Erbil – Al-aalem Al-jadeed – Translated by Walaa Rayya
Kurdish military retirees, men, and women are forced to stand for hours in long queues in front of the payment outlets in the retirement department in Erbil governorate, capital of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, waiting for their turn to receive their pensions, which are “unremunerative” according to them.
Nouri, a sixty-six years old man, repeats what was been said, then leaves his place in the middle of the queue and points to the queue of retired women next to him: “Where did all these women come from? What I know is that we, the Peshmerga fighters who fought decades ago in the mountains against the Baath regime, were all men!”
Nouri quickly returned to his place so he won’t lose it and he said in frustration: “They force us to stand humiliated month after month in the burning sunlight in summer or rain showers in winter, and all and sundry were with us, to hand us in the end only 500,000 dinars.”
Then he turned to his companion standing behind him and asked: “How much will our salary be in dollars?” The other answered but was unsure: “Maybe $335.”
Nuri thought for a while and then said: “This is what I get for more than 30 years I spent in the ranks of the Peshmerga, we lived difficult years in the mountains while facing the Baath regime.”
A woman in the parallel queue replies without looking at him: “The struggle does not only require climbing mountains, there are those who have offered dear ones like us without the need to hide in caves!”
The Peshmerga is a name given to the Kurdistan Regional Guard of the military forces that include Kurdish fighters, and the name in Kurdish means ” those who risk their lives.”
In the Kurdistan region, which has had administrative and political independence from Baghdad since 1991, there are about one million and 274,000 people who receive salaries from the government, and they include civil and military employees and political prisoners, as well as the people with special needs according to a senior official in the Ministry of Finance and Economy of the Kurdistan government.
Government officials and representatives in the Kurdistan Parliament mentioned other approximate numbers, but the number of one million and 250 thousand salary recipients is often repeated, as there is no exact number provided by the Kurdistan Regional Government, in the presence of tens of thousands who receive salaries within military brigades that have not been fully integrated into the government structure yet.
Members of the security services from the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Peshmerga, and the Kurdistan Security Council are at the top of salary recipients from the total staff of ministries and departments in terms of the number.
An official, who asked not to be named, says: “About 250,000 of the total salary recipients are retirees, and about 60 percent of them are former military personnel.”
The official points out that a large number of them, men and women, were given military ranks and monthly pensions without having joined the military college.
In the absence of official figures, observers interested in the personnel file estimate that the number of non-civilian salary recipients, in general, is between 300,000 and 340,000.
Daban Muhammad, a member of the Kurdistan Parliament, confirmed in statements published at the end of March 2021, that about 50 percent of the salaries go to employees in the military and security forces.
Retired female fighters
Nouri repeats in a low voice as if he is talking to himself: “I did not put any star on my shoulder, but I carried the rifle and participated in many battles and saw death with my eyes over and over again, and here they equate me with those who do not differentiate between a pistol and a rifle!” He says, ironically, as he takes a step forward with the movement of the queue while staring in the far corner of his eye at the woman in the other queue.
For years, the federal government in Baghdad accused the Kurdistan Regional Government of providing lists containing the names of “alien” employees, just names on paper without an actual presence on the ground, or the names of employees who receive more than one salary. The regional government says that it addressed this problem by imposing the receipt of only one salary and expelling the “alien” and non-eligible persons, but all of this did not solve the region’s problem with Baghdad, and still has consequences.
The federal government also accuses the regional government of providing lists of employees that include one million and 250 thousand employees, while the registered number in Baghdad is only about 680 thousand. This is constantly repeated by officials in the capital.
This wide disparity in numbers has led to crises between the two governments, over the past eight years, which witnessed a struggle over the region’s share of the federal budget. The situation remained unresolved despite the ongoing negotiations between the two parties and an attempt to find a compromise solution to be adopted on the federal financial budgets.
For two weeks, the reporter contacted officials in the ministries of the Peshmerga, Finance, and Economy in the Kurdistan Region, to find out the exact or approximate numbers of retired women with military ranks, but everyone apologized for giving any numbers “given the sensitivity of the matter,” according to some of them.
Being discreet about the actual numbers of female retirees has opened a wide door for interpretations, as some believe that their numbers are in the thousands, and others say that they are only hundreds.
However, a member of the Peshmerga who joined the “Kurdish Revolution” in the early 1970s says: “Yes, you could find a few female fighters who were in our ranks or accompanied their husbands in the areas of confrontation, but the current numbers of the retired women are unreasonable.”
The monthly salaries of female retirees with different military ranks vary in Kurdistan – according to what the Ministry of Peshmerga told the reporter – it stands at one million and 638 thousand Iraqi dinars (1106 US dollars) for those with the rank of “brigadier”, which is the highest military rank given to women so far, while the soldier’s salary, which is the lowest military rank, stands at 355,000 dinars ($239).
(R.A.), a retired woman with the rank of captain, born in 1969, receives a pension of 959 thousand Iraqi dinars, equivalent to about 647 US dollars. She belongs to the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Erbil. She says that she worked in the field of education as a teacher for about 20 years, and before that she was active in the Students’ Union in Erbil and worked to feed her party with the new blood of her fellow students.
Years ago, the party offered her the rank of captain, then a pension of more than 1,600 dollars, and a partisan rank that she said was very high, and she also receives a decent salary for that.
The criticisms regarding retired women do not focus on their salaries, but rather on their capacity as retirees, and on the fact that they are military in the first place. A specialist in the field of law from Erbil governorate told Al-aalem Al-jadeed that the retirement department clearly violates Article 1 of the Unified Retirement Code No. 27 of 2006 second paragraphs (a, b).
He explains that the two clauses specify the conditions for filing the employee to retirement in one of two cases “when he completes the age of sixty-three, which is the legal age for retirement, regardless of his tenure, unless the law provides otherwise, or if the competent official medical committee decides that he is not able to serve anymore.”
The legal officer, who asked not to be named for security reasons, also said that neither of the two conditions is met by the majority of women who were given military ranks and pensions, as their ages range is between (40-60) years, in addition to the fact that they do not have an actual service, and they were not enrolled in Military Academy.
Where did the military ranks come from?
To answer this question, we had to visit the relevant government institutions, and after long research, we found that hundreds of media professionals and civil activists who served in the ranks of the major parties in the region were given high and medium military ranks for retirement purposes, and most of them did not exceed their fifties.
The majority of the region’s residents know these facts which are not secrets. Official sources revealed them, one of which is a prominent former official in the region’s presidency. He said that the total number of male and female members of the Kurdish parties who were referred to retirement between when Kurdistan has obtained a semi-independent entity inside Iraq and 2014 reached about 82,000 people under different titles like a minister, a deputy minister, a general manager, and a soldier which is the lowest level.
All of these party members were given job titles and were referred to retirement and granted pension salaries without completing a job service as stipulated by law.
The former official asserts that 56,000 of them are members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 26,000 belong to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Change Movement, and other Kurdish parties.
The official’s statement above is very much in agreement with what was revealed.
Ali Hama Saleh, a member of the Parliament of the region, agreed with what was revealed by the official that there are about 50,000 people of various military ranks who receive pension salaries illegally, and all of them are affiliated with the Peshmerga.
Saleh says with great astonishment many people who receive high pensions and military ranks were previously fighting alongside the Baath Party regime and worked against the Kurdish revolution and the Kurdish people. He asserts that this matter, which he describes as a “phenomenon”, has negatively affected the economy of Kurdistan because paying those salaries requires a huge share of the public budget.”
Recruitment and immediate retirement
Wurya Muhammad, a legal expert, pointed out that granting women military ranks or promoting them and filing them for retirement on the same day is illegal and is not based on any constitutional or legal clause or article. “They receive salaries and privileges without serving even for one day in any of the security services”, says Wurya, repeating what was said by most of those who spoke to us.
He noted that this phenomenon as he described, is not new, but it worsened with the establishment of the first Kurdish opposition party in Kurdistan, the Change Movement, in 2009. It gave them military ranks and filed them to retirement on the same day by a regional decree signed by former regional president Massoud Barzani. This step was taken by the two ruling parties to prevent the defection of many of its party cadres and their affiliation with the Change Movement.
He confirms the illegality of the regional decree, and asks about the legal basis that allows giving military ranks to hundreds of women to be retired on the same day without completing the period of promotion in force in the military or security services?
A high-profile source in the Kurdistan Public Prosecution rules out the possibility of suspending the privileges of retired women with military ranks even if they do not have any employment service or have not yet completed the legal retirement age even if the orders to refer them to retirement are invalid and illegal because their access to it was issued by a regional decree from the highest authority in Kurdistan which is the former president of the region.
(F, H) is a retired woman with the rank of a corporal who was born in 1960 and belongs to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the city of Sulaymaniyah. She receives a pension salary of 446 thousand dinars, equivalent to 301 dollars.
She says she was referred to retirement as compensation she received from the party: “Because we are from a family that offered seven martyrs, my four brothers, and three of my brothers’ children during our struggle against the Baath regime, and I still received my pension since 16 years now, even though I am employed by the party and receive a salary from it which is over $800 per month.
Sherko Jawdat, a member of the Finance Committee in the Kurdistan Parliament, describes the phenomenon of appointing special grades in any field in the Kurdistan Regional Government, contrary to the provisions of the recruitment and compulsory service law as “administrative corruption.”
He says: “This corruption occurred to take into account the situation of some personalities from here and there, but it has spread in the joints of government in Kurdistan, part of it was related to the recruitment in special and general grades of the compulsory service, especially in military service.”
Violation of laws in giving women to military ranks and referring them to retirement has clearly affected the budget of the Kurdish region, which faced major financial crises during the periods of decline in the world prices of oil and it was unable to pay the salaries of real employees for several months, which generated widespread popular discontent, so
it was forced to adopt the salary savings system, in which the deduction was at different rates, ranging from 18 to 70 percent of the salary. The savings system was canceled in March 2019, but the Kurdistan Ministry of Finance reintroduced this system in 2021 for several months and at different rates.
These crises made the Kurdish government unable to pay full salaries to its employees and save full months’ salaries. It saved a large percentage of salaries for 12 months of 2016 and 11 months of 2017 and saved the entire 12-month salaries of 2017, and it reduced the saving percentage of 11 months’ salaries for 2018. This raises the number of salaries paid with the saving system to 34 months until 2018.
As a result, the government decided to save the entire salary of employees in the last four months of 2015 (September-October-November-December) and the full salary for December 2017. Also, it has only paid 9 months of its 2019 salaries, while it remains unable to pay the full salaries of its employees, in addition, it has stopped employment promotions since 2015.
The economic crisis in the Kurdistan region began in 2014 and continued for years as a result of the deterioration of its relations with the federal government which cut off the region’s annual share of the federal budget. The Kurdistan’s share of the general financial budget in Iraq for the year 2021 was 11 trillion and 482 billion and 394 million dinars.
The region’s share of the budget included 8 trillion and 161 billion dinars as operating expenses, 3 trillion and 271 billion dinars for investment, and 923 billion and 434 million dinars as governing expenses. That law had not been implemented due to differences between the two governments, so political settlements were pursued, according to which the federal government granted 200 billion dinars per month to the regional government as an advance until resolving the conflict legally amid constantly repeated news of Baghdad’s intention to cut off the 200 billion dinars.
Kurdistan needs 895 billion dinars per month to pay the salaries of its employees without deduction, i.e. 10 trillion and 740 billion dinars per year.
There has been no budget law for eight years in the Kurdistan region, so it is impossible to monitor the expenditures and the extent of the Government’s commitment to them, and there are no accurate figures on government revenues, whether from oil sales or transit revenues and department taxes, while parliamentarians confirm that less than half of the transit’ revenues go to the government, and about 45% of the revenues from the sale of oil go to the oil companies’ dues.
Jawdat talks about what he describes as violations in recruitment that “opened pockets of corruption” which were exploited by some parties (without naming them) and as a result, it led to the spread of administrative corruption. He points out that some of this administrative corruption is “organized, and senior officials stand behind it, making it a conduit for new types of administrative corruption within government facilities, especially in the military.”
A member of the Finance of the Kurdistan Parliament criticizes the lack of accurate numbers or statistics documenting the numbers of members of the security services, whether employees or retirees, especially in the military field.
Jawdat underlines that the Kurdistan Parliament has not obtained an accurate number of employees from the regional government, and says that what is available is “a total number that lacks details.” He also points out that there is no specific retirement fund in Kurdistan dedicated to collecting and legally organizing pension revenues. He added, “A part of these retirees is military women.”
Salary for party loyalty
Ihsan Mulla Fouad, a researcher in Kurdish political affairs, says that the Kurdish government, especially after 2005, with the increase in oil sales revenues and thus the size of the budget coming from Baghdad, has transformed the citizens in the region into a class of employees who receive government salaries, to earn and ensure their partisan loyalty.
Fouad adds: “Giving military ranks to party members, in particular, to women was one of the clearest cases of corruption carried out by the Kurdish government.”
The presence of these large numbers of retired women with military ranks under the pretext that they were in the ranks of the Peshmerga during the struggle against the Baath regime raises questions for many old members of Peshmerga, writers, and researchers on the Kurdish issue, including Mullah Fouad, who says that their real numbers during the period of the armed struggle before 1991 did not exceed the 1,000 women at maximum.
Mulla Fouad holds the two ruling parties responsible for what he describes as the “greatest corruption” recorded in the history of Kurdistan.
Ghiath Surji, a prominent member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which dominates the areas of Sulaymaniyah and its districts, acknowledges that his party has filed many women to retirement with different military ranks.
He justifies: “Everyone testifies that there were many female fighters in the ranks of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan peshmerga before 1991.”
He added: “There were not only women fighters, many women worked in various fields in support of the Peshmerga forces, whether in the field of media, such as Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani who documented with her camera, vivid and tragic scenes and footage of the suffering of the Kurdish people who were been oppressed by the Baathist regime, she also monitored the sacrifices of the Peshmerga forces.”
However, Surji agrees with Jawdat that granting women who did not serve in the ranks of the Peshmerga or did not perform any military duties falls under the category of “corruption”, stressing that there is no justification for granting them these ranks and retirement privileges.
But Surji recalls, in an attempt to justify what happened, that many wives of senior leaders in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan accompanied their husbands in the mountains, and they endure with them “the scourge and grievances for the sake of the Kurdish cause during the armed struggle.”
Muhammad Hussein, a researcher in Kurdish economic affairs, criticizes in general, the presence of large numbers of military retirees in the Kurdistan region, indicating that these numbers are similar to the numbers of retired armies in large countries such as Egypt, Turkey or Iran, and not to a small region like Kurdistan consisting of four provinces ( Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Dohuk, Halabja) and its population is about five million people only.
He says, in an interview with Al-aalem Al-jadeed, that the main reason for granting all these military ranks to party members or relatives of influential officials in Kurdistan is political motives and the attempt to win electoral votes.
Hussain agrees that the presence of large numbers of employees and retirees who are not entitled to earn pension benefits legally basically contributed to the loss of employment opportunities for tens of thousands of graduates from universities and institutes and pushed them to join the growing army of unemployment in the region day after day.
The economic researcher stresses that the Kurdistan region desperately needs employees in the health and education sectors in the first place, but the presence of huge numbers of retirees, especially in the military, makes the government unable to recruit young people in these important sectors as well as the rest of the state facilities because there is no sufficient budget for these posts.
Abdul Karim Sardar is completing his fifth year in university to graduate from the Faculty of Administration and Economics at Salahaddin University in Erbil, and he is still waiting for an employment opportunity to support his poor family with his monthly salary. “There is no great chance for those who are far from the circles of the parties because all opportunities lie in the hands of their members and supporters,” he said with some annoyance, while he was flipping through the pages of a local newspaper.
He folded the newspaper and put it under his arm, then said, ” Only them can enact their own laws so that they can have a prestigious job and a rewarding and permanent retirement from it on the same day!”