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Corruption: The Dark Underbelly of Kurdistan's Dream

March 12, 07
By Mark Mackinnon

IRBIL, IRAQ -- There is not much to look at yet, just a clutch of newly built white villas on a square kilometre of dirt and mud. But the sign assures everyone that a "Dream City" will soon emerge on the muddy plains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The $350-million (U.S.) development, separated from the rest of the country by a wrought-iron fence, showcases the progress being made here four years after the United States deposed Saddam Hussein and gave Kurds their long sought-after autonomy. But it also highlights the fundamental and dangerous flaws in the Kurdish experiment.

The ambition on display at Dream City is huge. In addition to 1,200 villas, some of which are already selling for as much as $1-million, the gated community will feature two schools, a mosque, six commercial buildings and a giant shopping complex. The fact that such projects can even be contemplated right now, while the rest of Iraq is descending ever deeper into civil war, is testimony to how good a job the Kurdish regional government and its peshmerga militia have done at sealing themselves off from the chaos to the south.

"Our lives are much better than they were before 2003," said Jutiar Noori Abdullah, the deputy governor of Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan's second city. "I can't say there are no problems, but I can say that we are solving them."

But Dream City, which is due to be completed in 2010, also highlights the endemic corruption that threatens to undermine all that is going well in Kurdistan. The project manager says that most who have bought property so far are government bureaucrats who, judging by their apparent disposable income, seem to have stored improbable wealth while managing the affairs of a region still deeply mired in poverty.

The regional government of Massoud Barzani has been unable to deliver basic services to its citizens -- most homes receive two hours of electricity a day, and there are often kilometres-long lineups for limited supplies of fuel -- yet three brothers who work as customs officers on the Iraq-Turkey border have been able to purchase adjacent $900,000 homes in Dream City. One of the homes that is nearing completion features 10 washrooms, two sundecks and a swimming pool.

"There's a hill of corruption that threatens everything," said Namo Majeed, program manager at the Civil Society Initiative, a U.S.-backed non-government organization monitoring democratic progress in Iraqi Kurdistan. "Everyone knows that every government official, every political party member, is corrupt. The general population of Kurdistan suffers from this. It's the reason the cost of everything is rising."

Kurdistan, and the regional capital of Irbil in particular, at times look like a giant construction site with monster shopping malls, brightly lit car showrooms, bowling alleys and opera houses all emerging from the late-winter mud.
The knock of pounding hammers and the screech of rotating cranes fill the air from dawn until dusk, making the violence of Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk seem much farther away than it is.

Even more unique in Iraq, U.S. soldiers are considered liberators by the local population, and can be seen shopping in the markets. The red, white and green Kurdish flag, emblazoned with a yellow sun in the middle, flutters over everything, while the Iraqi flag is nowhere to be seen.
But while the Kurdish leadership likes to boast of its progress during the past four years -- and to contrast it with the chaos to the south -- many ordinary Kurds point to the fact that Kurdistan has had de facto independence since 1991. They look at the intervening period as 16 wasted years.

While developments such as Dream City are, on paper, privately owned, analysts say that little happens in Kurdistan without a large share going to either the Kurdistan Democratic Party or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

"The great construction campaign in Kurdistan is not benefiting ordinary people. Only the political leadership is gaining from all this. Those great buildings, those skyscrapers all belong to high political officials," said Twana Othman, the former editor in chief of Hawlati, seen as the most independent newspaper in Kurdistan.

"Everything is dominated by the PUK and the KDP."

The KDP is headed by Mr. Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the PUK is led by Jalal Talabani, the President of Iraq. The two men and their families dominate everything that happens in the Kurdish part of Iraq.

Mr. Othman, who recently was forced to quit the top job at Hawlati after writing articles alleging official corruption, said the high hopes for reform that followed the U.S. army's ousting of Mr. Hussein have disappeared. With Iraq seemingly on the verge of disintegration, the United States is no longer pushing Kurdistan's elites to reform. It's only asking that they keep their fighters out of the Sunni-Shia fray engulfing the rest of the country.

"The only thing the United States cares about now in Iraq is security. In the beginning, America was going to bring democracy to the Middle East. But now their goal is to form a strong central government, to find a strong leader for Iraq," Mr. Othman said. "And there's a great difference between a democratic government and a powerful one."

But any kind of Kurdish government at all is perceived as a threat by its neighbours. Of all the challenges Iraqi Kurds face, their relations with Turkey, Iran and Syria will be the most crucial to the future. All three fear that a successful Kurdish semi-state in northern Iraq will embolden their own Kurdish populations to push for more autonomy.

And while they have made an overt effort to establish good relations with Ankara, Tehran and Damascus, Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani have thus far been unwilling to crack down on the Kurdish guerrilla movements that use Iraqi territory as a base for staging raids into Turkey and Iran.

As crippling as the corruption in Irbil may be, the borderless nationalism on display at a mountain compound east of Sulaymaniyah may prove even more dangerous to the Kurdish project in Northern Iraq, where Kurdish-Iranian guerrillas train on Iraqi turf for the day when they can return to Iran to fight against the regime in Tehran.

In the east, the problems are even more acute, with Turkey threatening to invade if Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani don't do more to prevent the Kurdish Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, from staging cross-border raids.

But to Mr. Abdullah, Sulaymaniyah's deputy governor, the threat of more regional upheaval is still a distant one. For now, the more dangerous neighbour is to the south, in the rest of Iraq.

The Kurds, he acknowledged, could yet be dragged into the fighting. "We are trying to stay away, but the fire is close to us. We're a bush by a bonfire."
By Mark Mackinnon