’s pharmaceutical industry covered about 90 percent of the national needs of medicines, according to a 2010 paper by academics from the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Romania.

In 2013, WHO reported that the country’s local drug production plunged after the fighting caused substantial damage to pharmaceutical plants in the governorates of Aleppo and rural Damascus.

A picture taken on February 21, 2018 shows a view through the wall of a destroyed hospital's pharmacy after it was hit in a regime air strike in the rebel-held enclave of Hamouria in Ghouta near Damascus. (AFP/File)

Poverty also creates significant barriers to accessing medical services and affording essential medicines, said Balkhy.

What concerned her most was “the fact that almost half of the health workforce, which forms the backbone of any health system, has left the country.”

An investigation by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism last year found that although the exact number of Syrian physicians who left the country remains unknown, the true extent of this exodus is larger than the NGOs and the Syrian government have reported.

“Retaining a skilled health workforce and ensuring sufficient medical supplies in Syria and across the region is a key priority,” said Balkhy.

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, carry the body of a woman recovered from the rubble of a building at the site of a reported airstrike on the rebel-held town of Ariha in the northern countryside of Syria's Idlib province early on January 30, 2020. (AFP/File)

She proposed engaging young Syrian physicians on research projects with a pathway to publishing so they can “feel that they’re doing something worthwhile,” in addition to ensuring they “at least have the equipment” to perform operations.

For Sahloul of MedGlobal, fostering a belief in a brighter future is essential to retaining both new and seasoned doctors.

“What will encourage young and old doctors to stay in Syria is believing in a better future — a new leadership that respects its human capital,” he said.

Sahloul said that international and Arab actors need to devote more attention to finding a genuine solution to the Syrian conflict — “one that ensures respect for human rights and dignity, and focuses on rebuilding.”

A man and woman carry malnourished children at a camp for Syrians displaced by conflict near the town of Deir al-Ballut by Syria's border with Turkey in the Afrin region in the northwest of the rebel-held side of the Aleppo province on September 28, 2020. (AFP/File)

He added: “The current Arab normalization with the regime is flawed because it gives no hope for any meaningful change.”

Sahloul said normalization’s priorities, including refugee repatriation, curbing the manufacture of and trade in the amphetamine drug Captagon, and limiting Iran’s influence, “are not the most important priorities to the young graduates and aspiring doctors in Syria.”

Balkhy emphasized that the decline in humanitarian funding for Syria was a “central and troubling concern.” 

For instance, Al-Hol camp in Syria’s northeast — home to the wives and children of Daesh militants captured in 2019 — has grappled with many significant challenges since funding shortages forced WHO to halt medical referrals, prompting camp administrators to revoke its access.

Talks with donors in the capital Damascus during her five-day visit revealed that while they acknowledge the extent of gaps and needs, they are hampered by competing regional and global agendas.

Medecins Sans Frontieres warned on April 29 that the severe lack of funding for a vital WHO-funded medical referral system in 11 camps in northeast Syria “will lead to a marked increase in the number of preventable deaths.”

WHO said in March that it required $80 million in funding for the year 2024 to ensure the continuity, quality, and accessibility of health services and infrastructure in Syria, and to prevent a further deterioration of the already precarious situation.


Interior ministers of Libya and Tunisia agree reopening of major border crossing

Updated 13 June 2024

Interior ministers of Libya and Tunisia agree reopening of major border crossing

  • The GNU, which controls Tripoli and northwestern parts of Libya, is recognized internationally but not by the country’s eastern-based parliament

TRIPOLI: Interior ministers from Libya and Tunisia said on Wednesday they had agreed to partially reopen the border crossing at Ras Jdir on Thursday morning, and to fully reopen it on June 20 after more than three months of closure.
Libyan interior minister in Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli, Emad Trabulsi, said in a video statement with his Tunisian counterpart, Khaled Nouri, that the border crossing would be reopened “for the interest of the countries without harming any party.”
In mid-March, the Libyan interior ministry said it closed the border crossing due to armed clashes after the border was attacked by “outlaws.”
Ras Ijdir is the major border crossing between the two countries in Libya’s western region, where Libyans often go to Tunisia for medical treatment and trucks with goods coming in the opposite direction.
Libya has had little peace since a 2011 uprising and is split between eastern and western factions, with rival administrations governing each area.
The GNU, which controls Tripoli and northwestern parts of Libya, is recognized internationally but not by the country’s eastern-based parliament.
“The reopening will be tomorrow for humanitarian cases, special cases that have permits from the Tunisian and Algerian interior ministry, and medical cases,” said Trabulsi.
Trabulsi added that he would meet Nouri on June 20 at the border crossing “to hold a meeting and fully reopen it to all travelers.”
For his part, Nouri said they had supported the crossing with everything necessary “in order to facilitate movement and not disrupt travelers from both sides.”