A Margin of Freedom

The border crossing that divides southeastern Turkey from northern Iraq, the home of Iraqi Kurdistan, is a lugubrious collection of block huts, vehicles, and roadblocks haphazardly situated amid pocked gravel and mud. I passed through this checkpoint, known as the Habur Gate, in mid-December, on my way to Iraqi Kurdistan. Interminable media coverage has pulped Iraq of its mystique, but the jadedness lifts as you draw close to it physically, and you want for something monumental to mark your passage into what was, until recently, taboo territory. Without much to engage the spirit on the ground, I tried to summon special feelings about the downy mountains just beyond the entry into Iraq, but they unanimously resembled the Turkish peaks behind me, so I gave up and drifted off to sleep.

A more bracing vision awaited me at a roadside restaurant on the Iraqi side where I stopped for dinner. Inside, in a wide room of unadorned concrete and low ceilings, I discovered a dozen turbaned Kurds arrayed in rapt attention around a tiny television broadcasting a Worldwide Wrestling Federation bout from the United States. They sprung from their chairs in disbelief when a real-life emissary from the land of the body slam walked through the door. I was feted with lamb, bean soup, pickled beets and cauliflower, and a viscous apricot stew. The entire contingent gathered by the door to wish a reluctant farewell when I had to leave.

Among ordinary Iraqi Kurds, reverence for America verges on fanaticism, thanks mostly to its removal of Saddam Hussein, who persecuted the inhabitants of northern Iraq for decades. They unhesitantly overlook America’s record of betrayals: In 1975, the United States, ostensibly a guarantor of Iranian support for the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, stood by as the Shah of Iran sold out the Kurds to Saddam; in 1988, Saddam’s forces exterminated more than one hundred thousand Kurds without serious rebuke from Washington; in 1991, the American government failed to support the Kurdish uprising against Saddam that it had instigated in the wake of the first Persian Gulf War, resulting in a massive counterattack by Saddam’s forces that killed fifty thousand Kurds.

This unlikely affection ranges from the comic and surreal to the poignant and impassioned. There are the bright golden arches of MaDonal, a McDonald’s knockoff that has imported the brand to the letter, a wheaty M prominently emblazoned on rooster-red vests. There is the American flag fluttering proudly and alone by the entrance, and the touching earnestness of owner Suleiman Kaki, who hopefully insists the U.S. Army will never leave Iraq. There are the widely sold posters that beatifically set an innocently glowing George Bush next to the sun disk at the center of the Kurdish flag. There are the participants in a demonstration who fall out of line to ask, “American?” and, after receiving affirmation, shout in rudimentary English: “Bush – number one! America – number one!”

In the two years since the Bush Administration began to make a case for war in Iraq, the American media has shown that the affinity is largely mutual. Editorials regularly justify Kurdish demands for extensive autonomy inside a federal Iraq as a compensation for decades of repression under Saddam. Others sanction it by celebrating the Kurds for “[overcoming] tribal differences to establish a working free-enterprise democracy in Iraq’s north, now a model of freedom for the rest of the country.” [1] Even as the Kurds once again blithely entrust their fate to the Americans, their American advocates – such as the Slate.com columnist Timothy Noah, who tracks U.S. policy toward the Kurds on the website’s “Kurd Sellout Watch” – vigilantly patrol for signs of treason.

In December, the enthusiasm of most ordinary Kurds for the United States derived in part from the expectation that the patron who removed Saddam would also reward them with the independence from Iraq they have sought since the country’s creation in 1920. As I traveled through Iraqi Kurdistan, however, the love affair seemed to be fraying for their political representatives on the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) in Baghdad and at home, who were beginning to realize that the patron intended no such thing.

On November 15, L. Paul Bremer III, the American civilian administrator of Iraq, concluded an agreement with the IGC that stipulated a timetable for the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi leadership by June 30, 2004. The document envisioned a federal Iraq administered on the basis of the eighteen “governorates,” or provinces, into which the country had been divided under Saddam. For the Kurdish leadership, which advocates far-reaching autonomy in northern Iraq, the term was a code word for the rapacious powers the central government exercised in Saddam-era Iraq. In the Kurdish view, the governorate system would have transferred responsibility for security, distribution of revenue, taxation, social services, and other administrative powers to the central government, rolling back the authority the Kurdish government had exercised over these areas since 1991, when Western governments created a quasi-independent “safe haven” in northern Iraq to protect Kurds from further reprisals by Saddam after the failed Kurdish uprising.

The disagreement between Kurdish politicians and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American-led civilian administration of Iraq, over the extent of Kurdish autonomy imperiled their relationship until its resolution, in March 2004, in the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), which will guide Iraq until elections take place and a new leadership creates a permanent constitution in 2005. The document preserves the Kurdish region’s degree of autonomy through the transitional period, deferring a permanent solution to a new Iraqi leadership.

But in December, the Kurdish political community – that is, all of Iraqi Kurdistan, as there is no aspect of life there that isn’t felt to be politicized – was piqued by the CPA’s demands. Instead of resentment toward American insensitivity to decades of Kurdish suffering, however, the political standoff more frequently occasioned criticism of the Kurdish leadership. Improbably, the November 15 agreement limiting Kurdish autonomy was signed during the month that Jalal Talabani, the secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish parties, held the rotating presidency of the IGC. Hagiographies of Kurdish governance in American newspapers notwithstanding, Kurds were unsurprised by what they saw as yet another instance of authoritarian conduct by a corrupt, unaccountable Kurdish leadership.


The Kurdish people of Iraq possess perhaps the most tormented history in the world. Though the Treaty of Sevres, which apportioned the Ottoman spoils of the First World War between the Great Powers in 1920, promised the Kurds an independent, if abbreviated state, the dream was annulled by a resurgent Turkey’s reclamation of most Kurdish areas in the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). Regular revolts by Kurdish fighters under Mustafa Barzani – the father of Massoud Barzani, the current president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the PUK’s counterpart in modern Kurdish politics – ended in eventual retreat to Iran and exile in the Soviet Union. (The KDP modeled itself on “Marxist-Leninist inspired” principles when it formed in 1946.)

Barzani resumed the struggle soon after returning to Iraq in 1958. In 1970, Baghdad proposed a peace plan meant to award considerable rights and autonomy to the Kurds, including representation in the central government, Kurdish administration in majority-Kurdish areas, and elevation of Kurdish to an official language. (It is this agreement that Kurdish politicians would summon in mock wistfulness when I asked about the CPA’s proposals. “Why would we accept less than what we had under Saddam?!” Pherda Thorane, a KDP political advisor, asked testily.)

But the Iraqi government had no intention of implementing the accord. Fighting started again in 1974, with Iran extending military and financial support to the Kurds until territorial concessions from Saddam persuaded the Shah otherwise. Devastated by the betrayal, Mustafa Barzani struggled to choose between a dishonorable retreat to Iran and renewing the conflict, which threatened to destroy the remaining Kurdish troops. He chose to retreat. Three hundred thousand Iraqi Kurds followed, but some couldn’t forgive Barzani’s decision. The PUK, led by the lawyer and intellectual Jalal Talabani, was created in 1976 in reaction to Barzani’s abdication and the power vacuum it created – though adhering to similarly socialist principles – stoking an antagonism that divides the KDP and PUK to this day.

The establishment of the “safe haven” in 1991 enabled the Kurdish leadership to form its own government. Parliamentary elections were held in May 1992, resulting in a National Assembly evenly divided between the PUK and KDP. The parliament would meet only until 1995, however. Economically blockaded by Baghdad and the international community, the PUK and KDP clashed over distribution of customs duties levied on border traffic with Turkey – a route controlled by the KDP. The government splintered, with the KDP establishing a coalition government in charge of the northwestern half of the region in Erbil, and the PUK its own administration in the southeastern part, its seat in Suleimaniya. [2] Both had their own prime ministers and cabinets. The civil war between the KDP and PUK that followed would last four years and leave three thousand dead. In one of the more ignominious episodes in a conflict marked by double-dealing and an almost comical rotation of Baghdad, Turkey, and Iran as patrons, the KDP invited the Iraqi army to invade PUK-held Erbil in August 1996, ostensibly to pursue Iranian elements supporting the PUK. Internecine warfare had undermined the only cause that could have united the rival Kurdish parties: Struggle against Saddam.

In 1995, Amnesty International reported widespread human rights abuses by both the PUK and KDP, including arbitrary detention of political opponents, torture, execution following summary trials, and assassination. [3]  The Kurdish leadership used the violence as a pretext to repeatedly postpone parliamentary elections. Though a 1998 peace agreement between the parties ended hostilities, those elections have yet to be held. (In October 2002, the National Assembly was reconstituted with representation based on the 1992 elections. Though the parties continue to administer separate enclaves, the parliament’s jurisdiction includes all of Iraqi Kurdistan.) The KDP and PUK administrations pledged in 2002 to merge into a single government. There had been little progress by December 2003. [4]


After a trip through the Kurdish region in March, the retired military officer Ralph Peters reflected on the accomplishments of the Kurdish leadership in The New York Post: “Imagine a Middle Eastern country in which government works in simple offices and spends its money on education… in which young men and women study together at a university where no political party rules the campus, freedom of speech is encouraged and Internet access is unrestricted… It isn’t a dream. It’s a reality. Welcome to Free Kurdistan.”

My walk through the streets of Free Kurdistan ended with a less benign impression. In Suleimaniya, in a side street thick with fruit and vegetable stands, I made my way to the offices of Hawlati, Kurdistan’s single semi-independent newspaper, to meet Asos Hardi, its editor-in-chief. A slight man with a neatly trimmed mustache, Hardi recalled Hawlati’s three and a half years of publication.

“We started in 2000, when the situation between the PUK and KDP was still very sensitive,” he said. “Each party would accuse us of being a mouthpiece for the other. It was difficult, because we tried to be balanced. For example, we tried to give the Islamic groups space to express their views. The parties didn’t like that.” (Both the PDK and KUP are resolutely secular.)

“It hasn’t been easy. You can get a fine, or even a jail sentence, for humiliating an official. Our reporters have been arrested and beaten, especially outside the big cities. You can say almost anything you want in the paper, but you have to say it the right way.”

Hardi recalled the paper’s campaign to clear the name of a schoolteacher in Erbil who had been fired after accusing the school administration of corruption. Hawlati issued appeals for his reinstatement after confirming his allegations, but was forced to refer to the corrupt administrators obliquely and rely on the goodwill of local politicians to pursue the investigation.

“Another time, there was an exhibition for Arab artists from Baghdad in Erbil and Suleimaniya,” he recalled. “Some officials in Erbil bought several pieces of art from one artist. But they didn’t pay him. The artist asked for the money, but he couldn’t get anywhere. So he wrote an open letter in Hawlati. The painting was for the [KDP] prime minister, and for the accusation he was fined one thousand Iraqi dinars and got a one-year suspended jail sentence.”

Hawlati has also acted as a forum for exposes of alleged political repression. A Suleimaniya physician named Faiq Mohammed Golpy turned to the newspaper after he ran afoul of party elders in the PUK. Disillusioned by the PUK’s engagement with former Kurdish collaborators with Saddam’s regime at a time when survivors of Saddam’s attacks suffered without government assistance, Golpy left the PUK, and, in March, 2002, formed the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (KDSP), incorporating former supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK in Kurdish) – the terrorist organization that fought a fifteen-year guerrilla insurgency in southeast Turkey, sometimes using bases inside Iraq. [5] Golpy claims that he received death threats for his initiative and that several members of his party were imprisoned without trial in Maasker Salam, a prison west of Suleimaniya that sits next to a cemetery.

“So I wrote a memorandum to human rights organizations in Hawlati,” Golpy said. “But I couldn’t name the PUK, or the paper would be closed. So I just said ‘political party.’” Several days later, the PUK human rights office contacted Golpy, and, according to him, their negotiations culminated in the release of the detained KDSP members on the orders of Jalal Talabani himself. Since then, however, Golpy claims, intimidation and harassment of KDSP members has continued.

Golpy’s credibility suffers from his party’s affiliation with former members of the PKK, an organization even devout Kurdish nationalists concede engaged in terrorism. Kurdish officials dismiss the KDSP essentially as a PKK front. They denied that there were political prisoners in Kurdistan. But Hania Mufti, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Iraq, told me, “I visited a number of prisons in both KDP and PUK areas in the last couple of years, and found detainees that we would define as political prisoners. Since [the peace agreement in] 1998, the human rights situation in Iraqi Kurdistan improved significantly overall. This does not mean, however, that abuses have ended. The problem of detention without trial continues and is a most serious one which I have raised with the leadership of both parties but without seeing any willingness or resolve on their part to tackle it.”

“The Baath still exists here in Kurdistan!” Salaam Bradosti, a prominent Erbil businessman who runs Zozik Group, a major construction and services company, said. “The Barzanis and Talabanis are just more of Saddam. The KDP has mass graves and disappeared people. I can take you to families. Ask: Where’s your son?”

I asked Hadi Ali, a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), a moderate Islamist party, who became the Justice Minister of the KDP-led government in 1999, not long after the civil war ended, what he knew about the KDP and PUK fighters who had “disappeared” during the war. Nothing, he said – it was an internal party matter.

Nechirvan Barzani, the KDP prime minister, assured me that committees had been formed to look into the matter, but that the disappearance of fighters was a natural happenstance of war. “It was a fight, it wasn’t fun,” he reminded me. “But there is full cooperation between the parties in the investigation.” Though the conflict ended six years ago and the parties released nearly two thousand detainees soon after, the “investigation” has failed to yield much information about the minority that remains missing. “There ought to have been an independent commission investigating the claims and counterclaims by the sides involved, as well as the collection of evidence from families, eyewitnesses, victims, etc.,” Hania Mufti, of Human Rights Watch, said. “Instead, the process has been very much confined to secret negotiations between KDP and PUK, a process which has not been transparent and to which families of the victims have had little access.”

It was telling that Hadi Ali had shrugged off the disappeared as an issue to be dealt with by the parties. Iraqi Kurdistan is less a democracy than an oligarchy, dominated by the KDP and PUK, each the fiefdom of a family, the Barzanis and Talabanis, respectively. Marxist-Leninist in origin, the parties are ruled by Soviet-style politburos whose power trickles down through rival patronage networks, so that each of the two Kurdish regional “governments” is largely an appendage of its host party. (“We’re not even a country, and already we have two governments,” Salaam Bradosti told me, with memorable bitterness.) Personalities rather than values or political agendas tend to distinguish one party from the other, though the KDP’s supporters tend to be conservative and come from rural areas, whereas the PUK is more urban, secular, and progressive. Party affiliation is the primary source of identity in Kurdistan.

Excessive centralization also keeps the Kurdish economy from diversifying and strengthening through private initiative. The parties have their hands in most large businesses, if they do not own them outright. For instance, though the CPA has awarded a contract to supply cellular service in northern Iraq to the Kuwaiti-Bahrainian telecom firm Asia Cell, the KDP government – which operates Korek Telecom, the service supplier in Erbil – has been impeding Asia Cell’s construction of cell phone towers in Erbil because the firm has refused to yield to the Barzanis’ demands for a stake in the company and a cut of the profits without an investment, according to Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who recently completed an eight-month tour as an advisor to the CPA. Though ownership structure is often difficult to confirm, American analysts contend that the KDP and individual Barzani family members own all the gas stations in its region, whereas the PUK maintains control of the cement and metal businesses. Party rivalry hampers small business by directing resources away from entrepreneurs operating in one party’s territory but affiliated with the opposing party, and obstructs equitable distribution. According to one Kurdish businessman, a $21 million CPA grant to the KDP to develop regional infrastructure was spent entirely on the Barzanis’ ancestral region of Barzan, with none of the funds making it to areas inhabited by tribes less friendly to the KDP.

“The difference between the PUK and the KDP,” Salaam Bradosti told me, “is that if you start a business in PUK territory, you pay a bribe; if you start one in KDP territory, you give a share [of the business].” (By all accounts, the PUK has demonstrated greater concern for financial transparency and accountability.) Although a paean to the blurry virtues of democracy was the standard incantation in every meeting I had with Kurdish politicians, I was hard put to find one willing to articulate the desirability of capitalism or privatization.

I encountered equally dismal prospects at Erbil’s Salahaddin University, where I spoke with students in the English department. Iraqi Kurdistan has made considerable strides in education. The number of secondary schools and universities has tripled in the last decade, and administrators are gradually purging curricula of Saddam’s propaganda. (Sample problem from a math textbook in Saddam-era Iraq: If one fedayeen goes into a Tel Aviv café and blows up ten Jews, how many Jews would five fedayeen kill?)

Resources, however, remain scarce. At Salahaddin, fluorescent bulbs flickered throughout the halls, intermittently lighting a large sign proclaiming “BARZANI” and 8.5” x 11” photocopies of pictures of King Arthur, Geoffrey Chaucer, and King Alfred the Great awkwardly fitted into grimy gilt frames. Students receive a stipend that amounts to five dollars a month, and have irregular water, heat and electricity in their dorms. One student I met clutched a phonology textbook that had been photocopied and stapled together. He was studying for an exam in English pronunciation, but was finding it difficult because there is no sound lab for practice at Salahaddin.

Perhaps more importantly, the political atmosphere on campus is less enlightened than the government’s education initiatives. Several students spoke to me about pressure they had experienced before the recent student elections, which have a consequence in the hyper-political environment of Iraqi Kurdistan far beyond their equivalent in the United States. One said he was told his father would lose his job if he didn’t vote KDP; another said he wouldn’t be allowed to enroll in a particular class.

I mentioned the standard complaint about authoritarian politics to Nechirvan Barzani, Massoud Barzani’s nephew and the KDP prime minister. “In the past ten years, we lived under the constant threat of Saddam,” he told me. “You never knew if he would come back. Who was going to defend the Kurdish people? The Islamists? All they would do is open up the Quran and pray for you. The parties were the only organizations with the means to protect the Kurdish people. And their power will decrease in direct proportion to improvements in the security situation,” he said, referring to Kurdish anxieties about instability further south and Turkey’s aggressive obstruction of Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy. “And if the people won’t accept us, then we won’t be in power.”

“You have to understand the past decade,” Pherda Thorane, Barzani’s political advisor, said to me. “The difficult conditions we have had here. Before the [first Gulf] war, one dinar equaled three and a half dollars. After the war, it was eighty-five dinars to one dollar. There was no money to pay salaries. In 1994, the Minister of Reconstruction had to stand outside and sell his things because his salary was too low to support his family! The people wouldn’t work, because there was no pay. Remember, the U.N. blockade included Kurdistan. We couldn’t even bring in paper! Couldn’t start a factory. No machinery. No capital.” As if in sullen confirmation of Thorane’s point, the poorly made door to his office came loose from its hinges and swung open, revealing no one on the other side. Thorane’s heater was faring no better: it energetically pumped cold air.

Thorane was a repatriate, one of an increasing number of Iraqi Kurdish exiles who had returned in middle age to take advantage of new opportunities, just as the children of those who had remained in Kurdistan began streaming out, convinced it had no place for them, its fitful democratization notwithstanding. (Demoralized by bleak economic prospects, some three hundred thousand Kurds have emigrated from Iraqi Kurdistan in the past decade.)

Thorane’s was not a kiss-the-ground kind of homecoming, mostly because the ground was kind of dirty. He sent his salads back at the upmarket restaurants where he ate when he spotted green nicks of cucumber skin clinging to the imperfectly peeled vegetable and, therefore, sheltering waterborne bacteria after washing under local taps. And when his guests from abroad complimented the sights of Erbil, where he spent his weekdays and whose restaurants and shops thrummed with neon-lit gusto in the evenings, he invariably responded with: “Duhok is better.” (Some thirty miles from the Turkish border, Duhok, with its fairytale, pastel-colored mansions cribbed from some especially exuberant passage in The Arabian Nights was, of course, the city that resembled monochromatic and mono-storied Kurdistan least.) But if the IKEA-clone furniture in his office betrayed a certain nostalgia for the pleasures of the West – he had spent a decade in Sweden – he seemed intent on staying.

“The PUK and KDP are inexperienced leaders,” Thorane said. “They are mountain guerrillas, not politicians. But even so, Kurdistan has made more progress in the past ten years than any of the surrounding countries.” Thorane mentioned the Minister of Reconstruction’s campaign to rebuild villages damaged during attacks by Saddam’s forces. Two-thirds had been restored already. There was a school in every village, as well as a program to provide roving teachers to nomadic families.

“There is free speech. People can accuse us, swear at us,” Nechirvan Barzani insisted. “Public opinion is being created gradually. Human-rights groups and women’s groups are being developed. I will tell you: We wanted to stop honor killings, so I spent one year in discussion with the mullahs through different community representatives. I could have issued a decree and just banned them, but instead we tried to talk with them about it… This isn’t the United States. We haven’t had hundreds of years to practice. But we are trying.”

The KDP does seem to be lightening its touch. For instance, in a recent interview with the International Crisis Group, Rebin Rasul Ismail, the deputy editor of Hawlati, claimed the newspaper had been facing less pressure lately: “‘Nechirvan [Barzani, the KDP Prime Minister] used to complain that we published only bad news, for example concerning arrests. Now they don’t say anything anymore. The security services used to summon us to [an interrogation center in] Salahuddin [a town just north of Erbil], but we would refuse to go: You didn’t know if you’d come back! This is over now.’” [6]

Others believe that the Kurdish leadership is easing its grip only because the Americans are nearby. “The Americans have made the parties more accountable,” Salaam Bradosti, the Erbil businessman, said. “But by choosing to negotiate with the PUK and KDP, the Americans have also empowered them and centralized their authority further.” Bradosti insists Kurdistan’s tribal leaders – Bradosti’s father, Karim Khan, is the patriarch of a clan of seven thousand families – would make far more reliable interlocutors than the parties. “Tribe is the only source of identity more important than party,” he said. “But CPA doesn’t talk to the tribes.”

Indeed, there are few challenges to the supremacy of the parties. While the tribes unaligned closely with either party – such as the Bradostis and the Zebaris, the tribe of Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister – have thousands of fiercely loyal clan members, the tribes are political neophytes who could more effectively hinder the PUK and KDP by lending credibility to a third party. No such alternative exists in Iraqi Kurdistan, not least due to the discouragement of the PUK and KDP.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union, which advocates a moderate Islamic republic in northern Iraq and regularly polls about 20% in Erbil, is compromised by the tendency of Kurds to conflate it with more militant groups such as Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamist group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda and the primary suspect in twin suicide bombings in Erbil on February 1st that killed more than one hundred. KIU members allege that the government likes to make the same mistake. In the wake of the Erbil bombings, a KIU member wrote me, “The KDP & PUK try to exploit the situation for their interests and to put mines in front of the advancement of the moderate Islamists in general and KIU in particular. When their security agencies try to capture some of the fundamentalists, they also capture some of the KIU members purposely and they torture them, even though they know that they are KIU members, and after a few days they release them and tell them we are sorry we did not know that you are from KIU.” [7]

A recent pro-independence movement to stage a referendum on the future status of Iraqi Kurdistan has furnished another alternative. The Kurdish leadership has unanimously acknowledged the recklessness of pressing for a separate state – Turkey vehemently opposes the notion and the United States is unwilling to antagonize regional powers. (Kurdish minorities in Syria and Iran are restless from years of political and cultural oppression.) A majority of ordinary Kurds, either unaware of or unconcerned with international opposition to Kurdish statehood, however, insists on independence. The independence movement – which in late February delivered to the Iraqi Governing Council a petition signed by nearly two million Kurds – placed the PUK and KDP in an awkward position.

Embarrassed by the referendum’s maximalist demands, the parties declined to take a public position on it. But they neglected to alert their constituents that the government was pursuing a much more modest form of sovereignty than they imagined. The parties realize the popular will can become a useful weapon if the new Iraqi leadership fails to grant the Kurds sweeping autonomy. When Kurdish proposals for expanded autonomy encountered fierce opposition during negotiations on the Transitional Administrative Law, Qubad Talabani, the son of PUK leader Jalal Talabani, told The Washington Post: “‘We have a street to worry about… We can’t be seen to be selling out.”

Even if the referendum is less concerned with determining the future status of Kurdistan than inaugurating the use of public opinion as a political force, the parties’ failure to prepare the Kurdish public for compromise indicates a leadership unburdened by accountability to its people. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the parties lent the referendum logistical support, such as “personnel and support for the referendum teams working in smaller towns and villages,” in an effort to co-opt and undermine it. “Sure, the parties are liberal,” Michael Rubin, the AEI scholar, said. “As long as they have complete political control.” A cowed population is disinclined to challenge the parties’ stranglehold on politics. The signing of the Transitional Law decisively undermined the referendum movement.

The Kurdish leadership is not likely to change anytime soon. Elections must wait, Nechirvan Barzani, the KDP prime minister, explained, until a permanent Iraqi constitution determines the Kurdish region’s boundaries, until persons displaced by the civil war – nearly one hundred thousand were uprooted, though most have come back to their homes – return and the security situation stabilizes. This is a familiar argument in the Middle East – we are unfree because we are unsafe.

“Kurdistan is free, but not free,” Pherda Thorane told me, recalling a commonplace I heard in offices, shops, and living rooms: “What we have had is not freedom, but a margin of freedom.” “We are threatened on all sides – by Turkey, by Iraq,” Thorane continued. “Any day, we may have to go back to the mountains.” His words seemed alarmist at the time. In the tumultuous aftermath of the war, Iraqi Kurdistan had been a palliative from the security troubles further south. Well after nightfall, people milled in the streets, whereas Kirkuk and Mosul were deserted by nine. American soldiers on leave for R & R from bases south came to Duhok because there the uniform that turned them into instant targets in Ramadi and Tikrit was a badge of honor. Then came the twin suicide bombings in Erbil in February.

I had found Thorane’s concerns about Turkish aggression less than credible as well, a cynical rationalization of circumscribed liberties by the standard recourse to inadequate security. I had reached Iraq through Turkey, where the talk, invariably, was of Turkish aspirations to join the European Union and the successes of the Islamist Justice and Development Party, whose year in power had earned begrudging admiration even from skeptics. It was difficult to imagine Turkey invading northern Iraq.

After stepping up its anti-independence rhetoric in mid-January – Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that Turkey opposed even expansive autonomy in northern Iraq – the Turkish government has made significant overtures to its Iraqi Kurdish neighbors in recent months. Some of the wounded by the Erbil suicide bombings were treated in Turkey, where they were visited by Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Earlier this year, the Turkish government signed an agreement with the Kurdish leadership – rather than Baghdad – to develop Taq Taq, a vast oilfield forty miles north of Kirkuk, in central Iraqi Kurdistan. For their part, Iraqi Kurdish leaders supported the recognition of Turkomans, or ethnic Turk Iraqis, by the Transitional Law, an enshrinement denied for decades by Saddam. With Iraq convulsed by a Sunni-Shiite insurgency, Turkey appears to be cultivating the Iraqi Kurds as a bulwark against the instability further south.

As I found on my way out of Iraq, however, the Turkish leadership’s new policy had made little headway with the rank-and-file. At the Habur Gate, underneath a sign festooned with the Turkish flag and the words “Hos Geldiniz” (“Welcome”), a Turkish soldier spotted a thin volume entitled “A Brief History of Kurdistan,” by the Kurdish nationalist writer Fouad Taher Sadiq, in my bag. He thrust it in my face, and barked out: “What is this? What is Kurdistan? There is no such place. It is one country. It is called Iraq!”

I tried to exonerate myself by reminding him that, indeed, the American government thought so, too, and, with slightly more desperation, that the Americans and Turks were allies who treated each other’s citizens with respect. But he was beyond restraint. Convinced that I was an advisor to the Iraqi Kurdish government, he called over an intelligence agent, and together they rummaged through my bag, pulling out a folder full of e-mails and documents about the trip. The offensive word, and the political provocation it carried, was ubiquitous. The intelligence agent confiscated the folder and instructed me to wait while the documents were inspected at another location.

A half-hour later, he returned. The folder and the binder were noticeably thinner. “You can have this,” he said, “but on one condition.” Then, he handed me a pen and waited until I crossed out the word “Kurdistan” every time it appeared in the documents. “When you get to America, make sure you erase the e-mails from your inbox, too,” he said cheerfully, pumped my hand, and walked off.


[1] William Safire, “The Kurdish Question,” The New York Times, January 14, 2004.

[2] Iraqi Kurdistan covers sixteen thousand miles, about half the size of South Carolina, in the country’s north, with Kurds making up about twenty percent of Iraq’s twenty five million people. Erbil and Suleimaniya, roughly two hundred miles northwest and northeast of Baghdad, respectively, are the largest cities, with one million and five hundred thousand residents, respectively.

[3] Amnesty International, “IRAQ: Human rights abuses in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991,” February 27, 1994, http://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/iraq/document.do?id=487C2D0CAF7141C4802569A500714DC6.

[4] In January 2004, the parties agreed to merge their “service” ministries, and have reopened offices in each other’s territory. Security and economic planning will remain separately administered through 2004.

[5] Turkey has historically sought to thwart Iraqi Kurdish aspirations for autonomy in an effort to preclude its own sizable and restive Kurdish minority – twelve million, the majority residing in the southeast, where the country neighbors Iraq – from pursuing similar inclinations. The conflict in southeastern Turkey between government forces and pro-independence Turkish Kurd guerrillas claimed 36,000 lives between 1984 and 1999, when the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, wore down the resistance. Both government troops and Kurdish fighters resorted to indiscriminate violence. Turkey used its pursuit of the PKK as a pretext for regular incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan. Currently, 1500 Turkish troops remain in northern Iraq, ostensibly to hunt after some 5000 PKK troops holed up in the Qandil mountains, which separate northern Iraq from Iran.

[6] International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Kurds: Toward an Historic Compromise?” April 8, 2002, http://www.crisisweb.org/home/index.cfm?l=1&id=2584

[7] The KIU’s politics seem rather confused as well: Hadi Ali, the KIU Justice Minister in the KDP-led government, regularly offers a contrarian view on cherished Islamist causes, such as his recent comments to a journalist from al-Jazeera that Arab governments exploit the conflict in Palestine to justify repression at home. His views find little sympathy with KIU-affiliated clerics such as Ahmad Wahab, however, who ranted, in a conversation with me, against the “Zionist AIDS” polluting the Arab world and insisted Europe reclaim the Jews it has sicced on the Middle East.

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