[Marxism] Trouble in Kurdistan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 19 07:15:23 MST 2006

Friday, Mar. 17, 2006
Trouble in Kurdistan
Long the example of how a prosperous Iraq might look, the northern region's 
ugly side comes to the fore in a series of violent outbursts

Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq, is 
less than an hour’s flight from Baghdad but almost a world away. While the 
insurgent-plagued airport road in Baghdad is known as the “Highway of 
Death,” the road from the newly opened Erbil International Airport, plagued 
by nothing more dangerous than cyclists in spandex, wends through 
construction for a real estate development called “Dream City,” a planned 
community of several hundred California-style detached single-family homes, 
a supermarket and an American school. Fueled by oil wealth from rich fields 
in the region, Kurdistan has all the appearance of a budding market 
economy, with many of the appurtenances of Western capitalism.

But the safety and progress in northern Iraq has come at a cost — and the 
Kurdish government may be paying for it now. While the Kurdistan Regional 
Government has a parliament and a president, the administration of 
Kurdistan is carved up between two rival political parties the Kurdish 
Democratic Party (KDP) in Erbil and the adjoining Dohuk governorates, and 
the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Suleymania Governorate. The two 
parties monopolize power in their respective territories and their despotic 
tendencies threaten civil liberties and the fledgling democratic process, 
creating an environment that is rife with corruption and repression. 
Frustration at this dual monopoly appear to have been behind a violent 
outburst yesterday at Halabja, the town on which Saddam Hussein inflicted a 
barbaric chemical attack in 1988, killing 5,000. It was the anniversary of 
the atrocity, and the mob destroyed the government-sanctioned shrine to the 
victims of the attack.

< This week’s violence followed an incident last December, when hundreds of 
rioters raided and burned the Dohuk offices of the Kurdish Islamic Union 
(KIU), the country’s largest opposition group, murdering four KIU 
officials. Mobs also attacked KIU offices in four other cities. The attacks 
came after the KIU decided to withdraw from the united Kurdish electoral 
list and contest the elections on its own. The KDP, which governs Dohuk, 
has denied involvement in the riot, even though the security services 
allowed them to happen and made no arrests.

While the KIU played a role in inflaming political debate ahead of the 
election by accusing their rivals of being American and Israeli stooges, 
the incident reflected the fact that the KDP and PUK rule Kurdistan in part 
by force and fear.

Police State
Kurdistan is a veritable police state, where the Asayeesh — the military 
security — has a house in each neighborhood of the major cities, and where 
the Parastin “secret police” monitors phone conversations and keeps tabs on 
who attends Friday prayers. While these security measures are an important 
part of why Kurdistan has largely kept jihadi and resistance cells from 
forming within its borders, security measures are often used by the ruling 
parties as an excuse to crack down on opponents and independent civil 
organizations, according to these groups. “Our members are regularly thrown 
in jail for seven or eight months at a time without cause,” said Hadi Ali, 
the Minister of Justice, the token KIU minister in the KDP-dominated Erbil 
administration. “When they get out I tell them that they are lucky to be 
alive and to keep quiet.”

The KDP and PUK each have their own militias, which are essentially the 
armies of the local governments. According to the Minister of Justice, the 
courts in the region are almost completely politicized, with judges often 
rubber-stamping party decisions. The secret police even have their own 
judges, he said. During each of Iraq’s three elections in the past year, 
police officers openly campaigned for the ruling parties. Schools, 
hospitals and other government building carry portraits of the respective 
party leaders, and access to education, jobs and career advancement is 
often determined by party affiliation. Demonstrations are banned unless 
they are party-sponsored. “Kurdistan isn’t a civil society, it’s a partisan 
society,” says Rebwar Ali, head of the Kurdistan Student’s Development 
Organization. “The presidents of the universities, the university council, 
the deans and the heads of the departments should all be members of one of 
the main parties, KDP or PUK. Admissions aren’t based on merit, they are 
based of membership in one of the two parties. Scholarships are only for 
party members.” Big business contracts depend on connections and political 
affiliations as well, leading to a pandemic of corruption, according to 
Kurdish businessmen and anti-corruption groups.

The KDP and PUK do include some smaller parties in their governing 
coalitions and on their electoral lists, especially those composed of 
ethnic and religious minorities, such as Assyrians Christians and Turkomen. 
But established opposition parties say that these small parties have either 
been bought off or wholly invented by the ruling parties, in order to give 
the appearance of diversity and broad support. “It’s the old Middle Eastern 
mentality — that it’s not enough just to win an election, they want to win 
by 99%,” says Salim Kako, an official with the Assyrian Democratic Party. 
“Everyone has to agree. You are not allowed to have your own opinion.”

A Hundred Small Saddams
Sunni-dominated Kurdistan is a tolerant refuge for religious minorities, 
who are free to worship as they please, these groups say. But the ruling 
parties keep tight rein over the Muslim religious establishment through the 
Ministry of Awqaf, an institution that was created by Iraq’s British 
overlords in the 1920s to control mosques, mullahs and what gets said in 
Friday sermons. The Baathists maintained the Awqaf as a useful tool of 
coercion, but it was disbanded by the American-appointed Governing Council 
in 2003 and forbidden by Iraq’s new constitution. Yet Ministries of Awqaf 
still exist in Kurdistan, and are still used to enforce political 
orthodoxy. “Instead of one big Saddam, we have a hundred small Saddams in 
Kurdistan,” says mullah Ahmed Wahab, a member of the Iraqi parliament for 
the KIU and the head cleric of mosque in Erbil until he was fired by the 
Erbil Awqaf on the pretext that he held two jobs.

The media in Kurdistan is extremely partisan and prone to propaganda. There 
are no independent television stations in the region, and the future is 
grim for independent radio news, according to Kurda Jamal, head of 
US-funded Radio Nawa. “Kurdistan isn’t suitable ground for a free media,” 
he said. “If America wasn’t here and if America wasn’t funding us, the 
parties would move to shut us down.”

The lack of protection for free speech and the politicization of the 
security services and judiciary in Kurdistan were made apparent by the case 
of Dr. Kamal Said Qadir, a jailed law professor and journalist. Dr. Kamal, 
who is also an Austrian citizen, criticized Masoud Barzani, who is both the 
President of Iraqi Kurdistan and the head of the KDP, and other members of 
the Barzani family, calling them “traitors to the Kurdish issue” in 
articles published on an opposition website run by Kurdish expatriates. 
When Dr. Kamal returned to Erbil last October, he was arrested and tried in 
secret. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for threatening the security 
of Kurdistan.

Dr. Kamal’s sentence is likely to be drastically reduced after appeal. In 
an interview, Barzani to TIME that the laws under which he was charged need 
to be changed. Says Barzani: “Although he has been very aggressive and 
libelous against me personally I have forgiven him personally for what he 
has written about me and ask other people whom he has been writing against 
to forgive him as well.” Still, the treatment given to Dr. Kamal sent a 
clear signal to journalists and government critics. “There are red lines 
that you cannot cross,” said Saman Fawzi Omer, a professor of law at 
Sulymania University. “You cannot criticize the leading members of the PUK 
and KDP or this is what happens to you.” 

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