Remembering Nawshirwan Mustafa on the eve of Kurdish referendum
As the date for an independence referendum approaches, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is trying to bolster the vote’s legitimacy by reviving Iraqi Kurdistan’s dormant parliament, mainly through an agreement with the second established party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Such decisions once were firmly with the KDP and PUK but Goran (Movement for Change) has proved to be an effective opposition since it was founded in 2009, winning 24 of the Kurdish parliament’s 111 seats in 2013. Goran argues a referendum needs parliamentary approval and should not be called by the president, KDP leader Masoud Barzani, who is two years past the expiration of his term. Parliament has not met since 2015 when the KDP blocked the parliamentary speaker from regional capital Erbil.
While many Kurds aspire to independence, they suspect the referendum is a ploy to divert attention from mismanagement by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as it struggles to pay government employees after persistent quarrels with the central government in Baghdad.
Goran’s vitality in arguing the referendum September 25 would be illegitimate is a testament to its founder, Nawshirwan Mustafa, who died in May at the age of 73.
“In Kurdistan, the head of a party is usually there for life and when he goes there’s a problem,” Salam Abdulrahman, head of political science at Sulaymaniyah’s University of Human Development, said. “After Nawshirwan’s death, some thought Goran would have a similar fate but they surprised many by abiding by their constitution, electing a new leader, Omar Said Ali, and broadcasting the results live.”
I met with Mustafa many times from 2003-05. His garden in Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq was fragrant with roses but he had spent more time as a peshmerga commander than as a gardener. One of five founders of the PUK in Damascus in 1975, he sent its first peshmerga into Iraq; during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, he led Kurdish attacks on Iraqi forces alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Kirkuk and near Sulaymaniyah. Later, he organised PUK fighters in the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein.
In 2003, after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam, Mustafa went to Baghdad to work for a viable Iraqi state — and by coincidence lodged in a former moukhabarat (secret police) house where he’d stayed during autonomy talks with Saddam in 1984. “The PUK wants to work with secular forces for a new Iraq,” he said. “It is better to be in Baghdad than in Sulaymaniyah — or in a cave.”
It was soon evident that the new state was not providing security, much less basic services. When Mustafa and I ate mazgouf in an empty Baghdad restaurant, his bodyguards hovered at the door and the waiter carried an Uzi.
Mustafa was a Kurdish nationalist and strongly backed federalism but he was unhappy with many aspects of the Kurdish self-rule endorsed in the Iraqi Constitution of 2005. He was irked with nepotism and valued press freedoms. Despite his military background, he stressed the importance of legality over force. From its launch, Goran enthused the young.
“People talk of him as someone who gave them courage not to stay silent,” said Abdulrahman. “He made people aware of their rights and responsibilities. He became known for his humanism and efforts against corruption. Nawshirwan set up good mechanisms for Goran and passed on leadership responsibilities to others. Around a year ago, when he came back from London after [cancer] treatment he said: ‘This was a test for you, to manage without me, and you succeeded’.”
A photography shop near the Sulaymaniyah bazaar used to display an old black-and-white print of Mustafa in the mountains alongside the PUK leader Jalal Talabani. Under a furry hat, Mustafa has a book under one arm and a Kalashnikov over the other.
Perhaps Mustafa’s military reputation helped shield Goran from intimidation by the KDP or PUK. “Many PUK commanders said they’d protect Nawshirwan, even though they didn’t show their weapons,” said Abdulrahman. “Goran declared itself a civil movement but Nawshirwan’s military background has helped it survive.”
The PUK struggled after Talabani suffered a stroke in 2012. “They haven’t elected a new secretary-general and no-one knows who’s in charge,” said Abdulrahman. “Officials say different things.”
A cooperation agreement signed in May 2016 between Mustafa and an incapacitated Talabani fed expectations that Goran and the PUK might unite. This is unlikely, although many in the PUK share Goran’s criticisms of the referendum.
Mustafa was buried on the Zargata Hill in Sulaymaniyah near both his rose garden and Goran headquarters. “Ever since he founded this movement you hear young people talking about how to improve and organise life,” said Abdulrahman. “People say that although Nawshirwan is not with us anymore, his message lives on.”