It was 8 am on a scorching hot summer day. I was sitting inside a public notary office in a Kurdish border town, two kilometers away from the no-fly zone declared by the US-led coalition in 1991, and which separated the Kurdish autonomous zone from the rest of Iraq. In the next room, an Arab man was finishing up his paperwork with security officers for a sponsorship that he and five members of his family were set to receive from a local Kurdish man. About half an hour later, the notary brought the paper over to show me. He put his finger on the line that described the Kurdish sponsor as a “citizen of Kurdistan” (hawlatî Kurd) and the Arab man and his family as “Arab nationals” (neteweyî Arab). “They make all these distinctions,” the notary said, referring to the security forces. “But it’s just a fantasy. It’s not legal.” He shook his head, stamped the paper and filed it away.[1]

Female Kurdish Peshmerga participate in their graduation ceremony at a police academy in Zakho district of the Dohuk Governorate in Iraqi Kurdistan, 2016. Ari Jalal/Reuters

This incident in December 2018 was the first time I came across the use of “citizen of Kurdistan” in an official document in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The appearance of this term in a document prepared by security forces reflected a fundamental tension inherent in the promise of sovereignty through Kurdish self-rule in Iraq: While Kurdish autonomy in Iraq was first promised by the Iraqi state in 1970, it was only institutionalized after 1991 and there is still no legally codified notion of Kurdish citizenship.[2] The void left by the lack of any legal citizenship status has been filled instead with the institutionalization of a robust security apparatus to control Kurds and other populations such as refugees, internally displaced people and foreigners.

Kurdish citizenship is set in motion through the daily functions of the security apparatuses.
Two parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—maintain a monopoly on violence and territorial control that is institutionally embodied in the Peshmerga units and other security forces (like the Asayish). These security institutions operate via a chain of command that does not originate in the KRG parliament, but in the parties themselves and their cadres. Kurdish citizenship is set in motion through the daily functions of the security apparatuses. Security has also been politicized by the ruling parties in their efforts to maintain legitimacy and power, especially during multiple crises after 2014. Thus, examining the national security apparatus of the KRG provides a key vantage point for understanding how Kurdish autonomy takes shape in Iraq.


The Fragmented Security Apparatus


The KRG’s national security apparatus consists of an amalgam of forces including the Peshmerga, the security forces (Asayish), the intelligence agencies of the KDP (Parastin) and the PUK (Zanyarî), counterterrorism units and personally loyal forces that operate beyond the formal framework.[3] The origins of this system can be traced back to the 1998 Washington Agreement between the KDP and the PUK. The agreement resulted in the division of the 13 percent of revenues allotted at the time to the KRI under the oil-for-food program toward their respective armed forces and the control of trade and imports over borders.[4] In the period between 1998 and 2006, these two parties maintained a monopoly of violence over urban areas and put informal armed forces on a payroll. The rationale of this mass recruitment was to maintain the loyalty of men originally armed during the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War (1993–1997) and to maintain legitimate control over those who were displaced and became landless peasants during the Iraqi government’s murderous Anfal Campaign against the Kurds in Duhok, Kirkuk and Garmiyan provinces.[5]

Getting a job with the Peshmerga or the informal armed forces remains the most prestigious form of employment for many Anfal families.[6] After the election of Masoud Barzani as the president of the Kurdistan Region in 2006, the existing two-administration model was annulled on paper but remained in practice. The nationalization of the security forces has remained one of the most heated political issues ever since, as most security forces and intelligence services are still under the control of either the KDP or PUK.

The nationalization of the security forces has remained one of the most heated political issues since 2006, as most security forces and intelligence services are still under the control of either the KDP or PUK.
As of 2018, out of 200,000 Peshmerga registered to the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, those affiliated with party-controlled units included 58,000 in the KDP’s 80th Brigade and 56,000 in the PUK’s 70th Brigade. Kirkuk was ruled by joint brigades until they withdrew into their respective parties’ territory after the Iraqi army—along with the mostly Shi’i paramilitary groups called Popular Mobilization Units—took control of the city and its surrounding areas on October 16, 2017.

According to a report published in 2019, the Ministry of Peshmerga spent 11.49 percent of the KRG’s total budget in 2013 on salaries. It was paying salaries to an estimated 432,000 people.[7] Notably, these numbers exclude Zanyarî, Parastin and various counterterrorism units that employ tens of thousands more and are tied to the KRG’s Ministry of Interior. The difference between the number of people officially employed and the number of salaries actually paid by the Ministry of Peshmerga is a fact well known to the public. This disparity is frequently cited as proof that the ruling parties use the security apparatus as a mechanism for distributing benefits and maintaining local legitimacy. Forces are also tied to high-ranking politicians in the PUK, such as Sheikh Ja’far and Mahmoud Sangawi, and are deployed for securing personal interests, raw and refined oil and natural gas resources and territorial control.

The inability of the Kurdistan Regional Government to nationalize the security forces reflects the multiplicity of sovereignty claims that emerged under the umbrella of the Kurdish government. Opposition led by the Gorran movement in 2009 made the case that the divided security forces was proof of the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the two parties and their elite. Although the political career of Gorran’s leader Nawshirwan Mustafa started in the Peshmerga, he was able to use his origins in an old urban family from Sulaymaniyah to distinguish the movement’s principles from the rank-and-file organization of the KDP and the PUK. An emerging civil society also argued that the KDP and the PUK, as parties that have their origins in guerrilla organizations in the mountains, have not changed their practices of control and violence, but have only transported them to urban areas.


The Difficulty of Defining Citizenship


When the autonomy of the KRG was recognized in the 2005 Iraqi constitution, the need to delineate a form of Kurdish citizenship became even more obvious. The prolonged civil conflict in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq provided an increased incentive to secure the borders. In 2005, the KRG thus implemented a policy that required anyone who was not already a resident of the KRI to have a sponsor in order to obtain residency, including Iraqi citizens. In practice, the distinction between who sponsors and who needs to seek sponsorship was contingent upon defining who is a citizen of Kurdistan (hawlatî Kurd), especially in relation to any foreign national (neteweyî bîyanî). But such a distinction was impossible to codify since doing so would violate constitutionally guaranteed freedom of movement. The distinction was instead manufactured within the internal discourse of the security apparatus.

Until October 2017, entry into the Kurdistan Region from other Iraqi territories was regulated at the checkpoints through a process of assigning people to categories. Regulations differed from checkpoint to checkpoint depending on security assessments and the policies of local chiefs of security. Checkpoints guarding entry into the Erbil Governorate were notoriously more stringent than those into Sulaymaniyah. Kurds from disputed territories were generally allowed to enter, while those categorized as Arab and Turkmen nationals were required to find sponsors. These categories were not clear-cut ethnic categories. For example, Kurds from Mosul and Baghdad frequently had to find sponsors and, in the process, prove their Kurdishness to security officers.

Exceptions to sponsorship requirements were allowed if the person or family intended to reside outside big cities, but in return they were only allowed to travel and live in certain areas. Sponsorship could be secured or circumvented through informal means such as kinship networks, phone calls, instructions by high-ranking officers and public officials and a payment of up to $420 (500,000 IQD). The screenings at checkpoints created a variegated cartography of control. Urban centers where politics and capital were aggregated were controlled more strictly than peripheries and border areas. These categories and regulations were also partially extended to what the KRG labelled Kurdistani areas outside of KRG: disputed territories over which Kurds claimed sovereignty and had de facto control between 2014 and 2017. The phrase Kurdistani areas was used in the Kurdish independence referendum of September 25, 2017, reflecting aspirations of sovereignty over territories where the Kurdish government had an administrative and security presence, like Kirkuk.


Regulating Residency and Categorizing Identity


The internal displacement of nearly 3.5 million Iraqis after 2014, during the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), gave checkpoint screenings a completely new meaning. From 2005 to 2014, 90,000 internally displaced persons, mostly from Diyala province, settled in the KRI. Government and security apparatuses, however, found themselves wholly unprepared when nearly 1.5 million internally displaced people—mostly Yazidis from Shingal and Sunni Arabs from Anbar, Salahaddin and Mosul—fled to the KRI between 2014 and 2016. Combined with more than 240,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees (comprising 97 percent of all Syrian refugees registered in Iraq), the Kurdish government became responsible for coordinating food, shelter, security and legal assistance for close to 2 million displaced persons.[8] Security forces issued what is known as asayish codes for all displaced persons as a form of identification.

In order to regulate mobility and residency within the KRI, Kurdish residents were positioned as gatekeepers who were tasked with tracking the newcomers on the basis of nationality and place of origin.
In order to regulate mobility and residency within the KRI, Kurdish residents were positioned as gatekeepers who were tasked with tracking the newcomers on the basis of nationality and place of origin. For instance, local mukhtars were responsible for paying house visits and conducting screenings for displaced families before allowing them to settle in their neighborhood. Drivers of intercity buses and shared taxis inquired who their passengers were by asking whether there were Syrians or Arabs in the vehicle. Syrian Kurds registered as refugees were not allowed to cross into Iraqi territories outside of the Kurdistan region. Since 2003, it has been a common practice that cars traveling from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah would take the mountainous inner road through Smaquli instead of the Kirkuk highway, which technically goes in and out of disputed territory lying outside the KRG. This practice now carried a new meaning, as a way of sorting out Syrian refugees. Internally displaced Arabs were expected to be screened at checkpoints. Some drivers would even use the turn signals to indicate to the border guards that their passengers’ names should be run through the security database at the checkpoint.

These routine checks confirmed whether non-Kurdistani citizens had up-to-date residency (which needed to be renewed annually) and whether they had an arrest warrant against them. Displaced persons with ongoing cases that included terrorism charges in Iraqi courts were frequently detained at checkpoints and handed over to the Iraqi government. People belonging to other categories were also surveilled: Foreign laborers and domestic workers from South Asia could only live in cities where they were registered and could not move between cities unless permitted by their sponsors. Turkish and Iranian citizens were subjected to secondary checks, especially when political tensions spiked due to the presence of armed groups in the northern mountains that were fighting against either Turkey (like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) or Iran (such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran and the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan).

Security officials thus became the key implementors of the process of categorizing individuals on the basis of an identity that resembled nationality and in relation to a provisional formulation of Kurdish citizenship. They defined what Kurdish citizenship looks like in practice.


Security is Politicized as Crises Mount


Since 2014, the KRG has been battered by a series of humanitarian, economic and political crises. The massive numbers of newly displaced people and the war against ISIS generated a humanitarian crisis. A sharp decline in global oil prices, disputes with Baghdad regarding sharing of oil revenues and a sudden halt to international investment following ISIS’ takeover of Mosul in June 2014 led to a deep economic crisis. Disagreements about the extension of President Masoud Barzani’s term for a second time resulted in a political crisis that led to the suspension of parliament in October 2015 for two years.

All these crises reinforced the security discourse. The daunting task of building and administering camps, registering internally displaced people and refugees and coordinating the logistics of humanitarian aid led to increased collaboration between the KRG, Iraq and other states involved in the Coalition against ISIS. A Joint Crisis Coordination Center was formed in KRG’s Ministry of Interior that regulated all humanitarian work, provided permissions within KRG and coordinated with the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration. Humanitarian work was firmly enveloped by security concerns.

Coordination, however, did not mean trust. Government officials cited the smuggling of people into the KRI under the premise of humanitarian aid, in ambulances or funeral cars. Foreign fighters also feigned illness and used fake identification and documentation to appear as Iraqi internally displaced people to pass through checkpoints. Kurdish government officials interpreted these instances as affirmation of their general distrust of the paperwork issued by the Iraqi government and argued for an implementation of their own procedures. On the one hand, these procedures were the materialization of the symbolic power of the KRI: As a region that was once the source of displacement, thanks to Kurdish self-rule, it became a generous host for displaced populations since 1991. On the other hand, these procedures allowed the Kurdish government to contrast itself with the government in Baghdad and to project itself as an example of good governance, habitable to the international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and aid groups and the foreigners who worked in them. The majority of Kurdish civil society organizations that focused on democratization, accountability and transparency in the region reoriented their efforts to providing humanitarian aid in order to secure funds and sustain operations amidst a financial crisis. The presence of international NGOs was indispensable to the KRG since they could be used for gaining and sustaining international recognition.

The financial crisis foreclosed possibilities of upward mobility, especially for youth studying in Kurdish universities who found themselves increasingly unable to translate diplomas into middle-class jobs. University-educated youth used volunteering for international NGOs as a form of skill building that their universities could not provide and tried to parlay such experience into jobs outside the country. The chronic inability of the KRG to pay the public employees on its payroll, exacerbated by a budget crisis with the Baghdad government, resulted in a series of protests in 2018 and strikes by doctors, nurses and teachers, to which the security forces responded harshly. The KRG thus increasingly became politically less liberal and economically less lucrative, all the while transforming itself into a humanitarian safe haven in contrast to the rest of Iraq.

The KRG thus increasingly became politically less liberal and economically less lucrative, all the while transforming itself into a humanitarian safe haven in contrast to the rest of Iraq.

KRG’s security discourse has also enabled it to effectively curtail emerging political alternatives. One example is the New Generation Party founded by the Sulaymaniyah-based businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid. He ran a feeble “No for Now” campaign during the 2017 referendum on independence and criticized the KDP/PUK duopoly, which galvanized a disgruntled, mostly male, youth. After the referendum, he was scapegoated and arrested three times on different charges. Young members of his party were also arrested and physically assaulted before the movement dissolved following a scandal that involved threats toward a female party member and parliamentarian. Another example is the clamping down on Tevgera Azadi, a political party affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Before Turkey would lift the embargo on the Sulaymaniyah International Airport, which it did in late January 2019, PUK’s security forces had to close down Tevgera Azadi’s offices, citing the absence of a license to operate as a political party in the Kurdistan Region.[9] In both cases, the quelling of opposition was justified by the KRG as imperative to maintaining security.

These developments coincided with KRG parliamentary elections that were held in December 2018, the first since the parliament shut down in 2015. The PUK ran campaign ads that showed two men in a bright café criticizing its rule. Suddenly, a militarized SWAT team raids the cafe and arrests three men who, unbeknownst to the two critics, are wearing suicide vests. As the PUK logo appears, a voice announces: “For you to be free, we protect.” This kind of security discourse draws on a popular, autobiographical mode to effectively animate historical fears. Public authorities and government officials frequently recount personal memories of pre-1991 Iraqi Baathist state violence. Deploying memories of genocide and systemic displacement plays a crucial role in the creation of popular legitimacy for security measures and the production of citizenship through categorization by security forces.[10]

The political crisis and the securitization of the region further deepened after October 16, 2017, when Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units took over Kirkuk. After the PUK withdrew its forces from the city, the KDP accused it of striking a back room deal with the Iraqi government to facilitate their retreat. The lack of a nationalized Peshmerga and other security forces returned to the center of public discussions. At the same time, major parties were experiencing leadership crises. Gorran’s leader Nawshirwan Mustafa died in May 2017. The PUK leader and former president of Iraq Jalal Talabani died October 3, 2017, and the KDP leader and president of the KRG Masoud Barzani stepped down from his position November 1 of the same year. Within all three parties, ruling families waged a protracted struggle for leadership positions. In both the KDP and the PUK, intelligence service chiefs were elected as leaders. Masrour Barzani—the head of the Kurdistan National Security Council and KDP’s intelligence agency Parastin—was selected as the KRG’s prime minister, a government post typically held by a top KDP politician. Lahur Shaykh Jangi—the head of the PUK’s intelligence agency Zanyarî—was elected as the co-president of the PUK, along with Bafel Talabani.

The politicized security apparatus in the KRI is central to the maintenance of power and the legitimacy of a political elite that wields this power, specifically by functioning as a gateway to socioeconomic privilege. A recent crisis involving the arrest of PUK driver Rojgar Rizgar by Parastin for spying shows how information released through the security apparatus might serve as an example. In successive statements following Rizgar’s arrest, Parastin and Hewlêr’s Directorate of Asayish claimed that Lahur Jangi directly orchestrated the espionage. In return, Zanyarî released a statement that accused a Barzani son of receiving $250 million in bribes from a Russian oil company. A response came from the Kurdistan National Security Council directly accusing Lahur of forming mafias and using security forces under his command for personal financial gain, including intimidating companies and businessmen and coordinating cross-border smuggling.[11] These inter-party accusations show how the vestigial effects of the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War affect current everyday politics within the KRG and reveal the inner mechanisms of how security acts to redistribute resources, political offices and socio-economic privilege.


The Many Forms of Kurdish Autonomy


The politicization of security, and its de facto capacity to define Kurdish citizenship, provides a window into how the political project of self-rule has developed in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Today there are diverse, yet interrelated, projects of building self-rule in broader Kurdistan. They are visible in political entities that include Democratic Confederalism in Rojava (northeast Syria), municipal autonomy in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), as well as securitized autonomy in the KRG.[12] The political goals of these projects differ, from aspirations for a sovereign nation-state to an alternative to the nation-state model. The various Kurdish political projects also differ in the material and social arrangements through which autonomy is made possible and manifested in the everyday lives of Kurds and other residents. But they all have in common the practice of autonomy—historically the most consistent demand and political form for the practice of Kurdish self-rule.

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, national security without a nation-state has been the most visible purveyor and protector of this autonomy. For the citizens of KRG, the challenge is to define their own Kurdish autonomy from among a wide array of different approaches practiced in broader Kurdistan. The securitized politics in KRG is determining the scope of permissible critique and acceptable modes of challenging rulers (who are now themselves Kurdish). A veteran Kurdish civil society activist once told me that he firmly believes that the majority of the Kurdish population does not approve of, and do not benefit from, the KRG’s modality of politics. I asked him, if there are so many grievances, why are people not mobilizing? “In other parts of Kurdistan,” he said, “they are fighting against colonizer states. Here, there is a Kurdish government. We are at a different stage of history. This makes the dynamics very different. You cannot challenge it in the same way.”[13] Kurdish history is indeed full of leaps and gesticulations, repetitions and constrictions, progressions and regressions. What is stranger still may be how such a security system has managed to remain a constant across so much of this region’s historically rugged edges.


[Kerem Can Uşşaklı is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Stanford University.]




[1] Interview conducted with a public notary in the Sulaymaniyah Governorate, December 2018.

[2] The agreement signed between the Ba’ath government in Iraq and Kurdish rebels led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani on March 11, 1970 was the first constitutionally guaranteed promise of autonomy under the modern Iraqi nation-state. It stipulated the provisional recognition of linguistic, cultural and political rights of Kurds in Iraq. Previous de facto autonomies where Kurdish self-rule was practiced are the Baban Emirate until 1847 and provisional autonomy in the Mosul wilayet under the British Mandate (1918–1925). For a detailed legal overview of the 1970 autonomy, see Hurst Hannum, Autonomy, Sovereignty and Self-Determination: The Accommodation of Conflicting Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).

[3] Hawre Hasan Hama, “The Consequences of the Fragmented Military in Iraqi Kurdistan,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2019.

[4] Denise Natali, “The Spoils of Peace in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Third World Quarterly 28/6 (2007).

[5] While this control holds considerable legitimacy, it is not always official. For example, especially in parts of KRI where political competition is high, informal armed men hold weapons permits issued by political parties, rather than by KRG’s Ministry of Justice.

[6] Interviews conducted with Anfal survivor families, March 2019.

[7] Draw Media, “Will KDP and PUK Join Forces?” April 27, 2019. [Kurdish]

[8] Joint Crisis Coordination Centre, “Humanitarian Situational Report (SitRep) No. (10), December 2019.

[9]PUK Forces Order Tavgar Azadi to Close Headquarters in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan,”, December 27, 2018.

[10] Andrea Fischer-Tahir, “Searching for Sense: The Concept of Genocide as Part of Knowledge Production in Iraqi Kurdistan” in Riccardo Bocco, Hamit Bozarslan, Peter Sluglett and Jordi Tejel, eds. Writing the Modern History of Iraq: Historiographical and Political Challenges (New Jersey: World Scientific Publishing, 2015).

[11] Draw Media, “War of Apparatuses between Allies in Kurdistan during Age of Corona,” March 19, 2020.

[12] In Iran, the situation is a bit different. Today there is no autonomous Kurdish self-rule. The Iranian state’s official policy is to absorb Kurdish culture and identity into a majoritarian nationalist project that conditionally allows for cultural difference within a broader understanding of a Persianate culture. On the other hand, Kurds are a heavily incarcerated minority in Iran and Kurdish political dissent is strongly repressed. But historically perhaps the most important Kurdish self-rule was the Republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad in Iran (1946). Qazi Muhammad’s manifesto for the Republic included autonomy as a central demand.

[13] Conversation from fieldwork, Sulaymaniyah, May 2019.


How to cite this article:

Kerem Can Uşşaklı "Securitizing Citizenship and Politicizing Security in Iraqi Kurdistan," Middle East Report 295 (Summer 2020).

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