They're Mad as Hell in Kurdistan

Until the old man is out of the way, everyone else who hungers for power in Iraqi Kurdistan is on hold. It could be a long wait. Despite his chronic bad knee and a Mayo Clinic heart operation last August, 75-year-old Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president, is a survivor. At present, he and his longtime rival, Massoud Barzani (together with their families and their respective political machines), still control the largest part of what's worth controlling in the three northern Iraqi provinces that make up the autonomous region. Government ranks are filled with their relatives. Barzani himself is president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, while his nephew Nechirvan is its prime minister and his son Masrour is in charge of intelligence. Talabani's son Qubad is the Kurds' man in Washington, while a nephew heads counterintelligence. Backers once touted Kurdistan as the model for a democratic Iraq—perhaps even for a total makeover of the Middle East. But if anything, the place seems more and more like a stagnant, feudal principality.

Kurdistan used to be the Americans' favorite part of Iraq. Temperate and stable, pro-Western, mostly secular and gleefully capitalist, it was a haven from the chaos and bloodshed that engulfed the rest of the country. It was never perfect—then as now, corruption was endemic, human rights were patchy and civic life was dominated by the same two parties: Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Still, most Kurds could live with the flaws as long as the regional government defended their hard-won autonomy and kept away the suicide bombers.

But as the rest of Iraq keeps growing more open and democratic, the enclave remains stuck in its old ways—and ordinary Kurds are noticing. Businessmen grumble at having to form partnerships with government cronies; voters are demanding more choice. One recent survey in the region found that 83 percent of respondents say the place needs to change. "We're fed up with a government that forgets about people," says Mousa Rasoul, 39, owner of a small business in the town of Sangasar. Those complaints are not to be ignored, a senior Kurdish official agrees. "If we don't respond, others will come and take over this place," he tells NEWSWEEK, asking not to be named on such a risky topic. "Whether it is the Islamists or someone else. We cannot count anymore on revolutionary rhetoric to justify our rule."

Such warnings may be wasted on Kurdistan's two great clans. Talabani created the PUK in 1975 as a leftist challenger to the "feudalist, tribalist, bourgeois, rightist and capitulationist" KDP of the Barzani family. Thousands on both sides are said to have died before the two parties signed a formal ceasefire in 1998 and carved up the region. They gave up their ideological differences long ago, and neither hides its desire for a piece of any action in sight—starting with the region's share of the national budget, which totaled about $6 billion last year. Kurdish officials say each of the two parties takes as much as $35 million per month off the top, although party leaders deny any knowledge of such sums.

Even the Kurdish budget is undisclosed. "We need a transparent [regional] budget," complains the senior Kurdish official. The vast majority of Kurds agree. In a February poll by the Erbil-based Kurdistan Institute for Political Issues, 94 percent of respondents said the regional government ought to make its budget public and specify where and how the money is spent.

Much has been made of Kurdistan's booming economy, but the region is littered with unfinished construction projects. Most foreign investors, daunted by red tape and confusion, are skittish. A former member of the PUK politburo says no oil company operates in Kurdistan without paying commissions to party or regional-government officials. NEWSWEEK was at a recent meeting where one local entrepreneur complained to top Kurdish officials that businessmen have to pay millions to party bureaucrats to win contracts. The officials commiserated.

But neither party tolerates criticism especially well. Local journalists tell of beatings, death threats, even charges of treason. Dissidents are subject to far rougher treatment. "There have been widespread and credible allegations of torture and people being detained for years without a hint of due process," says Joseph Logan of Human Rights Watch. The U.S. State Department's latest Human Rights Report describes abusive practices in the regional government's jails, including electric shocks, beatings and "suspensions in stress positions."

Masrour Barzani says he's doing his best as intelligence and security chief to correct any problems in his jails. The idea, he says, is to build "a more world-standard institution that would be strong enough both to withstand challenges and at the same time be very modern and civilized in terms of protection of citizens and in terms of conduct of duty." Logan credits Masrour Barzani with giving good access to Human Rights Watch investigators, but he adds: "There's well-documented harassment of journalists who have expressed views critical of the political leadership. If the response to pointed criticism is to go after the critics … then you can say that experiment [with openness] has not come to fruition."

Kurds hate seeing their political system falling behind that of other Iraqis. Across Iraq a January vote for provincial councils was an impressive show of wide-open democracy, in which several incumbents were tossed out of office. By contrast, the Kurds have yet to hold their own provincial elections, and the PUK and KDP have signaled their intent to field a joint "closed" list. Instead of offering a real choice, ballots will present a slate of candidates drawn from both dominant parties.

Officials from those parties insist their leaders are receptive to opposing views. "Jalal Talabani has been more willing than many others to listen and change," says a senior PUK official. The party has promised it will work toward more transparency and less control. A KDP Central Committee member says his party is also working toward opening up: "Massoud Barzani wants to be seen more as the president of Kurdistan than as carrying on the party agenda," he says. Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and a longtime supporter of Kurdistan, argues that conditions are improving there. "I think there has been a lot of progress," he says, although he concedes: "Periodically, there are things that one doesn't like to see." A Western defender of the Kurds, asking not to be named on such a sensitive topic, says Kurdistan's people have their own priorities. "The national issue is so important to Kurds that other issues, like democratization, take a back seat," he says.

Not all Kurds agree—and they say the parties need to start cleaning up fast. "You simply cannot go on justifying your rule based on what you did 20 years ago," says the senior Kurdish official. "We can either be a party of the past and end up like Fatah in Palestine, or regenerate ourselves like the Labour Party in the U.K." The time to decide is running out.