by Kamal Said Qadir
Middle East Quarterly
Summer 2007, pp. 19-26
Many Western commentators say Iraqi Kurdistan is a beacon of democracy in an otherwise uncertain Iraq. As much of the rest of Iraq descends into violence if not civil war, it is tempting for U.S. officials to point to the placidity of northern Iraq as a rare success. In many ways, Iraqi Kurdistan's progress since 1991 is remarkable. But while Kurdish officials and their growing coterie of U.S. consultants praise the region's progress, an increasing culture of corruption, nepotism, and abuse-of-power has both eroded democracy and, increasingly, stability.
Iraqi Kurdistan: From Bust to Boom
The backsliding is disappointing given once high hopes. After decades of struggle, Iraqi Kurds won de facto autonomy in northern Iraq in 1991. As the Kurdish uprising collapsed, Turkish, U.S., British, and French forces established a safe haven around Zakho and Duhok protected by a no-fly zone; this later expanded to include Erbil. In a failed bid to starve Iraqi Kurds into submission, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi administration to withdraw from the region. Kurdish parties filled the vacuum, establishing an area of self-rule approximately the size of Denmark. On May 19, 1992, the Kurdish parties held elections resulting in a coalition between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK). Their alliance broke down in 1994 because of disputes about property ownership and revenue embezzlement at the lucrative Ibrahim Khalil-Habur customs post on the Turkish border. The resulting civil war killed or displaced thousands and caused a partition of territory between the PUK and KDP.
There was renewed hope in the wake of Saddam's fall that the bifurcated Kurdistan Regional Government could fortify its democracy. Such hope was dashed. On January 30, 2006, Kurdish authorities held new elections—the two dominant parties ran on the same list so as not to compete—and divided power equitably according to their leaderships' pre-election agreement. KDP leader Masoud Barzani assumed the presidency of the Kurdistan region, and his nephew Nechervan Barzani became prime minister, overseeing a unified, albeit inactive, parliament. They preside over more than forty ministers, all of whom receive hefty salaries, perks, and pensions.
Because Iraqi Kurdistan lacks a constitution, Barzani and other senior political leaders can exercise unchecked, arbitrary power. The absence of accountability and a free press has enabled corruption, abuse, and mismanagement to increase.
Nepotism is widespread. Not only is the prime minister the nephew of the president, but the president's son, Masrour Barzani, a scarcely-qualified 34-year-old, heads the local intelligence service. Another Barzani son is the commander of the Special Forces. And Masoud Barzani installed his uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, as Iraq's foreign minister when the political party heads were distributing patronage. Other relatives hold key positions in ministries or executive offices. PUK leader Jalal Talabani has only one wife and two children and so has less patronage to distribute. Still, one son oversees PUK security and the other is the Kurdistan Regional Government's representative to the United States. When the major Iraqi political parties divided up the ministry portfolios in Baghdad, Talabani awarded the PUK's slot to his brother-in-law. Another brother-in-law is the Iraqi ambassador in Beijing.
Other Barzani and Talabani relatives have monopolized telecommunications, construction, and trade. Those who have no relatives in power sit at the bottom of every hierarchy. Merit is seldom a factor in promotion. While it is possible for non-family members to become ministers, they must have a long record of submission to the Barzani or Talabani families. Many Iraqi Kurds welcomed Iraq's liberation, calculating that the presence of U.S. forces would also help solidify democracy in the Kurdistan region. They now question whether more than 3,000 U.S. troops sacrificed their lives to enable oligarchy.
Is Iraqi Kurdistan beyond reform? Not necessarily, but the entrenched parties have created a system which immunizes them from accountability and competition. The two major parties are modeled in both structure and role on Saddam's organization of the Baath Party. A small coterie of decision-makers presides over a large network of patronage and intimidation. The analogy is not loose: Documents recovered after Saddam's fall and published recently by two independent Sulaimanya-based Kurdish newspapers, Awene and Hawlati, show extensive ties between leading figures in the Barzani family and the Iraqi dictator. There were relations, too, between the PUK commanders and Saddam's security services, although more subdued. While some contacts were understandable, for example, in order to coordinate electricity distribution between areas of Baathist and Iraqi Kurdish control, documents surfaced after Iraq's fall which showed extensive intelligence sharing and business relationships between Nechervan Barzani, for example, and Saddam Hussein's sons.
Just as under Saddam, in Iraqi Kurdistan today, political party control extends down into the high schools and universities. Student unions are financed by political parties and act as their extensions. The KDP and PUK student groups act as eyes and ears for the security services of the two parties. They observe students and professors and submit reports of activities to their supervisors. Membership is often a prerequisite for academic degrees, foreign scholarships, employment, and promotions. It is not uncommon for the student with the highest grade point average to be passed over for scholarships or even valedictorian status should he or she not be a party member.
Smaller political parties have failed to act as a check over the larger parties. Several are co-opted, with their personnel given lucrative positions or even ministerial portfolios in exchange for silence. Others are intimidated. On December 6, 2005, a KDP mob stormed the office of the Kurdistan Islamic Union in the Duhok governorate and shot and killed its candidate. While new parties might form, the KDP and PUK can control their licensing through the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Abuse of Power
Abuse of power is one of the main characteristics of the Kurdistan Regional Government's administration. Iraqi Kurds speak often of arbitrary arrest, torture, and enforced disappearances. Awene, one of the two independent newspapers in the region, reported an incident in which a driver, who was stopped for a routine traffic violation in Erbil, seriously wounded the policeman. Other police officers arrested the shooter and brought him to the hospital with their wounded colleague. A short time later, ten armed men in the uniform of the KDP's Zervani peshmerga unit stormed the hospital to remove the suspect, a member of their unit, in order to prevent the judiciary from processing him on a charge of attempted murder. In the process of their raid, the KDP's peshmerga wounded a civilian but suffered no consequences as this second victim was not a party member.
The legal system of the region is both chaotic and compromised. There are five parallel judicial systems in Iraqi Kurdistan: the regular courts, state security courts to try political offences, military courts with jurisdiction over peshmerga forces, separate KDP and PUK party courts known as Komalayati (social) courts, and special tribal courts with jurisdiction only over the members of a certain tribe. With the exception of the regular courts that apply Iraqi laws, all the other courts are, in fact, illegal. Their judgments are arbitrary and often contradict the law. Komalayeti courts insure impunity for their members. For example, after a regular court sentenced PUK member Salih Muzali to life in prison for the murder of two sisters, PUK leader Jalal Talabani intervened to transfer the case to the Komalayati court, which set him free after the victims' families accepted a payment of US$170,000 "blood money." Human rights organizations protested this intervention for his release. According to Awene, sixty-eight suspects in crimes such as murder and robbery remain at large and under the protection of the KDP, PUK, and Socialist Party of Kurdistan.
Politicians also intervene in judiciary staffing. Judicial appointments require prior approval by the leadership of the dominant parties. In an interview on the fifth anniversary of 9-11, Rizgar Hama Ali, the first judge to preside over the special Iraqi tribunal to try Saddam Hussein and the current member of the court of cassation in Iraqi Kurdistan, expressed reservations about the independence of the judicial system in Iraqi Kurdistan and suggested political party interference in judicial affairs "seriously endangers the integrity of courts."
Rather than protect citizens, the courts have become a tool for political parties to harass and oppress them. I know. I suffered their arbitrary and politically-motivated judgments firsthand. On October 26, 2006, I was abducted by the KDP secret service and detained for nearly six months for publishing articles on corruption of the Barzani family and the ties between the late Mulla Mustafa Barzani—Masoud Barzani's father—and the Soviet KGB. The investigative judge acted as a representative of the secret service and not of the judiciary. When I refused to sign a confession prepared by the KDP—nothing I had written was untrue and so I saw no reason to repudiate it—a KDP security official told me that the investigative judge could order torture to gain confessions from detainees. After two weeks, I did sign the confession after being deprived of water and food for several days. I was tried on December 19, 2006, before the state security court in Erbil. I did not receive prior notification of the trial which, at any rate, lasted less than fifteen minutes. I had no access to a lawyer and was not allowed to produce evidence. A security forces officer entered the courtroom to give the chief judge a letter. The judge sentenced me to thirty years in prison for having published two articles on the Internet. I was told later that the letter contained instructions as to the verdict and sentence.
Illegal treatment is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception in the Iraqi Kurdistan region's detention centers. Disappearances remain rife. The parliament's human rights committee acknowledges at least twenty-one disappearances since 2003. Western human rights experts say that hundreds remain detained without trial in Kurdish prisons. Local papers have reported unlawful detentions as recently as September 2006. Appeals to Talabani and Barzani by relatives of persons detained by the political party militias, and subsequently disappeared, remain unanswered.
Torture is common. Ali Bapir, the head of the Islamic Group, told Hawlati, the region's other independent newspaper, that Kurdish security forces have crippled several dozen detainees in prison during torture sessions. These prisons are funded indirectly by U.S. aid. One of my torturers told me that he was trained by U.S. experts in investigative techniques, but he seemed to prefer his own methods saying, "U.S. investigative methods cannot be effective in Iraqi Kurdistan."
Unfortunately, those techniques that Kurdish interrogators prefer sometimes culminate in murder. Since the establishment of Kurdish administration in 1991, there have been hundreds of unsolved political killings. Disappearances peaked during the 1994-97 Kurdish civil war. The major political officials have refused calls to account for many of these summary executions or to return the bodies. Rather, summary detention and extrajudicial execution have continued, albeit with less frequency. In April 2002, for example, PUK security forces abducted Muhammad Ahmed al-Zahawi, a former member of the Kurdistan Human Rights Organization in Kalar. The Kurdistan Human Rights Organization had become a thorn in the government's side for its frequent abuse-of-power law suits against government officials.
He is not alone. Lawyers and judges who try to defend the victims of human rights violations or prosecute perpetrators in the region sometimes themselves become targets. Assailants have gunned down several judges who have investigated financial crimes and the drug trade. More recently, after an Erbil lawyer, Razwan Osman Ceco, successfully prosecuted a civil suit against a KDP military commander accused of forcibly seizing private property, the KDP militia twice attacked him, leaving him with severe injuries. In another case, PUK security forces arrested lawyer Bakhtyar Hama Sa‘id in Sulaimanya on August 13, 2006, as he prepared the defense for arrested demonstrators. The PUK only released Sa‘id a week later after the lawyers' union staged a strike.
While the judicial system may be broken, the problem runs deeper. Often, outside groups can provide a check upon abuse of power. This is what the Kurdistan Human Rights Organization tried to do. But independent civil society organizations are few and far between. Most organizations remain under the yoke of the two major political parties; they are often run by senior party members and serve as extensions of the political parties. Would it be possible to establish a truly nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Duhok, Erbil, Sulaimanya or, for that matter, Kirkuk? Probably not. The PUK and KDP use legal and financial means to control civil organizations. In many cases, they control licensing. In other cases, they dominate ostensibly independent organizations with personnel appointments. Union leaders, for example, are often senior party members. Independent NGO personnel—including those run by Europeans—say local administrations seek to force them to hire party members.
Nor is the press able to act as a check on political abuse. While there are now two nominally independent papers, their financial situation is shaky. There is no guarantee that they will continue to publish. The parties often seek to co-opt critical journalists with bribes or positions at higher paying party organs. While journalists may in theory be able to publish a wide range of opinion, in practice, party officials harass them with often arbitrary lawsuits. If they anger party officials and, for example, write about corruption within the Barzani family as I did, they may face criminal prosecution. Iraqi Kurdish law still employs the former Baath regime's criminal code. Article 433 equates almost any criticism with defamation. The PUK targeted editors at Hawlati after it accused PUK prime minister Omar Fattah of abuse of power. Security forces have assaulted other journalists. On March 12, 2006, PUK security beat Rahman Garibi, correspondent for Radio Azadi, as he covered anti-corruption demonstrations erupting in Halabja. In another case, the KDP's security service beat Al-Jazeera's Erbil correspondent. While independent Kurdish Internet sites such as Kurdishmedia.com, Kurdistan-Post.com, Dengekan.com and eKurd.net provide a vibrant outlet for independent commentary, their reach in Iraqi Kurdistan is limited so long as electricity is spotty. Many poorer residents in Iraqi Kurdistan cannot afford private generators and, at any rate, such generators cannot run continuously.
Corruption is endemic. Especially since Iraq's liberation, the region has been awash in foreign money and aid projects. There have been hundreds of construction projects since 2003, and two international airports in Erbil and Sulaimanya have opened.
Nevertheless, the economic growth has been hampered by the ruling families' stranglehold over the economy. They treat the treasury, built with customs and tax revenues, as personal slush funds. There is little transparency to differentiate between public, political party, and private family property. Outside a narrow circle of family members, there is no knowledge of how the budget is spent. On June 23, 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred to Iraqi Kurdistan $1.4 billion dollars remaining from its allotment of the oil-for-food program. Much of the money has, apparently, disappeared. While the Iraqi Kurdish government may have spent some on public projects, much more appears to have vanished into individual bank accounts. The ruling families further involve themselves in major businesses. Family members or proxies act as silent partners in telecommunications, construction, and import-export businesses. Through arbitrary privatization conducted by government decree, they appropriate public property and valuable real estate. Talabani's oldest son Bafil, for example, now runs the Sulaimanya tobacco factory. Few if any large businesses can operate in the region without taking the political leaders' family members as ghost partners. Since returning to Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, the Barzani family has amassed a fortune estimated at over $2 billion.
Land speculation has exacerbated the situation. The post-liberation construction boom has led land prices to skyrocket. The cost of housing in Sulaimanya is not dissimilar to that in Washington, D.C. Political party members have granted prime real estate to their supporters and family members for free or at below-market prices. Real estate development—construction of hotels or apartment buildings, for example—can provide the recipient of the land grant with a multimillion dollar profit. On December 7, 2005, the PUK-led government in Sulaimanya transferred a large property belonging to the municipality of Sulaimanya to the PUK-owned Nizar construction and trade company by simple decree. In another case, the KDP-led government transferred the ownership of nine publicly-owned parcels of real estate and buildings in the Erbil governorate by decree to the KDP politburo for a nominal price.
All of this makes everyday life unaffordable for ordinary residents. Because of inflation, it is not uncommon, for example, to see families living in incomplete houses. Others are forced to squat in corrugated tin structures.
Corruption and mismanagement has undermined stability. During commemorations on March 16, 2006, marking the eighteenth anniversary of Saddam's chemical weapons bombardment of Halabja, protests erupted against corruption and deteriorating basic services. The PUK security forces killed one demonstrator, injured six others, and arrested forty-two, half of whom appear to have been tortured while in custody. PUK security forces later attacked demonstrators in Chamchamal, Kifri, Shoresh, and Darbandikhan.
Security remains a major problem in Iraqi Kurdistan. Although Islamist groups have existed in Iraqi Kurdistan since the 1950s, apparent Iranian backing enhanced their threat after 1991. While their first targets were leftist activists and secular intellectuals, by 2001, they had begun to establish permanent bases. On February 18, 2001, Islamists assassinated Fransu Hariri, the speaker of the KDP's parliament and the highest-ranking Christian in the government, and on April 2, 2002, they tried to assassinate PUK prime minister Barham Salih. Islamists in the Kurdish parliament have called for Kurdish authorities to adopt Shari‘a (Islamic law) and abandon secularism.
Penetration by foreign intelligence services, especially the Iranian VEVAK and the Qods Force, might also undercut local security. Chako Rahimi, a senior member of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party and the head of the party's security department, told Awene in an interview that the Iranian secret service, Ettela'at, had assassinated more than 204 members of his group in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991 and that the Iranian secret service maintains more than fifty safe houses in Sulaimanya, a city controlled by the PUK which is headed by the current Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. The latest victims of Iranian terrorism in Iraqi Kurdistan were two members of the Kurdistan Revolutionary Union-Iran (KRU-I), who were shot in the PUK-controlled border town of Penjwen in June 2006. KRU-I speaker Shwane Mahmudi blamed Iranian intelligence. It is doubtful such assassinations could occur without at least tacit PUK permission. While the security threat is real, both political parties amplify it to silence opponents, simply by accusing them of being Islamist activists.
During my trips in Iraqi Kurdistan, I see how grateful ordinary Kurdish citizens are to the U.S. government and American people for the establishment of the safe haven in 1991, the no-fly zone, and Iraq's liberation. But the mood is changing. Today, the Kurdish parties misuse U.S. assistance and taxpayers' money. Rather than support democracy, the Kurdish party leaders use their funding and their militia's operational training to curtail civil liberties. What angers Kurds is the squandered leverage. Instead of demanding rule-of-law, the White House has subordinated democracy to stability not only in Baghdad and Basra, but in Iraqi Kurdistan as well. Rather than create a model democracy, the Iraqi Kurds have replicated the governing systems of Egypt, Tunisia or, perhaps even Syria.
It is true that such abuse of power is not rare in the Middle East, but Iraqi Kurds want more. They have listened to the rhetoric of the White House but see corruption in the Kurdistan region enabled, at least indirectly, by the United States. On Kurdish party-controlled television, they watch U.S. diplomats dining with KDP and PUK leaders at their palaces and private resorts. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or other senior U.S. diplomats visit, they do not challenge the Kurdish leadership on human rights abuses. Kurds wanted real democracy, like that in the U.S. and other Western democracies and not Potemkin democracy.
Ultimately, Washington may pay a price for not holding Iraqi Kurds to a higher standard. While Erbil and Washington enjoy an alliance of convenience today, interests change. Undemocratic regimes in the Middle East are, at best, inconsistent allies.
Kamal Said Qadir is an Iraqi Kurdish writer based in Vienna, Austria. He was detained by KDP security forces on October 26, 2005, for criticizing corruption within the KDP but was released following an international campaign.
 For example, see Sverker Oredsson and Olle Schmidt, "Kurdistan—A Democratic Beacon in the Middle East," Kurdistan Development Corporation, Dec. 2004. Hawlati (Sulaimanya), Oct. 11, 2006. Awene (Sulaimanya), Sept. 12, 2006. "Jalal Talabani: ‘No Grounds for a Relationship with Baghdad,'" Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2002, pp. 19-23. Awene, June 27, 2006. Salih Muzali interview, Awene, July 25, 2006. Rebwar Fatah, "Kurdish Women's Blood for Cash Affair: Mahabad's Ordeal," KurdishMedia, July 10, 2006. Awene, June 20, 2006. Rizgar Hama Ali interview, iraqikurdistan.blogspot, Sept. 11, 2006. "Walamek bo barez Masoud Barzani," The Kurdistan Post, Oct. 2, 2005; Kamal Berzenji, "Our Last Stake: The Post U.S.-Controlled Iraq and the Kurds," KurdishMedia, Apr. 21, 2003; Kamal Said Qadir, "The Barzani Chameleon," Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2007, pp. 87-8. Awene, Oct. 31, 2006. The New York Times, Dec. 26, 2006. Hawlati, Sept. 13, 2006. Hawlati, June 14, 2006. "Iraq, Regional Country Index, Middle East and North Africa," Amnesty International Annual Report, 1998, accessed Feb. 14, 2007. "Iraq," Amnesty International Annual Report, 2003, accessed Feb. 14, 2007. "Iraq: Human Rights Abuses in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991," Amnesty International Special Report, AI Index: MDE 14/01/95, pp. 91-4. Hawlati, June 21, 2006. Hawlati, Aug. 23, 2006. Kamal Mirawdali, "Civil Society and the State: The Case of British Voluntary Sector," KurdishMedia, May 28, 2006. Kyle Madigan, "Iraq: Corruption Restricts Development in Iraqi Kurdistan," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Apr. 29, 2005. "Iraq: Journalists from Kurdish Weekly Face Arrest, Trial," news alert, Committee to Protect Journalists, May 2, 2006. Awene, Mar. 21, May 30, 2006. The Kurdish Globe (Erbil), Aug. 8, 2006. Los Angeles Times, Nov. 22, 2005. The Daily Star (Beirut), Nov. 18, 2005. Awene, Nov. 21, 2006. Hawlati, Sept. 6, 2006. Awene, Mar. 21, 28, 2006. Awene, Aug. 8, 2006. Awene, Oct. 25, 2006. Awene, Nov. 14, 2006. Chako Rahimi interview, Awene, Oct. 17, 2006. Awene, July 11, 2006.