The Question of Kurdistan
Iraq might be an "invented" nation made from three former Ottoman provinces, or vilayets, but geography and infrastructure have given that invention considerable economic and physical coherence. Consider the basic contours of trade: Most commodities consumed in Kurdistan are imported, and 70 percent of those arrive via the ports in Aqaba, Jordan, and Basra. Despite the war these goods are shipped by truck along the California-style highways of central and southern Iraq. Kurdish road-links to Iran and Turkey are simply too underdeveloped and clotted by tax-levying militias, mountains and hostile customs officials to reverse this pattern.
Kurdistan is also culturally linked to Iraq by its Turkmen, Assyrian and Arab communities. As one Turkmen activist put it: "We are the cement that holds the pieces together because our people are spread all across Iraq."
Back in Erbil the borderland tensions seem far away. Secret police and uniformed peshmerga keep the peace while oil money inflates the economy. Occasionally there are security glitches: The head of the counterterrorism unit in Erbil, Sheikh Zana, for example, was arrested in early summer and revealed to be the head of an Islamic terrorist cell engaged in kidnapping and murder.
More typically, political life in Kurdistan is about power, patronage and corruption. Two secular nationalist parties rule Kurdistan: The western half of the region is controlled by the older, more conservative Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), run by Massoud Barzani, who inherited the party from his father and now monopolizes its key functions with his many Barzani clansmen. In the east the newer, formerly socialist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani is in charge. The PUK is the more secular and less clan-oriented of the two, but both groups draw on family and tribal ties and neither has a coherent ideology. A smattering of Islamic, leftist and minority ethnic parties also hold some seats in local and regional government.
From 1994 to 1999 the tension between the KDP and PUK erupted into fratricidal civil war. At its peak, Barzani even brought in Saddam Hussein's troops to overrun Talabani's PUK stronghold in Sulaimaniya. The war left rank-and-file Kurds deeply cynical about Kurdish leadership and organized politics in general.
Now all the important things in Kurdistan come in twos--one for each party. Each party has its own regional Cabinet. All ministries are duplicated. There are two incompatible cell phone systems. Two sets of TV and radio stations, two party-controlled universities. Barzani heads the regional government, while Talabani takes the largely ceremonial post of Iraqi president in Baghdad.
What the parties do share with each other and most of the Iraqi political class is a culture of corruption. As in the rest of Iraq, oil money flows easily while bookkeeping is minimal: According to various audits, between $5 billion and $12 billion in oil revenue has simply gone missing from state coffers. No one really knows how much has been stolen in Kurdistan. But the signs of graft are everywhere.