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.”