- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006


For centuries, the mountains were the Kurds’ only friend, as their saying goes. They endured the repression of stronger neighbors and saw their landcarved up and made parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Now, in an ironic twist, Iraqi Kurds have emerged as the power brokers holding one of those countries together.

The leaders of the two main Kurdish political parties in Iraq, dismissed not that long ago as mere warlords, are courted by the Americans, and they have been key mediators between bickering Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim Arabs in negotiations to form a coalition government.

Yet Iraqi Kurdish leaders don’t enjoy that same respect among their own people. Kurds are complaining about the economy and corruption. They wonder whether deep divisions among their people can be bridged.

Kurdish disconnect

It’s not even possible to make a telephone call between Irbil and Sulaymaniyah — cities 95 miles apart that are the capitals of the two rival Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq. Differing dialects separate Kurds across the region, making it difficult to have a unified school curriculum.

But politicians are upbeat. They say the amalgamation this year of the administrations of the two major parties — Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — will bring the two Kurdish regions closer.

“It’s the best time for Kurds since the First World War,” said Adnan Mufti, speaker of the Kurdistan regional parliament.

Many people are skeptical.

Kurds have a reputation of being master politicians but terrible administrators, and corruption is widespread in the region. That has many complaining that the union of the Kurdistan administrations will mainly protect powerful financial interests.

“It’s a unity between the leaders of the two parties to preserve the status quo,” said Sardar Mohammed, an elementary school teacher in Sulaymaniyah.

Growth at a price

Kurdistan has flourished in many ways since it came under U.S.-British protection in 1991 to stop a brutal crackdown by dictator Saddam Hussein’s army after the Persian Gulf War.

In contrast to the rest of Iraq, hotels, offices, houses and apartment buildings are going up at a frenzied pace. Irbil and Sulaymaniyah both boast new airports.

Kurds, who are ethnically distinct from Iraq’s majority Arabs, are returning from exile. Even Arabs are moving in, many of them professionals seeking escape from the violence and crime that afflict many parts of the south.

Still, roads and basic services are poor. Not all Kurds feel they will get a fair share of the new wealth from northern Iraq’s oil fields and other businesses. On the outskirts of Irbil, people live without running water or electricity.

Critics say party membership is the only way for advancement in Kurdistan. Voicing dissent in KDP-controlled territory — especially against party leaders or their relatives — can be risky.

Business and commerce don’t conform to international standards. Politicians have profited immensely from lucrative business deals, and ordinary Kurds say they have to bribe officials if they want to start a business venture. Business is further complicated by tribal ties.

“It’s difficult to do business if you don’t have ties with the two big parties,” said Mr. Mohammed, the schoolteacher.

Mr. Mufti, the Kurdish parliament speaker, said it has been difficult to clamp down on corruption with the region divided into parallel bureaucracies. Someone in trouble in one part of Kurdistan can simply take refuge in the other province.

Also, Mr. Mufti said, Saddam’s ouster in March 2003 kept Kurdish leaders preoccupied with more immediate problems, such as addressing terrorism, holding elections, dealing with Baghdad and forging federalism in the new Iraqi constitution.

He insists that the Kurdish parliament will establish strict guidelines and closely watch government departments to rein in corruption.

Bridging the gap

But distrust persists between the two major parties. Four sensitive ministries will remain outside the united administration — the peshmerga militia, which will be under KDP control; the Interior Ministry and its security forces, under PUK command; the finance ministry, KDP; and the justice ministry, PUK.

The peshmerga and the Interior Ministry forces are thought to be most difficult to merge. Both the KDP and PUK have their own experienced, battle-tested militiamen whose loyalties lie with the party leaders.

Critics also worry about the size of the new united government, which will have 27 ministries for a small region with a population of just 5 million. They say that is a sign of the continued efforts by the two parties to exert their domination.

Observers say the question of the northern oil city of Kirkuk, which Kurds insist should return to Kurdistan, gave urgency to the decision to unite the two administrations. The Iraqi constitution ratified last fall stipulates that Kirkuk’s status must be resolved by the end of 2007, and the Kurds want a strong common front in the negotiations.

Power brokers

It is the Kurds’ experience in diplomacy that has found them friends among former foes and international heavyweights.

“Kurds are willing to work with anyone who respects their position — and now almost everyone does,” said Harry Schute, an adviser to the Irbil prime minister’s office.

Indeed, the Kurds have gained tremendous influence in Baghdad, so much that U.S. officials seek their help on a variety of problems. During last year’s prolonged debate to draft the constitution, a lot of the negotiations took place at the Baghdad house of Mr. Barzani, the KDP leader.

Last spring, Condoleezza Rice made Kurdistan her first stop on her first visit to Iraq as U.S. secretary of state. She asked Mr. Barzani to accompany her to Baghdad to mediate between bickering Sunnis and Shi’ites as they tried to form a transitional coalition government.

Last month, ambassadors of the United States, Britain, France and China witnessed the endorsement by the Kurdistan parliament of the union between the two Kurdish administrations.

“This meant a great deal to us. It shows we have international support,” said Kamal Kerkuki, deputy speaker of Kurdistan’s parliament.

Eye to independence

For now, Kurds are prepared to see how they will benefit from a federal Iraq. But their real aspiration is independence. Last year, about 2 million Kurds signed an unofficial petition demanding full independence rather than reconciliation with Arab Iraq.

But Kurdish politicians are well aware that their U.S. allies will not back independence, mainly because neighboring Turkey wouldn’t stand for it, fearing it could inspire its own Kurdish population. And Iraq’s Kurds also have close business ties with Turkey.

Iran and Syria, which have Kurdish populations, would also oppose Iraqi Kurds going it alone.

“The Kurds are walking a very tight rope because the majority of the people want independence, and neighbors and friends are saying ‘no,’” Mr. Schute said. “They have to make both sides happy.”

Even though they don’t say it, Kurds have many of the trappings of independence.

Throughout Kurdistan, especially in KDP-controlled regions of Irbil and Dohuk, Iraqi flags are conspicuously absent. Instead, flags of the political parties and the Kurdistan Regional Government fly atop government buildings and military installations.

Kurds associate the Iraqi flag with tanks flying the banner as they leveled villages during Saddam’s ethnic-cleansing campaigns.

Despite the division of their land among four countries, Kurds have persevered as a distinct people and culture. Their language differs from Arabic, a tongue that is alien to most Kurdish youngsters.

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