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 Response to “American Scholar says Kurdish leverage declines in Iraq”  

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Response to “American Scholar says Kurdish leverage declines in Iraq”  27.5.2010   
By Denise Natali for 

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May 27, 2010

 I would like to respond to the article, “American Scholar Says Kurdish leverage declines in Iraq”, written by Wladimir van Wilgenburg and posted on on May 25, 2010. That the author of this article did not contact me first to verify the quotes and statements is not only unprofessional but misrepresentative of the content of my presentation.

On May 10, 2010 I attended a conference sponsored by the Gulf Research Unit at Oslo University. The panel I participated in was called, “The Next Iraqi Government” and included eminent scholars such as Dr. Rend al-Rahim and Dr. Reidar Visser. My presentation, called “Kurdish Kingmakers in Iraq?: Opportunities and Challenges to Coalition Building” addressed the issues involved in post-election politics and coalition-building for the Kurds and the Kurdistan Region.

Mr. van Wilgenburg was correct to re-state my key claim that two main trends are occurring in the Kurdistan Region 1) dissipation of the strategic agreement and rise of the KDP as an establishment party, and 2) decline of Kurdish leverage in Iraq. 

Denise Natali is the Academic Dean of Students and Research Centers Director at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan region.
Yet, I was dismayed to read how Mr. van Wilgenburg presented my arguments and detailed information, some of which is taken out of context. Certainly, much of this misunderstanding is based on Mr. van Wildenburg’s poor command of the English language. Some of the sentences are incomplete or misquoted. Here are a few that I refute or which require clarification:

1.“The Kurds have limited objectives and opportunities to form coalitions with Arab parties.” Given the very detailed program that the Kurds developed as part of their “Roadmap to Baghdad”, which I explained and which was not presented in the article, the Kurds do indeed, have clear objectives based on a nationalist platform. Despite their declining leverage in Iraq, the Kurds also have some opportunities and political interests to create coalitions with Iraqi parties in Baghdad. The problem is how long these potential coalitions can be sustained, given the particular nationalist demands the Kurds are making as part of their coalition.

2. The Strategic Agreement did not come “to a dead end because of the loss of PUK power to Gorran”. This is simplistic. Rather, it has been unwinding over time, with greater clarity after the July 2009 Iraqi Kurdistan Parliamentary election results and the March 2010 Iraqi parliamentary election results. At the same time, there has been rising KDP power and its consolidation as an establishment party. The weakening PUK influence in Sulaimani is only partly due to the rise of the Gorran movement.

3. “We see the oil companies as colonizers”, she said. Mr. van Wildenburg must be referring to Gorran’s opinions, because this is certainly not mine and should not be written as “we”. I am not part of Gorran or any other political party here. I personally think the oil companies have played and continue to play a crucial role in developing the economy of the region and Iraq. The production sharing agreements require oil companies to engage in socio-economic development and give back financially, to local community projects. Some Iraqi groups and certain Kurdish leftist politicians may hold this viewpoint, but it certainly is not mine.

4. “But PUK only wants to talk when they get Kirkuk from Baghdad, while KDP’s priority is the oil contracts”. I am not sure what Mr. van Wildenburg’s point is here, but I certainly do not think that the PUK or any other Kurdish group will refuse to negotiate with Baghdad unless they get Kirkuk. The statement needs more nuance. Such a position would lead to political and economic stalemate, and I do not think, given the current situation, that the Kurds would or could put themselves into such as corner.

5. “The strategic agreement could result in the Obama effect’ and a loss of support for Gorran, due to the increasing control of KDP”. This makes no sense. My statement about the Obama effect was made in reference to Gorran losing some of its supporters, much the way President Obama has since assuming office, because of the alliances it has made with the Kurdistani List as part of the Kurdish coalition in Baghdad. Some supporters see this compromise as “selling out” and have criticized Gorran accordingly. It has nothing to do with the strategic agreement.

6. “The PUK is very weak and as a result KDP has family members in high positions” . “The PUK.. does not have anybody to replace Jalal Talabani..” The KDP always has had family members in high positions, which is not a result of the PUK political situation. It is part of the party morphology and internal structure of the KDP. Also, the issue of PUK succession was taken out of context. When talking about the future PUK leadership, the key point is how someone will be able to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Talabani, who is a legendary Kurdish and Iraqi leader. This is a formidable challenge even for the most skilled politician. My comments should be taken as a complement to Mr. Talabani and not be turned into an insult to anyone else.

Thank you,

Dr. Denise Natali
Research Centers Director,
American University of Iraq-Sulaimani
Sulaimaniyah, Iraq

Dr. Denise Natali is an honorary research fellow at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University and currently is the Academic Dean of Students and Research Centers Director at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniyah. Over the past fourteen years she has conducted independent field research in the Kurdistan regions of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria and is the author of numerous publications on Kurdish nationalism, politics, and identity, including, The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), and The Kurdish Quasi State: development and dependency in post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming). Her current research, supported by a fellowship from The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TAARI), focuses on the political economy of Iraq and the Kurdistan region since 1991, and the role of external aid in shaping transition patterns in conflict-prone and post-conflict societies.

In addition to her expertise on the Kurds and Kurdistan, Dr. Natali has worked in the field of disaster relief and humanitarian affairs. She has held posts as information officer for the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) in Iraqi Kurdistan, the American Red Cross International Disaster Relief Services, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and cross-border director for a healthcare NGO in Peshawar, Pakistan, where she also served as a liaison to the Afghan Interim Government’s Ministry of Public Health.

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