One might expect the Kurdistan region to be leading the way in the development of Iraq's civil society and infrastructure after more than a dozen years of self-rule. While Kurdistan has flourished on many levels, it lags behind in many areas that are essential for democratic development. In addition, corruption and government control are pervasive, leaving many Kurds feeling helpless, apathetic, and in disbelief that they are living in a "new" Iraq.
At the root of the problem in the Kurdistan region is the absence of the rule of law. Generally speaking, rule of law means that governments act according to written laws and regulations. Rules are applied consistently, whether to citizens or elected officials. Rights are upheld and protected through a functioning judicial system. Government authority is limited, and private property is protected. In the absence of the rule of law, arbitrary practices by the government discourage personal initiative, breed apathy, cynicism, and distrust.
With no functioning judicial system in place, party members and representatives go about their business free from prosecution.
It is easy to lose focus on the need to develop the rule of law when the rest of the country is wrapped up in an insurgency and is struggling with more critical infrastructure issues such as electricity and clean water. In the absence of international aid agencies, civil society development in Kurdistan is stagnant, leaving the regional governments to fund projects they deem worthy. Party membership is a requirement for anyone wanting to advance his or her cause.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must be free of party and governmental control if they are to flourish. Unfortunately, the climate in Kurdistan is not conducive to such development. Kurds say the desire is there, but many outside the parties lack the wherewithal to navigate the halls of bureaucracy in order to establish an NGO. Many say the impression is that no organization can get off the ground without the support of the Kurdistan administrations. Kurds not affiliated with either of the two dominant parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), see little hope of achieving such goals.
Another marker of a developing civil society is independent, functioning trade unions. A 22 April article on ft.com highlights the struggling trade union movement in Kurdistan. "Kurdish [union] leaders are clearly also officials of, or closely linked to, the two main parties," the reporter observed. "In a session with Imad Ahmed, the PUK leader in the region, he gives the game away by saying, 'the unions are weak: they are dominated by the parties. They need to become stronger and more independent.'" A visiting British trade union delegation wondered "why a union movement that is poor and needs funds as well as training is able to drive [the guests around] in big Toyota Land Cruisers and BMWs," the article noted.
There are signs everywhere of the same government control that was practiced by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Residents in KDP-controlled territory say it is impossible to voice dissent against KDP leaders or their relatives, who are said to have profited immensely from lucrative business deals. Enterprising Kurds say that in order to open a company or secure a permit, a cut, in the form of a payoff or a stake in the business must be paid. Perhaps the most lucrative practice allegedly employed by some government insiders is the revenue gained from taxes on oil tankers and other importers upon entering and leaving the KDP controlled areas of Turkey.
Kurds say that a different set of standards exists for foreign investors and expatriate Kurdish investors. Nowhere in KDP-controlled areas can the Iraqi national flag be found -- only the KDP and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) flags fly outside government buildings and military installations.
A 27 April report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (http://www.iwpr.net) claims that the investment climate in the eastern part of Kurdistan controlled by PUK leader and new Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is the best in Iraq, but Talabani's administration has also been accused of corrupt practices. Some critics say that left unchecked, party members and parliamentarians from both the KDP and PUK have usurped land and taken control of natural resources for their own personal use, growing wealthy off of smuggling and shady business ventures. Meanwhile, the parties maintain budgetary control over their administrations, and many report that economic data is a closely held secret.
The newly elected parliament resembles the last one, with its members split evenly between the two major Kurdish parties. The former parliament was known for the corrupt practices of its members, who often showed more interest in profit than in knowing the concerns of their constituency. The parliament functions in much of the same fashion as the rest of Kurdish administration.
Fereydun Hilmi wrote in a December 2004 article published on kurdishmedia.com that the problem stems from a lack of accountability and control. "The executive administration, which is owned by the party, is appointed one by one by direct order from the men at the very top or via party recommendations and not as a result of the qualifications or suitability or experiences of those holding office. Their allegiance is therefore to the people above them while the people below them [the major part of the masses] do not get any attention. Because of the lack of planning and the prevalent corruption, no department is required to prepare any job descriptions for their staff."
Party control over the media helps perpetuate the abuse. Kurdish peshmerga forces, also tied to the parties, operate with impunity as well. Kurds quietly speak about peshmerga forces seizing goods imported by the few humanitarian organizations operating in Kurdistan for their own personal use. As the peshmerga cruise across Kurdistan in new pickup trucks and land cruisers -- all sans license plates -- their authority is not questioned. The political and security apparatuses are further complicated by tribal loyalties that impede the establishment of the rule of law.
Kamal Berzenji wrote in an article published by kurdishmedia.com in December 2002: "The members of the [Kurdish] security services...try to make a business out of their powers by accusing and arresting anybody whom they think they could blackmail and extract money from." He says the practice has its roots in Hussein's Ba'athist regime, but was also practiced during the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s. "One of the reasons [for that war is] business -- and profit making by some Kurdish warlords on both sides. Some of them grew [into] millionaires by confiscating and stealing the property of his fellow Kurdish brothers."
With no functioning judicial system in place, party members and representatives go about their business free from prosecution. In a conference paper republished this month on kurdishmedia.com, Rebwar Fatah identified three systems that can loosely describe the judicial system in Kurdistan: the civil, security, and tribal systems. "The judicial system needs to be independent and free from any external interference," he wrote. "The concept of 'rule of law' must be implemented."
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addressed the issue of corruption during his visit to Baghdad this month, telling newly elected officials that it must be rooted out. And there have been reports of across-the-board corruption within the interim administration of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. While Baghdad remains the focus, Kurdistan runs the risk of falling behind rather than leading the way in the new Iraq.