ON CHRISTMAS DAY in Erbil--the semi-official capital of the semi-official entity known as Iraqi Kurdistan--over 100 delegates from across northern Iraq gathered in a meeting hall that resembled nothing so much as an inner city high school auditorium, complete with rows of battered faux-leather chairs and dim fluorescent lighting. An improbably huge Kurdish flag was draped across the rear of the stage--three stripes of red, white, and green, with a golden sun at the center.
The assembly was a cross-section of Iraqi society: a bespectacled professor of law from Sulaimaniya in a prim three-piece suit; a Yezidi doctor from Sinjar; a turbaned cleric; representatives of the Turkmen and Chaldean parties from Erbil and Dohuk, respectively; even a lone, octogenarian Arab who had driven up from Kirkuk. Their stated purpose in coming together? To advocate a referendum on the political status of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Such a vote would grasp the nettle of two contentious questions: the terms on which the region, which has been de facto independent since 1991, should be reintegrated with the rest of the country, if at all; and where the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan, which many Kurds insist must include territory outside their present control--most notably, Kirkuk--should be established.
On the former question, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) initially embraced a vision for a federal Iraq divided into the 18 traditional governorates. Of these, 3 would partition the territory now under Kurdish administration. Kurdish politicians unanimously rejected this approach, pressing instead for "ethnic" federalism, with a single, unified Kurdish government distinct from "Arab" Iraq. For the majority of delegates assembled in Erbil, however, this too was insufficient; they saw the referendum as a means to pull even further from Baghdad's orbit.
"Federalism cannot fundamentally resolve the Kurdish question," Sherko Bekas, a Kurdish poet, publisher, and principal organizer of the referendum movement, lectured me the week before in his plush Sulaimaniya office. "We do not see ourselves as Iraqis. We are Kurds." The first speaker to the dais in Erbil took up the theme: "The aim of the referendum is independence. We do not want life in Iraq. We want life in Kurdistan."
Life in Kurdistan, however, is politically dominated by two parties--the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)--which fought a civil war and partitioned the territory between them in the 1990s. Without their support, a referendum is unlikely to get much traction. The party leaders in turn recognize that independence is not practicable right now, given the opposition of the United States, neighboring countries, and other Iraqis. "As a people, we have a right to self-determination, but we are condemned to terrible geopolitics," explains Barham Salih, prime minister of PUK Kurdistan. "We have two options: Either we commit to this dream, or we do something tangible and seek a federal, democratic Iraq."
Even as they sit on the Interim Governing Council, however, Kurdish leaders are sufficiently savvy to realize that the threat of a freely organized referendum--which would almost certainly give democratic imprimatur to the widespread Kurdish desire for independence--gives them leverage in Baghdad. Thus, the KDP and PUK have refrained from adopting a formal position on the referendum, while warning, off the record, that "we will have no choice but to support the referendum if the Americans do not give us what we need," in the words of a KDP minister.
"The Kurds have adopted Yasser Arafat's post-Oslo strategy," explains one CPA official. "Agree to whatever Baghdad wants, but do not prepare the population in any way for a compromise. Then, when push comes to shove, say that the people will not accept such a compromise."
These maneuverings on the referendum fit into a broader pattern of assertiveness by the KDP and PUK, which have calculated that the United States, in its mad dash to return sovereignty to Iraqis by summer and its preoccupation with the violence in the Sunni Triangle, has limited enthusiasm for meddling in an otherwise stable north. In addition to playing a leading role in derailing the Turkish troop deployment in November, the Kurds now appear to have strong-armed Washington into accepting federal autonomy at least through the transitional period.
In the eyes of some, these are just deserts for a people, who--having been gassed by Saddam Hussein and harried by Islamic terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda--can now assume their rightful place as America's natural allies in the post-9/11 world. "The Kurds participated in the coalition against Saddam Hussein. They helped liberate the country," insists Col. Dick Naab (ret.), who ran "CPA North," responsible for Iraqi Kurdistan, for nine months last year.
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.
That said, some Kurdish leaders clearly do recognize the stakes at hand. "I do not like to see my people part of a never-ending political turmoil that would basically mitigate corruption and autocracy like the rest of the Arab world," insists Prime Minister Salih. "We need schools. We need hospitals. We need roads. We need jobs for our kids. These are the real issues."
Also encouragingly, the moderate Islamist party--the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)--has focused its criticism of the KDP and PUK on their administrative failings. Hadi Ali, deputy secretary general of the KIU, explains: "Both the PUK and KDP are revolutionary parties. It's the source of their legitimacy--their bread and butter. But they have not been as successful in the cities as they were up in the mountains."
"The expectations for [the parties] are today very much greater," agrees Michael Howard, a reporter with the Guardian based in northern Iraq. "They can now no longer hide behind Saddam's presence to excuse failings of transparency and democracy. . . . What both the PUK and KDP have to do is withdraw from every aspect of life and begin to behave like normal political parties."
In essence, the KDP and PUK must come to grips with the peculiar irony that their pursuit of power--so long justified, even necessitated, in the name of defending Iraqi Kurdistan--may now pose the greatest threat to its prosperity and development. Far from being the region's perpetual losers, the Kurds have proven themselves in the last year to be among the most agile political operators in the new Iraq. Indeed, the future of their region now depends, for the first time in recent history, less on the machinations of their neighbors or the inclinations of the Bush administration (both of whom the Kurds have deftly thwarted in the past six months) than on the choices they make and the priorities they set for themselves.
Vance Serchuk is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. He traveled independently through northern Iraq in December 2003.