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The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (or simply KRI) (Kurmanji: Herema Kurdistanê, Sorani Kurdish: هەرێمی كوردستان‎, Arabic: إقليم كردستان‎) is an autonomous region[11] in the northern parts of Iraq comprising the four Kurdish-majority populated governorates of Dohuk, Erbil, Halabja and Sulaymaniyah and borders Iran, Syria and Turkey. The Kurdistan Region encompasses most of Iraqi Kurdistan but excludes Kurdish areas which Iraq has been preventing the Kurds from governing since Kurdish autonomy was realized in 1992 with the first Kurdish elections in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The Kurdistan Region Parliament is situated in Erbil, which is the largest Kurdish city in Iraq, but the Kurdish constitution declares the disputed city of Kirkuk to be the capital of Kurdistan. When the Iraqi Army withdrew from most parts of the disputed areas in mid-2014 because of the ISIL offensive in Northern Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga entered the areas and held control there until October 2017.[12]

Kurdistan Region

Herema Kurdistanê
هەرێمی كوردستان
Horizontal tricolor (red, white, green) with a 21-pointed gold sun in the center of the white.
Flag of Iraq.svg
Coat of arms of Kurdistan Region
Coat of arms
"Ey Reqîb", "ئەی ڕەقیب" (Kurdish)
"Oh enemy"
Kurdistan Region in dark red Iraqi Government control in light red
Kurdistan Region in dark red
Iraqi Government control in light red
CapitalErbil (de facto),
Kirkuk (de jure, under federal control)[1]
36°04′59″N 44°37′47″E / 36.08306°N 44.62972°E / 36.08306; 44.62972
Official languagesKurdish[1]
Recognised national languagesKurdish, Arabic[1]
Recognized minority languagesArmenian,[2]
Chaldean & Syriac[1]
Iraqi Turkmen[1]
Ethnic groups
Recognized ethnicities:
Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Arabs
Secular state[3]
Recognized religions (stipulated in the Law on Protection of the Right of Components from 2015):[4]
GovernmentParliamentary republic
• President
Nechirvan Barzani
• Prime Minister
Masrour Barzani
• Deputy Prime Minister
Qubad Talabani
Legislature111-seat Kurdistan Parliament
• Autonomy founded
19 May 1992[1]
• Autonomy recognized
15 October 2005[6]
• Total
41,220[7] km2 (15,920 sq mi)
• Estimate
5,122,747 (2014)[8]
GDP (PPP)2015[9] estimate
• Total
$26.5 billion
• Per capita
Gini (2012)32[10]
CurrencyIraqi dinar
Time zoneUTC+3 (AST)
Driving sideright
Calling code964

The Kurds in Iraq oscillatingly fought for either autonomy or independence throughout the 20th century and experienced Arabization and genocide at the hands of Iraq.[13] However, the American-led no fly zone from March 1991 on over most of Iraqi Kurdistan gave the Kurds a chance to experiment with self-governance and the autonomous region was de facto established.[14] However, Iraq only recognized the autonomy of Kurdistan after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 with a new Iraqi constitution in 2005.[15] A non-binding independence referendum was held in September 2017 which created mixed reactions internationally.


Early Kurdish struggle for autonomy (1923-1975)Edit

Before Iraq became an independent state in 1923, the Kurds had already begun their independence struggle from the British Mandate of Iraq with the Mahmud Barzanji revolts which were subsequently crushed by the United Kingdom after a bombing campaign against Kurdish civilians by the Royal Air Force.[16][17] Nonetheless, the Kurdish struggle persisted and the Barzani tribe had by the early 1920s gained momentum for their nationalist beliefs and would become pivotal in the Kurdish-Iraqi wars throughout the 20th century. In 1943, the Barzani chief Mustafa Barzani began the Kurdish quest for autonomy[18] by raiding Iraqi police stations in Kurdistan which triggered Iraq to deploy 30,000 troops to the region and the Kurdish leadership had to flee to Iran in 1945. In Iran, Mustafa Barzani founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Iran and the Soviet Union began assisting the Kurdish rebels with arms.[19] Israel subsequently began assisting the Kurdish rebels by the early 1960s as well.[20]

From 1961 to 1970, the Kurds fought Iraq in the First Iraqi–Kurdish War which resulted in the Iraqi–Kurdish Autonomy Agreement but simultaneously with the promise of Kurdish autonomy, the Iraqi government began ethnic cleansing Kurdish populated areas to reduce the possible size of the autonomous entity which a census would determine.[13] This mistrust provoked the Second Iraqi–Kurdish War between 1974 and 1975 which ultimately resulted in a devastation for the Kurds (see Algiers Accord) and forced all rebels to flee to Iran.

The region uses the Iraqi flag in official ceremonies alongside the Flag of Kurdistan despite reluctance[21][22][23][24]

Insurgency and first elections (1975-1992)Edit

The more left-leaning Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was founded in 1975 by Jalal Talabani and regenerated the Kurdish insurgency with guerrilla warfare tactics as the Kurdistan Democratic Party was slowly recovering from their defeat. However, the Kurdish insurgency became entangled in Iran–Iraq War from 1980 on. During the first years of the war in the early 1980s, the Iraqi government tried to accommodate the Kurds in order to focus on the war against Iran. In 1983, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan agreed to cooperate with Baghdad, but the Kurdistan Democratic Party remained opposed.[25] In 1983, Saddam signed an autonomy agreement with Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), though Saddam later reneged on the agreement. By 1985, the PUK and KDP had joined forces, and Iraqi Kurdistan saw widespread guerrilla warfare up to the end of the war.[26] On 15 March 1988, PUK forced captured the town of Halabja near the Iranian border and inflicted heavy loses among Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqis retaliated the following day by chemically bombing the town killing about 5,000 civilians.[27] This led the Americans and the Europeans to implement the Iraqi no-fly zones in March 1991 to protect the Kurds, thereby facilitating Kurdish autonomy amid the vacuum and the first Kurdish elections were consequently held in May 1992, wherein the Kurdistan Democratic Party secured 45.3% of the vote and a majority of seats.

The Kurdistan Region became politically divided with two administrations (the 50:50 system) with KDP controlling the Erbil and Dohuk Governorates, while PUK took control of Sulaymaniyah Governorate to the east.

Nascent autonomy, war and political turmoil (1992-2009)Edit

The two parties agreed to form the first Kurdish cabinet led by PUK politician Fuad Masum as Prime Minister in July 1992 and the main focus of the new cabinet was to mitigate the effect of the American-led sanctions on Iraq and to prevent internal Kurdish skirmishes. Nonetheless, the cabinet broke down due to plagues of embattlement and technocracy which disenfranchised the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and a new more partisan cabinet was formed and led by PUK politician Kosrat Rasul Ali in April 1993.[28] The KDP-PUK relations quickly deteriorated and the first clashes in the civil war took place in May 1994 when PUK captured the towns of Shaqlawa and Chamchamal from KDP, which in turn pushed PUK out of Salahaddin (near Erbil). In September 1998, the United States mediated a ceasefire and the two warring parties signed the Washington Agreement deal, where in it was stipulated that the two parties would agree on revenue-sharing, power-sharing and security arrangements.[29]

The anarchy in Kurdistan during the war created an opportunity for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which created bases in the northern mountainous areas of the Kurdistan Region,[30][31] which still plagues the Region in the 2010s with frequent calls for withdrawal.[32]

In advance of the Iraq war in 2003, the two parties united in the negotiations with the Arab opposition to Saddam Hussein and succeeded in harvesting political, economic, and security gains and the Arab opposition agreed to recognize Kurdish autonomy in the case that Saddam Hussein was removed from power.[33] America and Kurdistan also jointly rooted out the Islamist Ansar al-Islam group in Halabja area as Kurdistan hosted thousands of soldiers.[34][35] The Kurdish autonomy which had existed since 1992 was formally recognized by the new Iraqi government in 2005 in the new Iraqi constitution and the KDP- and PUK-administered areas reunified in 2006, making the Kurdistan Region into one single administration. This reunification prompted Kurdish leaders and the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani to focus on bringing the Kurdish areas outside of the Kurdistan Region into the region and building healthy institutions.[33]

In 2009, Kurdistan saw the birth of a new major party, the Gorran Movement, which was founded because of tensions in PUK and would subsequently weaken the party profoundly. The second most important political PUK figure, Nawshirwan Mustafa, was the founder of Gorran, who took advantage of sentiments among many PUK politicians critical of the cooperation with the KDP.[33] Gorran would subsequently win 25 seats (or 23.7% of the votes) in the 2009 parliamentary elections to the detriment of the Kurdistan List.[36] In the aftermath of the elections, Gorran failed at its attempts to persuade the Kurdistan Islamic Group and Kurdistan Islamic Union to leave the Kurdistan List, provoking both KDP and PUK. Gorran also attempted to create goodwill with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which only aggravated the situation in Kurdistan, and the KDP and PUK chose to boycott Gorran from politics.[33]

ISIL and rapprochement with Iraq (after 2014)Edit

In the period leading up to the ISIL invasion of Iraq in June 2014, the Iraqi-Kurdish relations were in a decline that the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) only worsened. When Iraqi forces withdrew from the Syrian-Iraqi border and away from the Disputed areas, the Kurdistan Region consequently had a 1,000 km front with ISIL, which put the region into an economic stalemate. However, Kurdistan did not compromise on their stance regarding financial independence from Baghdad.[37] Due to the Iraqi withdrawal, Kurdish Peshmerga took control of most disputed areas, including Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Jalawla, Bashiqa, Sinjar and Makhmur. The strategically important Mosul Dam was also captured by Kurdish forces.[12] However, the control was only temporary as Iraqi forces retook control over most of the disputed areas in October 2017.[38] As of 2019, the Kurdistan Region and the Federal Government in Baghdad are negotiating joint control over the disputed areas as their relations have become more cordial in the aftermath of ISIL's defeat.[39][40]

Government and politicsEdit

The Carnegie Middle East Center wrote in August 2015 that:[41]

The Kurdistan region of Iraq enjoys more stability, economic development, and political pluralism than the rest of the country. And public opinion under the Kurdistan Regional Government demands rule-of-law-based governance. But power is concentrated in the hands of the ruling parties and families, who perpetuate a nondemocratic, sultanistic system. These dynamics could foster instability in Kurdistan and its neighborhood, but could also provide a rare window of opportunity for democratization.

Administrative divisionsEdit

The Kurdistan Region is a democratic parliamentary republic and has a presidential system wherein the President is elected by Parliament for a five-year term.[1] The current President is Nechirvan Barzani who assumed office on 1 June 2019.[42] The Kurdistan Parliament has 111 seats and are held every fifth year.[1]

Governorates of Kurdistan Region[43]

The Kurdistan Region is divided into four governorates: the governorates of Duhok, Erbil, Sulaymaniya and Halabja. Each of these governorates is divided into districts, for a total of 26 districts. Each district is also divided into sub-districts. Each governorate has a capital city, while districts and sub-districts have 'district centers'.[43]

Disputed areasEdit

The Committee for implementing article 140 defines the disputed territories as those areas Arabised and whose border modified between 17 July 1968 and 9 April 2003. Those areas include parts of four governorates of pre-1968 borders.[44]

Disputed internal Kurdish–Iraqi boundaries have been a core concern for Arabs and Kurds, especially since US invasion and political restructuring in 2003. Kurds gained territory to the south of Iraqi Kurdistan after the US-led invasion in 2003 to regain what land they considered historically theirs.[45]

Foreign relationsEdit

Despite being landlocked, the Kurdistan Region pursues a proactive foreign policy, which includes strengthening diplomatic relations with Iran, Russia, United States and Turkey. 29 countries have a diplomatic presence in the Kurdistan Region, while the Kurdistan Region has representative offices in 14 countries.[46]


Economy by sector (GDP, 2013)[47]

  Oil (80%)
  Agriculture (10%)
  Tourism (4%)
  Other (6%)

The Kurdistan Region has the lowest poverty rates in Iraq[48] and the stronger economy of the Kurdistan Region attracted around 20,000 workers from other parts of Iraq between 2003 and 2005.[49] The number of millionaires in the city of Sulaymaniyah grew from 12 to 2,000 in 2003, reflecting the economic growth.[50] According to some estimates, the debt of the Kurdish government reached $18 billion by January 2016.[51]

The economy of Kurdistan is dominated by the oil industry.[52] However, Kurdish officials have since the late 2010s attempted to diversify the economy to mitigate a new economic crisis like the one which hit the region during the fight against ISIL.[47] Major oil export partners include Israel, Italy, France and Greece.[53]


Before the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government, primary and secondary education was almost entirely taught in Arabic. Higher education was always taught in Arabic. This however changed with the establishment of the Kurdistan autonomous region. The first international school, the International School of Choueifat opened its branch in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2006. Other international schools have opened and British International Schools in Kurdistan is the latest with a planned opening in Suleimaniah in September 2011.

Iraqi Kurdistan's official universities are listed below, followed by their English acronym (if commonly used), internet domain, establishment date and latest data about the number of students.

Institute Internet domain Established Students
University of Sulaimani (UOS) 1968 25,900 (2013)
Salahaddin University (SU) 1970 20,000 (2013)
University of Dohuk 1992 19,615 (2017)[54]
University of Zakho 2010 2,600 (2011)[55]
University of Koya (KU) 2003 4260 (2014)
University of Kurdistan Hewler (UKH) 2006 400 (2006)
The American University of Iraq – Sulaimani (AUIS) 2007 1100 (2014)
American University Duhok Kurdistan (AUDK) 2014
Hawler Medical University (HMU) 2006 (3400) (2018)
Business & Management University (BMU) 2007
SABIS University 2009
Cihan University 2007
Komar University of Science and Technology (KUST) 2012
Hawler Private University for Science and Technology
Ishik University (IU) 2008 1,700 (2012)
Soran University 2009 2200 (2011)
Newroz University 2004
University of Human Development (UHD/Qaradax) 2008
Sulaimani Polytechnic University (SPU) 1996 13000 (2013)

Human rightsEdit

In 2010 Human Rights Watch reported that journalists in Kurdistan who criticize the regional government have faced substantial violence, threats, and lawsuits, and some have fled the country.[56] Some journalists faced trial and threats of imprisonment for their reports about corruption in the region.[56]

In 2009 Human Rights Watch found that some health providers in Iraqi Kurdistan had been involved in both performing and promoting misinformation about the practice of female genital mutilation. Girls and women receive conflicting and inaccurate messages from media campaigns and medical personnel on its consequences.[57] The Kurdistan parliament in 2008 passed a draft law outlawing the practice, but the ministerial decree necessary to implement it, expected in February 2009, was cancelled.[58] As reported to the Centre for Islamic Pluralism by the non-governmental organization, called as Stop FGM in Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, on 25 November, officially admitted the wide prevalence in the territory of female genital mutilation (FGM). Recognition by the KRG of the frequency of this custom among Kurds came during a conference program commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.[59] On 27 November 2010, the Kurdish government officially admitted to violence against women in Kurdistan and began taking serious measures.[60] 21 June 2011 The Family Violence Bill was approved by the Kurdistan Parliament, it includes several provisions criminalizing the practice.[61] A 2011 Kurdish law criminalized FGM practice in Iraqi Kurdistan and law was accepted four years later.[62][63][64] The studies have shown that there is a trend of general decline of FGM.[65]

British lawmaker Robert Halfon sees Kurdistan as a more progressive Muslim region than the other Muslim countries in the Middle East.[66]

Although the Kurdish regional parliament has officially recognized ethnic minorities such as Assyrians, Turkmen, Arabs, Armenians, Mandeans, Shabaks and Yezidis, there have been accusations of Kurdish discrimination against those groups. The Assyrians have reported Kurdish officials' reluctance in rebuilding Assyrian villages in their region while constructing more settlements for the Kurds affected during the Anfal campaign.[67] After his visit to the region, the Dutch politician Joël Voordewind noted that the positions reserved for minorities in the Kurdish parliament were appointed by Kurds as the Assyrians for example had no possibility to nominate their own candidates.[68]

The Kurdish regional government has also been accused of trying to Kurdify other regions such as the Nineveh plains and Kirkuk by providing financial support for Kurds who want to settle in those areas.[69][70] The KRG defend their actions as necessary compensation for the hundreds of thousands of Kurds that have been forced out of the same areas by previous Iraqi governments and during the Al-Anfal campaign.

In April 2016, Human Rights Watch wrote that the Kurdish security force of KRG, the Asayish, blocked the roads to Erbil to prevent Assyrians from holding a protest. According to demonstrators, the reason for the blocked protest was that Kurds in the Nahla Valley, mainly populated by Assyrians, encroached on land owned by Assyrians, without any action by courts or officials to remove the structures the Kurds built there.[71]

In February 2017, Human Rights Watch said Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces are detaining men and boys who have fled the fighting in Mosul even after they have passed security checks. Detainees were held for up to four months without any communication with their families. Relatives of these men and boys said that KRG and Iraqi forces didn't inform them of the places of their detained relatives and didn't facilitate any contact with them.[72]

Human Rights Watch reported that Kurdistan Regional Government security forces and local police detained 32 unarmed protesters in Erbil on March 4, 2017, at a peaceful demonstration against recent clashes in Sinjar. 23 of them were released at the same day and 3 more within four days, but 6, all foreign nationals, are still being held. A police chief ordered one protester who was released to permanently leave Erbil, where he was living. While in detention, protesters were not allowed to contact with anyone or have access to a lawyer.[73]

In 2010, it was reported that passing of a new law in Iraqi Kurdistan, guaranteeing “gender equality”, has deeply outraged some local religious community, including the minister of endowments and religious affairs and prominent imams, who interpreted the phrase as "legitimizing homosexuality in Kurdistan".[74] Kamil Haji Ali, the minister of endowments and religious affairs, said in this regard that the new law would “spread immorality” and “distort” Kurdish society.[74] Following an outrage of religious movements, the KRG held a press conference, where the public were ensured that gender equality did not include giving marriage rights to homosexuals, whose existence is effectively invisible in Iraq due to restrictive traditional rules.[74]


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