Kurdish northern Iraq, separated from Baghdad by a U.S.- and British-patrolled no-fly zone, is showing signs of an ever-healthier economy, with new schools opening and some shopping centers larger than those in the capital. In recent months, the region's two rival Iraqi-Kurd factions have taken new steps to improve cooperation. But RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports the two sides remain far apart on the biggest issues, including how eventually to reunite Iraqi Kurdistan under a single administration.
Prague, 5 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past year, northern Iraq's two rival factions -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) -- have taken several new steps to ease tensions between them.
Last month, the two sides agreed to start a first repatriation of 40 families from KDP-controlled Arbil to PUK-controlled Sulaymaniyah. Another 32 families are to be repatriated in the opposite direction. At the same time, both parties have agreed to return property to the displaced persons whom they had previously accused of sympathizing with the other side.
The repatriation addresses what has long been one of the sorest points between northern Iraq's two ruling forces. That is: what to do about the 3,000 families -- a total of some 15,000 people -- who were turned into refugees by the fighting between the two factions.
That fighting came as the PUK, which has long controlled the eastern areas of northern Iraq along the Iranian border, and the KDP, which controls the western part along the Turkish border, waged a war for territory throughout much of the 1990s. The two sides reached an early power-sharing agreement when northern Iraq fell out of Baghdad's control in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. But the agreement soon fell apart and the two groups battled intermittently prior to signing a U.S.-brokered accord in September 1998.
Both sides now say they hope that by accepting the return of a handful of displaced families, they can build confidence for the full return of all refugees in the coming months. In some cases, the refugees have been homeless for nearly a decade, living in garages, unfinished houses, and schools, surviving on aid handouts and by doing odd jobs.
Over the past three months, the PUK and KDP have also lifted many checkpoints guarding the frontier between them and ended requirements that businessmen and other travelers obtain permission to cross. They have also agreed to make it easier to exchange professors and members of Kurdish non-governmental organizations.
Fouad Hussein, an Iraqi Kurd academic who visits the region frequently, says all this is a sign of increasingly open dialogue between the two rival parties.
"The most important change is that there is an open dialogue between both parties and especially between both leaders of the KDP and PUK. And of course people can watch that and hear about that and see that. Both sides are emphasizing peace and emphasizing continuing talking to each other, while in the past sometimes they had negotiations but at the same time [the negotiation] was [only] for a short time and then they were attacking each other. [Now] both sides are saying we don't have any alternative except the peace process and reaching a peace agreement."
Both KDP leader Massoud Barzani and PUK leader Jalal Talibani agreed in 1998 to work toward reuniting their administrations. They also agreed to reconstitute an autonomous regional parliament, while remaining committed to Iraq's territorial integrity.
But progress toward a single administration and legislature has been slow. The two sides remain at odds over how to fully share their revenues and how to have full political representation on each other's territory. They also have been unable to agree on preparing for general elections to replace the former regional parliament, which disbanded in 1992 amid fears of renewed factional fighting.
For the moment, no elections have yet been scheduled. Both sides appear to have decided they first must reach a comprehensive peace agreement settling the outstanding disputes between them. Hussein says:
"The election is a point which must come after they reach a peace agreement and they sign that. Two high-level groups are now working on the general lines of a peace agreement, but they have got also sub-groups dealing with aspects of security, refugees, aspects of the economic situation. So, in many fields they have reached an agreement. But on how to deal with the parliament, they still are talking about that."
The general easing of tensions between the KDP and PUK comes as northern Iraq in recent years has experienced a mini-economic boom that has made it easier for both groups to live with their still-unresolved political differences.
Standards of living have improved as northern Iraq -- for decades an economic backwater -- has become a crossroads for fuel trading between Baghdad and Turkey. The trading has grown into a multimillion-dollar business, with the Iraqi oil going directly into Turkey's state-supervised fuel-distribution system in violation of UN sanctions. Oil-industry analysts estimate that Turkish trucks each day bring some 100,000 barrels of petroleum products and crude oil from Iraq.
The smuggled oil, upon which the KDP levies transit taxes through its territory, has long been tolerated by the West as a price for Turkish cooperation in other areas, including hosting U.S. and British planes that patrol the no-fly zone. But in recent months, the trading has become a focus of U.S. and British proposals to levy "smarter" sanctions on Iraq, aimed at tightening border controls against smuggling.
While the KDP has profited from the fuel trading, the PUK has levied taxes on trade between Iraq and Iran and between Turkey and Iran. Much of this commerce is in smuggled consumer goods and alcoholic beverages, which are prohibited in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In addition, both the KDP and PUK administrations have benefited from the UN awarding northern Iraq 13 percent of the revenue Baghdad earns through legal oil sales under the oil-for-food program. That 13 percent is distributed outside of Baghdad's control both as humanitarian aid and in contracts to improve the area's infrastructure. The money involved has grown proportionally as Baghdad's oil revenues under the oil-for-food program have surged from $4 billion in 1997 to $18 billion last year.
The improved economic situation has enabled both the KDP and PUK administrations to build scores of new schools and institute compulsory education at the primary-school level. Over the past three years, many villages have acquired schoolhouses and the practice of double-shifting students -- operating morning and evening schools in the same building to accommodate an excess of students -- has ended. The region's three universities have acquired computers and there are plans to introduce computer instruction at the secondary-school level.
At the same time, the improving economy has brought growing Turkish business interest in the region. Turkish companies have invested in shops and hotels and are participating in rebuilding bridges and highways both in the KDP and PUK areas under the oil-for-food program's infrastructure contracts.
The KDP had for many years been allied with Turkey against the PUK, which in turn was allied with the rebel Turkish-Kurd PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party. But since Ankara's capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan two and a half years ago, the PUK has also moved closer to Turkey and joined in fighting the PKK, some 2,500 of whom are in strongholds along the mountainous Iran-Iraq border.
Iran, too, has sought in recent months to expand ties with northern Iraq. While lacking Turkey's commercial appeal, it has sought to build links to both factions' areas through cultural exchanges and activities.
In one other sign that northern Iraq is increasingly becoming a more stable region, some expatriate Iraqi Kurd businessmen have also begun returning to the region from Europe. Fouad Hussein says:
"I have seen some Kurdish businessmen who are living in Europe and they have been back to invest some money there in Iraqi Kurdistan. So, that is new, actually. Because usually the Kurdish businessmen, Iraqi Kurds, were not satisfied with the political situation there and so [did not feel] encouraged to invest their money there."
Hussein says some university teachers have also returned from Europe, in another vote of confidence in the peace process.
That suggests that northern Iraq already has come a long way in overcoming its factional differences -- at least in the minds of its own people -- even as a formal peace agreement still remains well over the horizon.
(Radio Free Iraq's Sami Shoresh contributed to this report.)