Red star over Iraqi Kurdistan
Workers decorate an office of the Kurdistan Communist Party - Iraq. With one lonely member of parliament, one might think the KCP is a marginal force, but its influence far outstrips its electoral performance. | Kurdistan TV via KCP

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraqi Kurdistan—For those who have followed the development of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq since its formation after the Kurdish rebellion of 1991, the names Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani have been inextricably tied to the region’s politics.

Their respective parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have long dominated the political landscape, dividing the territory of the autonomous region between themselves after a period of intense inner-Kurdish warfare in the 1990s. Today, they each maintain their own Peshmerga military formations, and the KRG often appears to function as a one-party state, though paradoxically, there are two of them.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein brandishes a sword when being sworn in for another term as president in October 2002. | AP

Given the omnipotence of the Talabani and Barzani families in Iraqi Kurdistan today, what then are the significance of other political formations? The extent of the corruption and nepotism of both major parties, as well as their monopoly on power, led to the emergence of the Gorran Movement in 2009. Though they have managed to achieve some electoral success, public perception of them as a genuine opposition party that can tackle the mismanagement of the region appears to have dulled. There are some minor Islamist parties that have seats in parliament, as well as the New Generation Movement that won eight seats in the 2018 election.

Then there is the oldest party in the Kurdistan Region, the Kurdistan Communist Party. With one lonely MP, one could be forgiven for having the impression that the Communists are a marginal force. The party’s influence and importance to the region, however, far outstrip its electoral performance.

The rich history of the Iraqi/Kurdistan Communist Party

The Kurdistan Communist Party was technically founded in 1993, although in reality this simply meant the branch of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) in what had become the Kurdistan Region was now solely responsible for its own affairs in the new de facto independent area.

The Iraqi party dates its foundation back to 1934. It played a vital role in the formation of the country’s working-class organizations, including the establishment of trade unions. The party has experienced periods of legality and illegality throughout its existence and had a contradictory relationship with the Ba’ath Party that ruled the country for nearly four decades.

In 1963, the U.S.-backed Ba’athist coup that deposed Abd al-Karim Qasim led to thousands of Communist Party members being slaughtered in the following days, with party leader Salam Adil among those executed. However, in the mid-1970s, relations between the Communist Party and the Ba’athists warmed somewhat, with the Communists initially viewing Saddam Hussein positively when he came to power, even referring to him in glowing terms as Iraq’s own variant of Fidel Castro in the aftermath of nationalization campaigns. This led to their inclusion in the National Progressive Front in 1975, which meant accepting the Ba’ath Party’s dominance over Iraqi political life.

However, certain contradictions soon began to appear irreconcilable. The Communists were proud of their heritage as a multinational party and advocated an Iraqi state with full rights for both of its dominant nations, Arabs and Kurds. This had initially been the line of the Qasim government that had taken power in 1958, which the Communists generally supported. By contrast, the Ba’athist ideology could make no room for Kurds in its Arab nationalist orientation unless they agreed to a position of subservience and second-class citizenship.

Hawre Gorran, Deputy Secretary-General of the Kurdistan Communist Party in Sulaymaniyah. | Courtesy of Marcel Cartier

The ICP was banned in 1979, going underground and waging an armed struggle from the mountains of Kurdistan against the Saddam Hussein regime. Though the Iraqi party, as well as its Kurdish sister party set up in 1993, opposed the U.S. invasion of 2003, the democratization of politics that has taken place since has allowed the ICP to take on a renewed prominence in Iraq. They entered the Saiirun Alliance in 2018, which became the largest bloc in Baghdad’s parliament.

But with Iraq effectively split in two, given the level of control that the KRG enjoys over its own affairs (even in light of Iraqi federal intervention after the botched 2017 independence referendum), I wanted to know to what degree the Kurdistan Communist Party remains relevant.

In Sulaymaniyah, where the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is the dominant political force, I was able to speak with the Deputy Secretary-General for the Communist Party in the governorate, Hawre Gorran.

On the right of nations to self-determination

Gorran begins by making it clear that the KRG should be united, not divided into two camps that are each under the control of either the KDP or PUK. He is clear in his opposition to the vast privatization that has taken place under each party in the areas of health, education, and electricity, but also keenly aware that division between the Talabani and Barzani cliques has been catastrophic.

“The Kurdistan Communist Party played a very important role in mediating between the KDP and PUK during the civil war that was fought between 1994 and 1997. Our leader at that time, Aziz Muhammad, helped bring them together to end the conflict,” he says.

Muhammad, who passed away in 2017, was a legendary figure on the Kurdish and Iraqi left and was symbolic of the Communist Party’s approach to unity between Arabs and Kurds, serving as leader of the Iraqi party from 1964 to 1993, then of the independent Kurdish party after that.

Kurdish civilians flee Saddam Hussein’s army in March 1991, leaving the city of Kirkuk and bound for Erbil. | Sayyad / AP

Although fraternity between nations has long been the Communist Party’s objective and one of its important rallying cries, the KCP today is supportive of independence for Kurdistan—and not just the Iraqi part, but also those parts of the Kurdish homeland that sit within the borders of Turkey, Syria, and Iran.

As Gorran explains, “Each part of Kurdistan has its own special conditions. We cannot tell them how to conduct their struggle in Turkey, for example. But the same right of self-determination and secession that exists in Catalunya or Ireland certainly exists here in Kurdistan, too. This is a right, not something that has to be gifted to us.”

When asked about the KCP’s relationships with other communist parties in the region who may oppose Kurdish independence, Gorran attempts to toe a diplomatic line, saying it would probably be better if I ask those parties why they take such a position. In the end, however, he says, “It is clearly related to chauvinism. This is not a communist position. It has nothing to do with Lenin’s conception of a nation’s right to be self-determining.”

On the reactionary role of the United States in Kurdistan

This question was wrapped up in another extremely important point that needed to be clarified, which is the relationship between Kurdistan as an oppressed nation and the role of the United States in the region.

Much of the apprehension that I have often encountered in regards to the Kurdish question from leftists and those calling themselves communists is that Kurds are merely auxiliaries of U.S. imperialism in the region, and therefore their national liberation struggle is not worthy of support. But the KCP makes it clear that they are opponents of U.S. imperialism, and the party is not afraid to speak out against the machinations of Washington in the region or criticize certain decisions taken by parties or organizations they otherwise have friendly relations with.

Hawre Gorran says, “The U.S. is working for its own interests all over the Middle East. It doesn’t care about the Kurdish people. For example, they opposed the 2017 independence referendum, and when the Iraqi government captured Kirkuk, an agreement was signed for oil extraction there that clearly benefits imperialism.”

The Kurdistan Communist Party and the Iraqi Communist Party both opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion, but following democratization, both have taken on a renewed prominence in political life. Here, a woman in Kirkuk argues with a U.S. soldier about access to city hall in April 2003. | AP

In regards to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that is waging war against Turkish colonialism both inside Turkey and in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Gorran says, “We have good relations. We don’t get involved in criticizing their struggle, because it is up to them how to conduct it. We have some ideological differences, but we want to maintain good relations, and that is what is important.”

But what of the PKK’s allies in northern Syria, who have continued to entertain relations with the United States even after the military defeat of the so-called Islamic State? I ask about this strategic orientation, given that in the summer of 2020 an oil deal was struck between the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and a U.S. oil company, Delta Crescent.

Gorran says in response, “Any agreement that is made has to take people’s needs into account. This agreement offers no protection for the people. The United States and Russia are playing a role in controlling resources in the Middle East. Any force in Rojava should be prioritizing and protecting people’s interests.”

On women’s liberation

Perhaps the most impressive, progressive element of that struggle in northern Syria, as well as its most concrete achievement, has been the central role that women have played in it. Indeed, the image of the fearless Kurdish woman fighter has become prevalent across the world in recent years as a result.

However, there is nothing necessarily new about women playing roles equal to men in the leftist movement in Kurdistan. According to Hawre Gorran, equality of women is “extremely important” to the KCP. He elaborates, saying, “It’s essential that women are not only members of the party, but that they are able to elevate themselves to be leading cadre. In our Central Committee, it is a rule that at least 25% of members need to be women.”

An office of the Kurdistan Communist Party. | via Marcel Cartier

The KCP also has an organization dedicated to the liberation of women, called simply the Kurdistan Women’s League. In 2008, its leader Nahla Hussain al-Shaly was decapitated in Kirkuk, a sign of how dangerous doing such work in the region can be.

Gorran explains, “The law is not working. We have collected thousands of signatures for a secular system. As it stands now, if a woman is abused and tries to flee to a shelter, any man in her family can go to pick her up and take her home. Legally, the man has a right over her. The woman has no rights.”

I ask what stands in the way of changing these backward, patriarchal relations. “The mentality of people is a big obstacle. Often, it is their interpretation of religion that makes people believe that things are naturally supposed to be this way.”

On the struggle for democracy in Kurdistan

If women’s rights in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq continue to be stalled, and only incremental progress has been made, then what does this say about the state of democracy in general in the region?

Gorran says, “If we look at the history of any country, we can see that the democratic struggle takes a long time. We had the struggle against the Ba’athist chauvinists, then the inner-Kurdish war. Democracy has not yet reached a higher level. For instance, Massoud Barzani has no official position, yet he still remains the main point of contact for everything in the KRG. Therefore, he effectively runs everything.”

He is also eager to point out that while parties such as the PUK and KDP continue the ruling family’s dominance in leadership positions, the KCP has a different idea of democratic norms. “We have changed our General Secretary four times since our party was founded in 1993. This is very different from the other parties.”

This kind of non-democratic management of the major parties also has the effect of blurring the lines between the government and what should be fighting organizations of the working class, the trade unions. Gorran says that “Many unions were created here after 1991. Some are not controlled by the PUK or KDP, but some are. For example, they control the Journalists’ Union.”

This was quite a revelation. It certainly doesn’t seem far-fetched to believe that the Barzani and Talabani families having this degree of influence over the union of the region’s press workers would translate into—or help to reinforce—their control over the media and dissemination of information.

Gorran says that the fighting power of many unions is compromised by these relationships, thus helping maintain the impression that there is more democracy than there often is. “One union, for instance, had a demonstration at a government office. But this union is allied to the PUK. It, therefore, becomes a sort of controlled opposition.”

According to Gorran, “You used to only be able to get public sector jobs by being a member of one of the two main parties. Nowadays, this is also applying to the private sector.”

In December 2020, anger and frustration at the government’s corruption, nepotism, mass unemployment, and non-payment of salaries to public sector workers for several months led to a series of demonstrations across Sulaymaniyah. In the crackdown unleashed by security forces, ten people were killed.

For the Communist Party, these demonstrations were certainly worthy of support, and they played a key role in amplifying the voice of the protesters and rallying to their side, even as they cautioned against the use of violence as a tactic. After nine days, however, the movement seemed to run out of steam, not least because of the harsh repression unleashed by the authorities.

“After these protests, only one or two politicians resigned. This shows that we have a long way to go.”

Toward a communist horizon in Kurdistan

Far from being a political party that can be summed up as operating on the fringes of Iraqi Kurdistan’s social life, I found that in reality, the Kurdistan Communist Party is continuing to build upon its rich history of militant, working-class struggle. Its necessity surely appears validated by the current situation in the region, one in which the democratic struggle feels stifled, and in which the emerging opposition forces of recent years have ebbed in popularity.

Miguel Villagran / AP

Everywhere I traveled in the region, I seemed to spot a KCP office, and more importantly, perhaps, there always seemed to be huge respect and reverence paid toward senior Communists when they appeared in public spaces.

A few years before he died in 2017, the legendary former leader of the party, Aziz Muhammad, received the Immortal Barzani Medal from Massoud Barzani, then still president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Despite their often very different political outlooks, it was clear that Muhammad—much like the party—was respected as a vital part of the fabric of this region. When Muhammad died, the Kurdistan Region’s head of foreign relations, Falah Mustafa, made reference to his “humble life, serving values, and principles.”

I’m reminded at this point of something Hawre Gorran said as we were wrapping up the interview. Speaking about the importance of maintaining a Marxist perspective in the 21st century, he said “It’s essential that we stay true to our principles. We know that only socialism is the answer to not only Kurdistan’s problems but those of the whole world.”


Marcel Cartier
Marcel Cartier

Marcel Cartier is a critically acclaimed hip-hop artist, journalist, and the author of two books on the Kurdish liberation movement, including 2019’s Serkeftin: A Narrative of the Rojava Revolution, which was one of the first full accounts in English of the civil and political structures set up in northern Syria after 2012.