As shocking as it was to witness, Nariman Ali wasn't surprised when a mob of his fellow Kurds ransacked and burned the paramount emblem of their people's suffering—the memorial to the more than 5,000 victims of Saddam Hussein's 1988 chemical attack on Halabja. A year and a half later, the building is still a haunting, smoke-stained shell. Mannequins representing the fallen victims lie broken and limbless. The glass panes that once protected walls bearing names of the dead have been shattered. But Ali, 27, whose brother and father died from the gas and who now translates for visiting dignitaries, is in no hurry to fix the place up. "They must [only] rebuild the memorial after they rebuild the city," Ali says.
Last year's rioters accused Kurdish leaders of exploiting the monument for photo ops but failing to address or even visit Halabja itself, a nearby city of about 60,000 people. Chastened by the outburst, the Kurdish government now plays catch-up with a flurry of road, sewage and housing projects. But distrust runs deep and the monument, so central in presenting the Kurdish case to the world, has become an accidental symbol of Kurds' outrage at their own leaders. "If the government doesn't meet the needs of the people, it will happen again," warns Kamran Ahmed, a student activist who saw the riot and arson. "It's OK with people if they get rid of it completely."
It's not just the Kurds of Halabja who are angry. A poll released last month for ABC, the BBC and Japanese network NHK reported a steep increase in Kurdish pessimism. The share of Kurds saying their lives were good dropped from 68 percent in March to 49 percent in October, while those who thought their children would have a worse life than they did rose from 22 percent to 46 percent.
The sentiment can seem paradoxical considering conditions in the semi-autonomous Kurdish north of Iraq. Life for the 4 million Kurds there is probably better than it has been in decades and certainly better than that of their countrymen. The region has been free from the violence that has gripped the rest of Iraq. Kurds and foreigners alike can walk the streets free from bombings or kidnappings. A building spree has thrown up dozens of flashy new glass-fronted hotels, hospitals, offices and homes. Unemployment stands at around 10 percent, compared to rates higher than 50 percent in other parts of the country. For the most part, Kurds are free to speak their minds.
But many Kurds sharply deny that their land is a success story. They complain of dirty water and poor electricity, of cronyism and a lack of real political options. They warn of a growing gap between the poor and the politically connected rich. While the Kurdish region receives 17 percent of Iraq's revenue—about $4.7 billion this year—Kurds accuse their leaders of blowing the money on do-nothing jobs for party faithful. Inflation runs about 30 percent a year, says Muhemmad Raouf, an economics professor at Sulaimaniya University, as refugees and contractors have driven up the price of housing. Entrepreneurs complain of being shaken down by party operatives, who threaten to hold up business permits unless they're made partners. Mostly, people grouse that there are elections but no real choice between the two monster parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which manage their own business conglomerates and omnipresent security services.
The two parties, perhaps America's biggest allies in Iraq, no longer jail journalists but the threat remains. Last year an editor received a six-month suspended sentence when his newspaper wrote that a top PUK official, who hadn't paid his bills, had ordered two communications workers fired for cutting his phone service. A Halabja reporter was detained overnight in July for writing about favoritism in the sales of city land. That same month Human Rights Watch released a report detailing widespread abuses in Kurdish prisons.
Political leaders recognize that dissatisfaction is at a high. "The needs of the people are so obvious but the question is whether there is any will to solve the problems," says Dr. Fouad Baban, a member of the Kurdish regional parliament from the PUK party that dominates eastern Kurdistan. "We have to really change." Dana Ahmed Majeed, the PUK governor of the Sulaimaniya province that includes Halabja, says Kurdistan is passing through a tough stage between liberation and democracy. But Kurds doubt their leaders will ever loosen their grip on power.
Everyone agrees the discontent is most acute among younger Kurds, who don't remember Saddam's oppression and are unimpressed with tales of their forebears fighting in the mountains. "This has nothing to do with the past. In every age people have their own demands," says Kamal Abdul Rahman, 26. Some of those demands are self-indulgent: for the last two months a group of students has staged a tent vigil in a Sulaimaniya park, asking for rent subsidies, money for couples to get married, jobs for everyone. But it's true that opportunities for young Kurds have not caught up with their ambitions. Party connections are required to land a good job or, in some cases, to get into graduate school. Many middle-class Kurds are leaving the country for work.
In Halabja, there is a plan to rebuild the memorial with a library and Internet center for young people. Workers are laying down new sidewalks, as well as the foundations on hundreds of low-income homes. "People are unsatisfied still but not like before," says Mudrik Hama Amin, a local student, as he showed an Iranian Kurdish cousin the cemetery for the gas victims. Still, he thinks the museum should be moved from Halabja's outskirts to downtown. That way, VIPs wouldn't be able to ignore today's Kurds while they pay homage to yesterday's.