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Safety Over Liberty in Kurdistan

The two ruling parties in the largely autonomous Iraqi region leave no room for dissent.

By Solomon Moore, Times Staff Writer
April 10, 2006

IRBIL, Iraq — While daily car bombs and political upheaval roil Baghdad, Iraq's northern region of Kurdistan has enjoyed a reputation as an oasis of security where terrorist attacks are rare, families picnic on holidays, and Westerners can travel the countryside unscathed.

But residents of Kurdistan's three provinces, lying along Iraq's mountainous borders with Iran and Turkey, say that security has come at a price.

Iqbal Ali Mohammed said that although his income has increased and his material life has become more comfortable, his spiritual life suffers.

"Even though the majority of the Kurds are Muslims, I am not able to practice my religion as openly as I want to because they might accuse me of being a terrorist," he said.

Sroosh Janab Mohammed, a government employee in Sulaymaniya, said her life has become easier in some ways.

"Security is good. I can travel outside the country if I want. There are more job opportunities," she said.

"But sometimes the police disappear people and say they are terrorists," she added. "And the parties control everything. Everything serves their interests."

Power in the largely autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq is divided between two longtime ruling political parties, largely to the exclusion of dissenters. A heavily policed state strictly limits political opposition and speech, residents and human rights advocates say.

In a war-ravaged country where sectarian violence has become the norm, officials of Kurdistan's ruling parties make no apologies.

"Here if you are suspected, you will be detained, it's as simple as that," said Mohammed Tofiq, a high-ranking member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that largely controls eastern Kurdistan.

"People here don't have a problem with that," he said. "Here, if that happens, everybody claps."

Not everybody. Critics of the ruling parties — the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party, which controls western Kurdistan — say the squelching of political dissent goes too far.

Some of the critics are officials of Kurdistan's nominal government, who say that party affiliated militias, intelligence services and security agencies operate largely outside their control.

"The security forces are like political tools in the hands of the parties," said Hadi Ali, justice minister for the KDP-controlled administrative center in Irbil.

The parties "each have their own secret agencies and their own courts. I'm the minister of justice, and they're arresting many people in my party without my approval."

Ali is a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, a small opposition party, which has been sharply criticized by both ruling parties in recent months.

In December, hundreds of people attacked the KIU's headquarters in the western Kurdish city of Dahuk, throwing stones and firing guns into the building.

In a videotape of the incident that was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, dozens of militia members and security agents could be seen standing idle as rioters destroyed cars parked outside the office, pelted the building with stones and eventually set the structure on fire.

More than two hours into the riot, a storm of automatic weapons fire could be heard. At least one KIU member was shot to death.

Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, governor of Irbil province, said he regretted the violence, but that KIU members were to blame. KIU members had spoken out against the two main political parties and had withdrawn their support from the Kurdish alliance in Baghdad before the country's Dec. 15 election, he said.

"You can't control people when they say bad things about the KDP and PUK," Mawlood said. Divisions within Kurdish ranks could weaken Kurdistan's bargaining power in Baghdad, he added. "Maybe in 10 years it will be OK to say such things, but not now."

A second violent incident recently took place in the eastern Kurdistan village of Halabja, where in 1988 about 5,000 Kurds died in a poison gas attack for which former President Saddam Hussein's air force is believed to be responsible.

Last month, high school and college students and others staged a protest against government corruption at an annual commemoration of that incident. PUK security forces fired into the crowd, killing a 15-year-old boy. Amid gunfire and chanting of anti-government slogans, the mob torched a memorial museum dedicated to the 1988 massacre.

In recent weeks, both parties have jailed journalists who have written articles alleging government corruption. A day after the Halabja riot, PUK guards arrested Hawez Hawezi, a teacher and reporter for the independent Kurdish weekly Hawlati, for criticizing the two parties. Hawezi has charged the security forces with "abducting" him without a warrant. He was later released on bail.

Last year, KDP security forces arrested Kamal Karim Qadir, an Iraqi-born Kurd with Austrian citizenship, who had written an article alleging that Masrour Barzani, a leading member of the KDP's founding family and the head of the party's intelligence service, had hired prostitutes to spy on Qadir while he was in Austria.

Last month, a judge reduced Qadir's 30-year prison sentence to 18 months. Then last week, he was pardoned by Barzani's father, Massoud, who is the president of the Kurdish regional government and head of the KDP. The party was founded by Massoud Barzani's father, Mustafa, in 1946. One of Massoud Barzani's other sons, Nechirvan, is the regional government's prime minister.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, the KDP — and the Barzani clan — led armed resistance to Iraq's central government, pushing for an independent Kurdish state.

In 1975, the PUK, led by Jalal Talabani, who is now Iraq's interim president, split off from the Barzani-led party.

For years, the two groups fought Hussein's government. During the 1990s, they also fought each other. Both supported the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and have allied themselves with the Shiite Muslim political bloc in Baghdad to form the central government's ruling faction.

But in Kurdistan, the two parties have maintained their distance from Baghdad and from each other. Each maintains a massive party machine in its administrative base — Irbil for the KDP, and Sulaymaniya for the PUK. And each has stymied attempts to form an effective, unified regional government.

Both factions have thousands of paramilitary soldiers, or peshmerga, and security agencies known as Asayish. The newly trained police officers of the Kurdish Ministry of Interior are also split along party lines.

The parties each have their own intelligence agencies: Parastin for the KDP, and Zanyari for the PUK. Those agencies conduct surveillance, control media outlets, influence judges and run secret detention facilities, according to human rights activists and government officials.

Most of the region's trade unions and professional associations are closely linked to, if not run by, the parties and closely monitored, as are local nongovernmental organizations. Even private businesses are often dominated by individual party members. One example: The region's leading construction mogul is also a Barzani — Saed.

Compared with the pervasive influence of the two dominant parties, the institutions of the nascent Kurdistan Regional Government look paltry and stunted.

"The government should be making the policies, but right now the parties are creating the policies, and the government simply carries them out," said Mawlood, Irbil's governor. "The peshmerga, the Asayish, the ministries are all implementing the policies of the KDP and PUK. It will take time for the government to mature."

"This area is just coming out of a Baathist model," in which the government was subordinate to the governing party, as was the case with Hussein's Baath Party, said Tom Hardie-Forsyth, a British advisor for Nechirvan Barzani, the regional prime minister.

"Nechirvan told me that in 10 years' time he wanted to have a robust, transparent government that wouldn't need the name Barzani or any other name to run it," Hardie-Forsyth said. But so far, the parties have brooked little opposition by individuals or minority parties.

Human rights activists say party control runs deep. Most Irbil neighborhoods have at least one party-affiliated Asayish office where residents must register their names and party affiliations, they say. Anyone who wants to apply for a government job or benefits must get a letter of good standing from his local party official, according to residents and human rights advocates.

Asayish forces routinely conduct undocumented arrests and influence judges to rule against suspects with scant evidence, said Ali, the justice minister. He acknowledged that party security services have prisons that even he does not know much about.

"We know that people have been held in prison for as long as six months," said a Kurdish human rights activist, who asked that his name not be used because he fears government reprisals. "Sometimes they're held on terrorist charges, but often they are very far from terrorism. They have only criticized the government."

Tofiq, the PUK official, acknowledged that smaller political parties have little opportunity to participate in government.

"Frankly, small political parties are not genuine political parties," he said. "All of them either support the PUK or the KDP. This is the fault of the system — the small parties know they don't have a chance. The KDP and the PUK dominate the different regions. Both areas are one-party systems."

But Tofiq said that in time, a new generation of Kurds would demand more than security from their leaders.

"The younger people didn't live under Saddam, and they're going to be more concerned about government services and the economy and jobs," he said.

"This generation is going to base their votes on the actual achievements of the government."
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