While change has swept most of Iraq since the United States and Britain toppled Saddam Hussein, in the far north of the country things are going pretty much as before. Men in baggy Kurdish pants sell fine cloth and live chickens in the market, and children and teenagers go to the amusement park in the evenings. There are no protests, no looting, and people are free to denounce Hussein. Since the first Gulf War, the Kurds in the north have operated an autonomous zone that has nearly no contact with the rest of Iraq. It has its own flag, army and parliament, and uses the old Iraqi dinars–the ones without Saddam Hussein’s face. So the signs of change in Erbil, the main city of the north, are few: Arabs from formerly government-controlled areas buy satellite dishes and set up Hotmail accounts in the city’s many Internet cafes; entrepreneurs hawk US Army Humanitarian Daily Rations in the street; US soldiers buy Pringles and Kurdish-English dictionaries.

The air of normalcy is deceptive, though. For the past twelve years Kurdistan has been governed by two militias posing as political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the western half, including Erbil; and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which rules the eastern part from its capital of Sulaimaniya. The two parties like to tout their democratic credentials–a parliament, a free press. Spend much time here, however, and you see that the appearance of democracy is just that, a facade. The few people in Kurdistan who are ignoring that fact seem to be the Americans now in charge. For years they have promoted the breakaway region as an example of what a democratic Iraq could look like, and now they are strengthening their cozy relationship with the KDP and PUK. It’s a development that deeply disappoints many Kurds, and should make other Iraqis wonder if the United States is truly interested in building a democratic Iraq or merely a pro-American one.

The KDP and PUK began as guerrilla movements; when the Iraqi government withdrew from the north in 1991 they assumed control. They organized elections in 1992 and tried to share power but couldn’t agree on how to split hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues from oil smuggling from Iraq to Turkey. That led to a four-year civil war, which ended with the two parties simply splitting the territory. There haven’t been any more Kurdistanwide elections, though both halves have had one municipal election each. The Parliament, which is supposed to represent both, only reconvened last fall, and has done little but pass resolutions. “Now what you have is a one-party system here and a one-party system in Sulaimaniya,” says Hussain Sinjari, a former PUK minister of municipalities who quit in protest, he says, over the KDP-PUK infighting. He now heads the Iraq Institute for Democracy, a non-profit funded in part by the National Endowment for Democracy; the institute holds seminars on democracy for young people and runs a polling agency and two newspapers.

Newsstands in Kurdistan hold dozens of newspapers in several languages. But look closely at the headlines and you see there’s not a lot of unbiased information or lively debate. A recent copy of one major Erbil-based paper, Khabat, featured headlines like “The Time of Calling Kurdish People Second-Class Citizens Has Passed” and “Since the First Day of Liberation of Kirkuk, the Regional Government of Kurdistan Is Providing for the Needs of Kirkuk Hospital.” The one exception is Hawlati, a weekly newspaper based in Sulaimaniya. Journalists for the paper have been jailed on three occasions in the past two years for writing things the government didn’t like, such as a story on drug trafficking. On several other occasions journalists have been called into government offices or had their phones or electricity cut off. “This is because we’re the only independent newspaper in Kurdistan,” says Rabin Rasul Ismail, who works in the paper’s Erbil bureau. “The most sensitive subject is corruption and embezzlement.”

As with media, the case with civil society is deceptive. Drive around Erbil and you see dozens of organizations that officials like to show off as evidence of the thriving NGO sector. But again, all are controlled by the party. “You can see these organizations–the Kurdistan Doctors’ Union, Lawyers’ Union, Women’s Union and so on. They are all from the KDP,” Sinjari says. “They make these institutions to increase their power, just to create jobs for their followers.”

The two major parties also have been accused of frequent human rights violations over the past twelve years, mainly arbitrary arrests of, and attacks on, political opponents. Islamist, Turkish and Assyrian Christian parties all say they have suffered abuses at the hands of the KDP and PUK. The most recent Human Rights Watch report on Kurdistan detailed arbitrary arrests and detentions of political opponents. Still, it was a marked im-provement over the mid-1990s, when the two parties were regularly cited for “a wide array of abuses,” including extrajudicial executions of political rivals.

One businessman in Erbil, who spent time in prison because of some connections with the rival PUK, claims, “People here have been disappeared, maybe hundreds of people, but we don’t know because nobody speaks of it.” A recent college graduate, who didn’t want to give his name, says that people are afraid to voice their complaints to a foreigner. “Among ourselves, yes, but to foreigners we’re supposed to give a good impression, that we’re democratic and free.” Public-sector jobs–which in Kurdistan are almost the only jobs that exist–are open only to party members, according to the graduate. “In this country party affiliation comes first. If you’re not in the party, you can’t do anything,” he said. “The KDP, PUK and the Baath Party are all the same.” It’s a re-frain that is common here, if somewhat of an exaggeration.

But it’s not a view the Americans operating in Iraq share. The most high-profile American visitor to postwar Kurdistan, Jay Garner, repeatedly referred to Kurdistan as democratic and said it could be a model for the rest of Iraq. The US military, those connected with the Pentagon-based reconstruction effort and their State Department advisers are all working closely with the KDP and PUK. They say the ultimate fate of the structures in Kurdistan will be up to the Iraqi people, but privately say they have no problem with maintaining the status quo. One concrete sign of this was seen recently when US administrators in Iraq issued a directive disarming all the former opposition groups–except the KDP and the PUK.

This support is a payback to the KDP and PUK for the key logistical support they provided during the invasion of Iraq. After the US failure to secure rights to transport troops through Turkey, Washington turned to using small teams of special forces soldiers backed up with KDP and PUK militias, or peshmerga, they took under their command. When the peshmerga entered the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul they moved to take power. In Kirkuk, in particular, the PUK largely took over administration of the city with apparent American blessing, antagonizing the city’s significant Arab and Turkish minorities. Now the Americans’ northern reconstruction effort relies heavily on Kurdish manpower and logistical support supplied by the KDP and PUK. The first northern office of the Office of Humanitarian Assistance and Reconstruction was previously a luxury KDP guesthouse in what must be Iraq’s only gated community.

The most striking thing about Kurdistan, and probably the major reason the US government likes to say that it is democratic, is how much its people love America. Mustafa Barzani, a great Iraqi Kurdish hero and father of current KDP leader Massoud Barzani, once suggested that Kurdistan become the fifty-first state. After US planes accidentally bombed a convoy of Kurdish troops and US special forces near Erbil during the war, killing eighteen Kurds and wounding dozens, including the brother of the KDP president, the KDP called a press conference to say that the incident would not hurt the Kurds’ alliance with United States.

Even Sinjari, the former municipalities minister, wrote an editorial thanking America for liberating Iraq in a new newspaper he has started. But his love for America has its limits. “I’ve heard Bush and Rumsfeld talking about making Iraq a model for democracy in the Middle East, but if they’re talking about the Kurdish model, it’s a mockery,” he says. He adds, “I’m a Western-minded, liberal, pro-America person, but I’ll start to hate America if they support corrupt leaders like we have here.”