Surrounded by four states that do not wish it well, officially embargoed, still divided by internal conflicts, Iraqi Kurdistan hasn’t had it this good for years. Paradoxically, Kurds in northern Iraq are hoping everything stays exactly the way it is.

“If the government comes back we lose everything,” says 35-year old farmer Chasim Abdullah Azi. Azi leans his wooden-stock Kalashnikov in the corner of his hut, taking off his shoes for tea. He needs the gun to protect the sheep, he says. “My kids are small so they don’t know.”

What the children don’t know is that this mud brick village of 48 families, like the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan, are officially still ruled by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Here in Dal da Ghan, the elementary school begins each day with the national anthem of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The children study Kurdish textbooks printed in Erbil, and they’re too young to remember when their fathers were soldiers in the Kurdish resistance.

During the Iraqi Anfal campaign about 4000 villages like this one were forcibly depopulated, burned to the ground and dynamited by government troops. In some cases soldiers burned down the trees, and relocated the inhabitants to camps away from the borders with Iran and Turkey. You can still see the ruins of village after village along the highways. Dal da Ghan itself was destroyed in 1987.

The reconstruction of Dal da Ghan is part of a virtual UN welfare state in northern Iraq. Over the last few years the UN Habitat program scouted out villagers who were willing to return. The program spent about $24,000 to provide the village with materiel to build houses, schools, roads and water facilities. Though the recent drought appears to have broken, Azi says, “Without the food ration, we would be starving.”

On the UN Dole

By far the most important factor in Kurdish prosperity is the much-maligned UN Security Council resolution 986, known as “Oil-for-Food.” The studies that show devastation in the Government of Iraq’s (GOI) area show that indices of human welfare are improving slightly in the north. The US State Department and both major Kurdish parties claim that this prosperity proves that 986, when administered by the UN as it is in the north, is adequate. The health problems in the GOI areas, they say, prove that Saddam Hussein is impounding food and medicine to manipulate world opinion. UN officials offer a different explanation.

George Somerwill, spokesman for the UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq (UNOCHI), breaks down the numbers to explain the disparity. The three Kurdish provinces contain 13 percent of Iraq’s population; therefore they receive 13 percent of the supplies that enter under Oil-for-Food, right off the top. Then war reparations at 30 percent and UN operational costs at 3 percent are deducted. The GOI areas — home to 87 percent of the population — end up living off only about 54 percent of the food and medicine. Somerwill says that the government has not been obstructing food deliveries, though there is little doubt that Hussein diverts all of his black market money for personal security. (“What the hell did they expect him to do?” asked one UN worker.)

Since 1991, international NGOs have been contributing to the welfare of the Kurds, without the permission of the Iraqi government. They are reluctant to be identified by name, having already once fled an Iraqi government offensive in 1996. The NGO contribution aims to complement 986 — one aid worker pegged it at around $20 million per year. NGOs also have targeted areas like literacy and building community organizations that 986 does not address. A group of major NGOs working in the north recently signed on to a letter protesting the sanctions, and also the culture of dependency being created by the UN program.

Black Market Share

The oil traded for food is not the only oil leaving Iraq. The embargo has turned the Ibrahim al-Khalil crossing on the Turkish border into the most lucrative smuggling route in the region. The route offers a direct line to the huge economy of Turkey, and is tacitly blessed by the US and UK, who don’t mention it in their regular briefings on the Iraqi regime’s sanctions-busting. The US knows that black-market trade placates Turkey, which lost Iraq as a trading partner when it joined the Gulf war coalition. Washington needs Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to continue patrolling the no-flight zones.

Black market revenues are hard to estimate and it is unclear if profits trickle down to most Kurds. New villas and even a giant supermarket spring up in Dohuk, while tens of thousands still live in shanty towns and camps. The oil revenues are also the main focus of disagreements between the two Kurdish political parties.

Everyone agrees that the KDP, led by Masoud Barzani, is making a killing off the Ibrahim al-Khalil crossing. That revenue has been a perennial excuse for hostilities between the KDP and its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani. Talabani currently claims that the KDP is making over a million dollars a day on transit fees from the oil going out and the consumer goods coming in. Both parties keep in constant contact with their neighboring states, and the US and Baghdad switch alignments when the moment suits them.

The latest round of shooting began in late 1993, as small political and land disputes rapidly escalated. Both sides claim that the other side resorted to military action to head off defeat in parliament. The resulting war caused thousands of casualties. Talabani was heavily backed by Iran, and the KDP alleged that the PUK was moving through Iran to attack behind their lines. Backed into a corner, Barzani reached out to the Iraqi regime in 1996. “There was unfortunately a union of contradiction between us and the Iraqis,” says the KDP’s heir apparent, Nichervan Barzani.

The shooting war continued until 1998 when an agreement in Washington mandated normalization between the PUK and KDP, and preparations for elections. To please Turkey, the two groups agreed to deny safe haven to the PKK. They also agreed neither would engage nor invite the Iraqi army. “I suppose the invite was for the KDP, the engage was for the PUK,” quips Talabani.

There are signs of a thaw beyond the ceasefire. Prisoner exchanges took place in April. Attacks in the press have also decreased, and it is hard to get the two parties’ leaders to impugn each other. “I don’t want to talk about the past because right now we are getting closer,” says Talabani. “We’re having high-level meetings once or twice a week.”

But huge hurdles remain. The revenue sharing question still causes bitterness, and PUK officials still complain that the KDP is cheating them. Barzani retorts that large sums of money were delivered to the PUK last fall. Soon after, he says, Talabani declared himself president of Kurdistan in an interview with foreign journalists, and began setting up a separate legal system in the PUK area. “Literally, he has settled the outcome of the election beforehand,” says Barzani.

Water Parks and Refugee Camps

There is a festive mood in PUK-controlled Sulaymaniyya. University students mill about the campus studying for exams. Shoppers fill the main boulevards. A water park, complete with toy motor boats, refreshment stands and a well-kept zoo, is packed with people.

Sulaymaniyya shows many signs of the pluralism which the Kurds say they represent. Serious political actors, such as the Communist party and the Islamic party which currently controls the town of Halabja, criticize the PUK openly. While in the KDP territory every portrait of Hussein has been replaced by one of Masoud Barzani; there are few portraits here at all. NGO observers were impressed by the turnout and transparency of municipal elections held in February, though the PUK won heavily as predicted. Talabani realizes the credibility these elections gained him. He also knows that Barzani’s brief alliance with Hussein cost him politically.

Just a few miles outside Sulaymaniyya live thousands of the greatest obstacles to normalization between the KDP and PUK. In makeshift tents, with open pits for waste disposal, displaced Kurdish families, or fractions of families, survive on UN rations. This particular camp is called New Kirkuk, because people thrown out of Kirkuk by the Iraqi army arrive by the dozens almost every day. “I prefer to live here, because there is freedom,” says one refugee, Sabria Mahmuda, 38, who was detained for a month in an Iraqi jail before her deportation from Kirkuk, “but someday I’d like to return.”

About 900,000 internal refugees — as much as a third of the region’s population — are scattered across Iraqi Kurdistan. Some of them have been displaced several times in the last twenty years by violence between the Kurds here and in Turkey. Some are unable to return home because the soil is still strewn with landmines. About 200 people each month are killed or maimed by mines, according to the UN de-miners. Some have family members who are soldiers for one side or the other and are stuck on the wrong side of the ceasefire line.

The refugees streaming in from Kirkuk are a grim reminder to the Kurds that the Iraqi army is still on the job (though soldiers are so poorly paid they sometimes sell their guns to the Kurdish border guards). While some have predicted the decline of the Kirkuk oil field, it still produces around 40 percent of Iraq’s 986 oil. The Iraqi government appears to be continuing its campaign to make Kirkuk into an Arab city.

Shaky Foundations

A few miles in the other direction stands the only oil refinery in Kurdistan, possibly the biggest symbol of autonomy. Kurdistan also now has its own currency, its own telecommunications system, and Kurdistan even switched to daylight savings time, making it one hour ahead of Baghdad. The Kurdish troops at the border controls wear brand-new uniforms. The Kurds are showing so much independence that, on a recent diplomatic visit to Turkey, Nichervan Barzani was told to stop acting like a head of state.

“We understand their concerns,” says Barzani, “We reassured them that our policy has not changed. We have no intention of establishing a Kurdish state.” But the Turkish request underscores the sensitivities of the region. Turkey and Iran are wary of an independent Kurdish state stirring up their restless Kurdish groups. The Iraqi Kurds know if they upset their neighbors they risk losing the Western good will that keeps them protected. Both parties repeat a mantra: they want autonomy within a democratic Iraq.

“The democracy we’re enjoying now is with the support of the US,” says Kosrat Rasul, the PUK Prime Minister. “Otherwise Saddam would come back.”

The Kurds know dependence on the US from past bitter experience. Talabani poses the question: what if someone puts a bullet in Hussein’s head tomorrow? What if the US finds a new Sunni strongman to support, just as they once supported Hussein?

“It cannot be like the time of the Cold War,” says Talabani, “with the US supporting dictatorships. You cannot have free markets without democracy.” “In this age of globalization no issue can be regarded as internal. They’re all international,” Barzani concurs. Here the KDP and PUK converge in somewhat wishful thinking: the West cannot forget them when a new regime, or simply a new Sunni Arab general, takes over in Baghdad. But both parties know the US may do just that. Such sober assessments leave the Kurds in the awkward position of wishing for the status quo to continue — including the embargo, the no-flight zone and yes, Saddam Hussein’s rule.

“We have not received one dollar from the US. Not one bullet. It is very wrong to think that without the US we will be finished. We will still be here. Maybe not here but in that mountain,” says Talabani, pointing to the snowy peaks along the Iranian border. But for all the talk of a new world order, the Kurds point to a chilling analogy.

“Look at what happened to Chechnya,” says one KDP official, shaking his head.

How to cite this article:

Quil Lawrence "A Shaky De Facto Kurdistan," Middle East Report 215 (Summer 2000).

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