- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

IRBIL, Iraq — A two-year dispute has left Iraqi Kurds still unable to make phone calls from one part of their region to another, casting doubts on their claim to serve as a model for a new democratic Iraq.

Younan Hozaya says that if he wants to get a message to Iraqi Kurdistan’s second-largest city, Sulaimaniyah, he calls colleagues in Washington and asks them to pass it along.

“We’re part of Iraq, but Iraq might as well be another country,” said the Irbil-based energy minister for one of two political parties that have controlled Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991.

The dispute began in October 2003, when the Coalition Provisional Authority authorized three consortiums to set up mobile phone networks. It gave the license for the north to Asia Cell, a company based in Sulaimaniyah.

Two years later, its network stretches westward across Arab-speaking northern Iraq as far as the Syrian border. But in the Kurdish provinces of Irbil and Dohuk, Asia Cell phones still are useless.

Twice, the company has set up transmission towers in Irbil, and twice, the local authorities have closed them down — the second time last month.

“Asia Cell does not have a proper license from our ministry,” said Irbil’s Deputy Communications Minister Rashad Hama Amin.

Few thinks it’s as simple as that. Since long before the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, telecommunications in this half of Iraqi Kurdistan have been run by Irbil-based Korek Telecom Ltd.

The monopoly is highly lucrative. With 400,000 subscribers paying $100 a year, Korek is thought to have annual revenues of about $40 million.

Asia Cell’s earnings, meanwhile, have increased tenfold since 2003 to $100 million.

For months, Korek was demanding up to 25 percent of Asia Cell’s future profits in exchange for allowing competition to start, according to sources involved in negotiations between the two companies.

But, one Asia Cell official said, “If the only problem here was money, we could have reached an agreement.”

He sees the dispute as the latest manifestation of a bitter rivalry between the region’s two parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The rivalry exploded into civil war from 1993 to 1998, splitting Iraqi Kurdistan into two party-controlled zones.

Party officials say the fighting is a thing of past. Today’s catchword is reconciliation, symbolized by the Kurdistan federal parliament, which reopened this year for the first time in a decade.

But many Kurds see the telephone dispute as evidence that the war of guns has been replaced by a war of bank balances.

The chairman of Korek is Sirwan Mustafa, a nephew of KDP leader Massoud Barzani. And although Asia Cell insists that it is politically independent, rumors abound in Sulaimaniyah that its original financing came from PUK leader Jalal Talabani.

“The disagreement is primarily about money,” said Assos Herdi, editor of Iraqi Kurdistan’s only independent newspaper. “But money equals politics here, because here there is no state to control finances — only the parties.”

Kurds have long tolerated nepotism and official corruption, with many relying on the two parties for their jobs. But there is growing anger that the benefits of a postwar economic boom have not reached the general public.

In September, the impoverished eastern town of Kalar was the scene of unprecedented street protests over a lack of water, electricity and gasoline. About 20 marchers were wounded when Kurdish security forces opened fire.

The politicians “tell us they have got us what we were asking for, a Kurdish ethnic federation,”said Irbil-based communications expert Nawzad Ismail.

“It’s a strange federation where half the people are uncontactable by phone.”

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