The Magazine

Erbil Remedy

Federalism is not a panacea for Kurdistan.

Jan 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 18 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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Of course, that the KDP and PUK have such zealous advocates within the CPA has emboldened them in their negotiations over the future of Iraq. "The problem of clientitis is rife in CPA North," complains a U.S. official in Baghdad. (Naab, for his part, proudly acknowledges putting the Kurdish flag on his business card as a symbol of solidarity.)

Indeed, it is easy to romanticize the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially when compared with the rest of the region. I arrived there on December 19, 2003--exactly nine months after the launch of coalition military operations to remove Saddam Hussein, and six days after the deposed dictator was pulled from his spider hole. While counterinsurgency operations continued unabated to the south, the U.S. military footprint was barely perceptible in the territory under Kurdish control. No humvees patrolled the roads after dark; I heard no gunfire during my two-week visit.

Instead, on a recent evening in Sulaimaniya, storefronts were brightly lit and bustling with customers. Uniformed police officers directed traffic, while at the popular "Madonal" restaurant--famous for its imitation golden arches as well as the pro-American sentiments of its owner ("PUK-USA 2003" reads one poster taped to the door)--university students in blue jeans, young couples with children, and businessmen in ill-fitting suits were queuing up for "Big Macks," french fries, and pizza.

Granted, if fast food were the primary metric for civil society, Iraqi Kurdistan could qualify for membership in the European Union. But it's not--and as many progressive Kurdish leaders acknowledge, politics in the north is not nearly as democratic or liberal as commonly portrayed.

To no small extent, this is a function of the KDP and PUK's stormy transitions from Marxist-Leninist guerrilla resistance, geared toward national liberation, to the prosaic business of governance. Although dramatically more successful than the Palestinians in this endeavor--having learned over the past decade to respect something of a free press as well as the values of political pluralism and compromise--Iraqi Kurdistan has gone 12 years since its first and only parliamentary election.

Furthermore, the competition between the KDP and PUK is essentially a battle for power between personalities. The KDP is largely the fiefdom of its leader, Massoud Barzani, and his tribe; the PUK, to a lesser degree, of Jalal Talabani and his family. Power in Kurdistan devolves principally from the KDP and PUK politburos to their respective patronage networks. Thus, each of the two Kurdish "governments" is first and foremost an appendage of its host party.

Key governmental functions likewise remain more closely associated with the parties than with the "state." At the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing with Turkey, a large sign informs the outgoing traveler that he is departing neither Iraq nor even Iraqi Kurdistan, but the territory of the KDP. Internal checkpoints are as likely to fly the banner of the relevant party as they are the Kurdish flag, while the peshmerga militiamen who wave cars along wear armbands restating that affiliation.

Whether acting independently or through the state apparatus, the parties also have disproportionate influence across the rest of Kurdish society, from education to business to mass media. Whereas post-Saddam Iraq is often described in terms of a power vacuum, the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan is, if anything, that the parties are too muscular and entrenched, crowding out independent civil society. "You have this incredibly organized operation in the Kurds," says one former CPA official. "It's like southern Italy up there."

In the last year, the two Kurdish regional governments have begun efforts to merge their administrations. Nevertheless, as far too many visitors to Iraqi Kurdistan fail to grasp, what is good for the Barzanis and Talabanis is not necessarily what is good for the Kurds. While governorate-based federalism would work to break the parties' hold on the region, ethnic federalism is likely to perpetuate their hegemony.

The hope, of course, is that the continued American military presence in Iraq--coupled with the capture of Saddam Hussein--will provide a sense of security that spurs internal reforms, which both parties insist are right around the corner. KDP prime minister Nechirvan Barzani explains: "From 1991 to 2003...the Iraqi army would sometimes advance. Who would be responsible for defending Kurdistan? The KDP and PUK. They had the responsibility to defend the people. A government or civil servant was not in a position to do much. . . . Now, Saddam is gone, and the situation is changing."

Still, the strategy of the KDP and PUK in their negotiations with Baghdad suggests that the parties, having both inculcated and profited from fierce Kurdish nationalism, may remain hostage to this dogma well after it becomes counterproductive.