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Iraqi Kurdistan split by two rival administrations: Kurdish enclaves are both family affairs as KDP, PUK parties eye Turkish ambitions and US protection

Posted by gasweek on 15 September, 2007

Another huge problem for Iraqi Kurdistan is the fact that it has been run, since 1991, but two rival administrations, according to The Economist (8/9/2007, p. 48).

Barzani family, KDP rule west: In the provinces of Dohuk and Erbil, the Barzani family, which runs the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has called the shots for generations.

Jalal Talabani and PUK run eastern region: To the east, the province of Sulaymaniyah has been run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), run by Jalal Talabani; this too, has become something of a family affair.

Kurdish clans clash in civil war: In the last 1990s, the two outfits fought a vicious civil war, in which at least 3,000 people – some put the figure at more than 10,000 – were killed. To a large degree, the party and the union are tribal fiefs, with power, money and even land distributed from the top by the ruling families.

Top posts within region, and Iraq as a whole: When Talabani is currently president of federal Iraq, Massoud Barzani is president of Kurdistan; his nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is its prime minister; Massoud’s son, Masrur Barzani, heads the powerful intelligence service. At the end of the year, one of Talabani’s men is supposed to take over as Kurdistan’s prime minister. No one is sure whether that will happen smoothly.

Inside Iraqi Kurdistan: no paradise: Moreover, the notion that Iraqi Kurdistan is a haven of democracy is far-fetched. The two fiefs control virtually all public activity, including the media, hitherto with remarkably little scrutiny; outright opposition has invariably been squeezed out, often amid accusations of betraying the sacred cause of Kurdistan. Patronage – some call it corruption – is the norm.

Islamists, free media chip away at duopoly: The Islamists, with a reputation for honesty, are the third force, a small for now, but waiting in the wings. If Kurdistan is to thrive, its own politics must loosen up and become more open, if not a Western-style free-for-all. Two small but plucky opposition newspapers give an airing to the peccadillos of the party duopoly. And even some of the party-owned media outlets – for instance, Kurdsat TV, owned and run by Talabani’s modernising wife, Herro – occassionally broach topics that were once taboo. Especially compared with the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has been making strides on every front. But this does not mean it will survive as a fledging nation.

Mountain people eye nervous neighbours: The Iraqi Kurds depend, in the end, on three main things: their hardened fighting men, known as the Peshmergas (“those willing to die”), technically a “regional protection force” within Iraq; their neighbours, especially the Turks; and the mountains (“the Kurds’ only friends”, as their centries old saying goes). The Kurds’ relations with their neighbours are just as critical.

Turkish interests in northern Iraq: Turkey, with its 14m-odd Kurds of its own (many of them well assimilated) in a population of 75m, has frequently issued threats to invade Iraqi Kurdistan and clobber its Kurds if they make a grab for Kirkuk, where Turkey considers itself the guarantor of the rights of the Turkmens, their ethnic kinsfolk from the days when the area was part of the Ottoman empire. It also threatens to invade if Iraq’s Kurds do not oust or corral the 3,000-plus guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who hide in the remotest mountains of northern Iraq, where they plan and train for their lethal operations in south-eastern Turkey.

Turkey-Iraqi Kurdistan deal on the horizon? Erbil’s huge new airport, for instance, is a Turkish (and British) project. If Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan could come to an accommodation, which looks more feasible than before, it would vastly boost the chances of the latter’s survival.

Arab-Kurdish tensions remain: “The chauvinist Arabs always call us a second Israel,” says Mr Jafar, the Peshmerga leader. He denies that Israel and the Kurds have military or intelligence contacts. “I wish we did,” he said breezily.

Kurds eager for US links: Kurdish leaders are as candid about their desire for the Americans to stay on in Iraq or, if they are bound to withdraw, to keep a military base in Iraqi Kurdistan as a guarantor of the Kurd’s national safety. “We’d like the Americans to put their biggest bast in Kurdistan,” said Jafar. But the Americans have so far been wary of too warmly embracing the Kurds, concentrating instead on trying to reconcile Sunni and Shia Arabs in Baghdad. “We love the Americans but they don’t love us,” Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdish prime minister, is said recently to have sighed.

The Economist, 8/9/2007, p. 48

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