The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) is the oldest Kurdish political party in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was founded in 1946 in the Kurdish region of Iran where the Iraqi Kurds led by Mustafa Barzani were taking refuge.
From its inception, the KDP has led the fight for autonomy and independence from Iraq, but has suffered setbacks and defeat at the hands of the much more powerful Iraqi Army and Air Force. Towards the end of the 20th century, the KDP turned toward Iran for support to further its own nationalist objectives. Iran and Iraq have both played the KDP against their eachother for political and military purposes.
Founding of the KDP
Founded in 1946, the Soviet Union pushed Mustafa Barzani to form the KDP in an attempt to support the Kurdish nationalist movement against the monarchies of Iran and Iraq which were supported by the West.
As the first modern political party, the various factions of the KDP spanned a wide spectrum of ideology from left wing communists to right wing tribal conservatives. In the middle, there were progressive socialists and traditionalists. Some wanted their own nation, others were content with limited autonomy within a federated government based in Baghdad.
KDP and the Iraqi Government
During 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s a pattern repeated itself again and again. A new Arabist leader would assert his belief in the Kurds as distinct and equal ethnic group in Iraq with political rights. Once the leader was successful at consolidating his power, he would repress Kurdish political rights, put armed forces in Kurdish regions, ban nationalist political parties, destroy Kurdish villages, and forcibly impose resettlement (especially in petroleum-rich areas).
As a result, from late 1961 onwards, conflict became normalized in Iraqi Kurdistan. A major development towards peace was initiated when the Iraqi government and Kurdish leaders signed the 1970 Peace Agreement. It promised Kurdish self-rule, recognition of the bi-national character of Iraq, political representation in the central government, extensive official language rights, the freedom of association and organization, and several other concessions aimed at restoring full civic rights to the Kurdish population. It was to come into effect within four years. In 1974 the weaker Law of Autonomy in the Area of Kurdistan was actually implemented with much weaker citizenship protections. Moreover, the law didn’t extend to Kirkuk, an oil industry center recognized as Kurdish, so conflict soon resumed.
The 1980s, especially during the Iran-Iraq war, was a particular low point for Iraqi Kurds. Approximately 500,000 Kurdish civilians were sent to detention camps in southern and eastern Iraq and the Iraqi armed forces razed villages and hamlets in and near the battle area. It was also at this time that the Iraqi military infamously used chemical weapons on Kurdish towns in the Al-Anfal campaigns.
The KDP and the PUK
In the wake of their defeat during the 1974–1975 War, Mustafa Barzani and his sons Idris and Masoud fled to Iran. The power vacuum they left behind was filled by their ideological opposition, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who, together with his Leftist supporters, announced the formation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Despite the terrible hardships suffered by the Kurds as a whole, the tension between the PUK and KDP sparked internecine fighting that would continue for decades. The fighting ceased after the Kurdish Civil War, which began in 1994 and concluded in 1998 when Masoud Barzani and Talabani signed the Washington Agreement..
KDP and Movement for Change
Following the 2011 Egyptian protests, another political party, the Movement for Change, called for the resignation of the Cabinet and the disbanding of the Kurdistan Regional Government. In response to the accompanying protests against the Kurdistan Regional Government, the KDP was cited as opening fire, killing two protesters and wounding several others. Later in the evening, they burnt down several buildings belonging to Movement for Change, including a TV and radio station. This violence has led to more demonstrations and public outrage.
A State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks noted that “The KDP consists of family clans, operating very much like a mafia organization. For example, Massoud Barzani’s uncle is Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, his nephew/son-in-law is KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his son Masrur is Head of KRG’s Intelligence Directorate”.
The KDP has historically maintained a broad base of political allegiances, acting as a big tent party ranging from tribal conservatives to socialists. Today the party is regarded as populist and nationalist.