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May 1, 2011

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An Interview with the former Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government

The Harvard Political Review - By Sarah Siskind

Heyrsh Abdulrahman grew up in both Kurdistan and the US, earning his degree at Eastern Mennonite University.

From 2004 to 2006, Abdulrahman worked as a special assistant to the  representative  of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (one of Iraq’s leading Kurdish political parties) in D.C., and later as the Deputy KRG Representative and PUK deputy representative from 2004 to 2009. He is currently working as a political commentator and has written extensively on Iraq and Kurdistan for various papers.

Harvard Political Review:  Were the atrocities against the Kurds widely known? Why or why not?

Abdulrahman:  Saddam Hussein committed atrocities against the Kurds, evidenced by various human rights reports, mass grave sites, Iraqi secret police documents which were seized in 1991 and 2003, and witness testimonies. He committed a genocide against the Kurds, led by Ali Hassan Al-Majid , Hussein’s first cousin, who was later dubbed Chemical Ali for his extensive use of gas against the Kurds. In 1988 the Iraqi state attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja with mustard gas and nerve agents. This led to the death of 5000 civilians. Those who survived the attack were evicted and resettled in Northern Iraq. The atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein and other leaders shocked the world. Though most people in the world were aware of the atrocities, the governments did not stop the atrocities. The United States government, which had supported Iraq in the war against Iran, did not help. The atrocities were widely known because they caused huge casualties and mass displacement across Iraq’s borders with Iran and Turkey.

HPR:  Why has such animosity grown towards Kurds in the Middle East? 

Abdulrahman:  Hussein’s government was hostile.  The Ba’ath party with its nationalist ideology viewed the Kurds as guests on Arab land. The Ba’ath party slogan was: A united Arab world with an eternal message. Naturally the government saw the Kurdish population as a threat to the government, the country in general, and to Arab unity.

There are various factors that have led to animosity towards Kurds in Middle East. Most countries like Iran, Turkey and Syria don’t even recognize the existence of the Kurds in their constitution.  Countries have developed various measures to prevent the Kurds from using their language or having political parties. In addition, most of the Kurdish areas do not get support from the government and they are as a result deprived and underdeveloped regions with poor infrastructure. The suppression of the Kurds in each of the four countries of the Middle East has taken different forms. Each state has used its own methods to suppress Kurdish demands for more rights and they have always helped each other to keep the Kurds a powerless and deprived minority who are viewed as second-class citizens.

HPR:  How did the Kurdish population receive the US interventions in Iraq?

Abdulrahman:   The Iraq-Iran war had a devastating effect on the Kurds and other citizens in Iran and Iraq.  It led to death and impoverishment. At the time the United States government helped stop the war so as to avoid more losses. In addition, the United States government helped remove Saddam Hussein from power. The Kurds in Iraq welcomed the US invasion of Iraq. This is because the invasion benefited them. The invasion led to a form of independence for the Kurds. It helped end the atrocities towards the Kurds. They have enjoyed freedom in the country as a result of this invasion.

HPR:   What has changed since the US invasion? What has improved and what still needs improvement? Have any conditions gotten worse?

Abdulrahman:  Various things have changed since the invasion of Iraq by the United States. Unlike before, the Kurds have been able to live in peace. They are able to participate in central government politics, unlike in other countries, and to practice a form of self-rule. In addition, the invasion in Iraq has led to improvement in governance in the country. The regime has changed since the invasion of Iraq. This is because the United States was able to end the Hussein regime and form a new government which better represents the ethnic and religious diversity in the country. Additionally, the Kurdish people have formed the KGR. The country has seen positive developments since the invasion including the lifting of sanctions, various economic opportunities and employment.

On the other hand, there are various things that have not changed for the better in Iraq. The rate of violence and terrorism has all but gone up. The country has found it hard to curb the sectarian violence and eliminate terrorist activities. The violence and terrorism in the country needs to be resolved. Terrorism in the country and outside the country have gotten worse and need to be tackled.

The formation of a federal Iraq where the KGR is recognized and Kurdish language is one of the two official languages has been a great achievement. The Regional Government itself, however, has had many internal problems that are currently causing a lot of turmoil. The Kurdistan government was established by the Kurdish parties, mainly the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), that fought the Iraqi regime from their mountainous strongholds for decades. These parties had no experience in governing cities. They had also come to power in the aftermath of the genocide campaign, known as Anfal, when all the Kurdish villages were destroyed and over 100,000 civilians ended in mass graves. The KDP and PUK found themselves in charge of a traumatized community and a ruined terrain. This combined with their lack of experience and their own historical rivalries led to huge internal problems in their coalition government, leading to civil war (1994- 1997) and later to the division of the region between KDP and PUK administrations. After 2003 the two administrations united once again, however, but other problems started surfacing. The lifting of sanctions and rapid development in infrastructure led to the creation of a wealthy and powerful class, most of whom were associated with one of the two political parties. Corruption and nepotism grew in the government and a new society was created with a large gap between the rich and poor. This has led to a lot of resentment amongst the Kurdish public and recently, over the last two months, it has led to massive protest and demonstrations in Suleimany and the surrounding towns. So far, however, the KGR has not responded to the people’s demands for reform and this may lead to further resentment and eventually to more violence.

HPR:  Is the democracy in Iraq sustainable? Can a government be successfully established by a military?

Abdulrahman:  Democracy in Iraq is sustainable. This is because most people support the country in improving democracy. For instance, the United States has supported Iraq in enhancing democracy and democratic rights. Apart from United States, other groups have supported democracy in the country because of its benefits. However, democracy in the country is sustainable if all groups work together. A government can be established successfully by the military. The military plays an important role in promoting democracy in the country. The military has been effective in enhancing democracy and establishing government in various countries like Indonesia. This is because it helps protect the country and its citizens. It also helps eliminate obstacles that affect the creation of a government like rival countries and economic issues and political issues.

HPR:  Is a divided state (between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds) the correct solution to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq? 

Abdulrahman:  The sectarian violence in Iraq has had negative impacts in the country. The Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds have been fighting each other and the violence is threatening to destroy Iraq.  Most people argue that the best way to end the sectarian violence is to divide the country. The country should be decentralized and each ethnic group and religious group given a chance to head its affairs while the central government manages the interests of all the citizens. The solution to the conflict is to create three autonomous regions as indicated in the constitution. That is creating Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions. The regional governments will deal with domestic law and security while the central government will deal with border issues, foreign affairs and oil revenues.

HPR:  Why are hundreds of young men and woman protesting against the KRG? (Kurdistan regional government)

Abdulrahman:  As I mentioned above, a large section of the young men and women in the country have been protesting against the KGR because of corruption. The KGR has been involved in various corrupt deals over the last decade and this has forced the citizens to protest. In addition, the high unemployment rates in the country and misuse of firearms has led to protests in the country. 

HPR:   Should the United States be concerned with ensuring stability in the Middle East? Ensuring democracy? Should the United States be involved at all? 

Abdulrahman:  Though most people oppose the involvement of United States in Iraq, the United States should be involved in Iraq because it has provided assistance to restore democracy in the country. The United States should be concerned in ensuring stability in the Middle East because it will help eliminate conflicts in the Middle East and ensure all countries and citizens have equal rights. This in turn will lead to the creation of more cohesion in the world, more democratic states and less resentment towards the West. I believe a peaceful and democratic Middle East would not only benefit the region but would be beneficial for the world in general.

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