Kurds Pay a Price for Stability and Prosperity

Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq has prospered while the rest of the country suffers through chaos. The ruling Kurdish elite have succeeded in keeping the region relatively secure from terrorism. But it has also cracked down on dissent, persecuting critical journalists and crushing protest demonstrations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The leaders of the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Northern Iraq this month announced the creation of a new provincial government. They promised to reduce corruption, promote democratic standards and end more than a decade of bitter rivalry between the two dominant Kurdish factions. The new government was established amid growing frustration among ordinary Kurds who have protested, sometimes violently, in several northern Iraqi towns over the last year.

NPR's Ivan Watson recently traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Compared to the rest of the country, Iraqi Kurdistan is an island of stability and relative prosperity.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

WATSON: Kurdish security services and militias have protected the Kurdish highlands from the daily violence that is tearing apart Central and Southern Iraq. But that does not mean everybody's happy here. Last March, a crowd gathered in the town of Halabja to protest against government corruption. The angry mob torched a monument erected to honor some 5,000 Halabja residents who were killed in an Iraqi poison gas attack in 1988.

Today, piles of scrap metal lie outside the gutted museum. Inside, the glass that once encased the names of the 5,000 victims lies smashed on the ground. This riot erupted after the protestors tried to prevent Kurdish and foreign officials from attending an annual ceremony commemorating victims of the poison gas attacks. One teenage protestor was shot dead, and several more wounded, when clashes erupted with local Kurdish militiamen. Today, one of those guards, 22-year-old Dlawer Naib(ph), says he sympathizes with the mob.

Mr. DLAWER NAIB (Museum Guard): (Through translator) I feel that people were right to destroy the monument because there is no service in Hallabja. What people need is more, better service (unintelligible) and hospitals.

WATSON: After the riot, some of the protestors escaped a police crackdown by hiding for weeks at this popular swimming hole on a mountainside overlooking town.

(Soundbite of people swimming)

A 22-year-old Kurd who only gives his first name, Massud(ph), says Kurdish officials use the monument to fill their own pockets.

MASSUD (Kurd): (Through translator) And all the officials, they were coming here and giving speech to people that we give service to (unintelligible) and doing better for Hallabja, and they did not do anything for us.

Mr. NACH AWAN AMIN(ph)(Kurdish Official): You know, sometime when you are upset you commit suicide. It was like committing suicide.

WATSON: Nach Awan Amin is a top official in one of the two Kurdish factions that have ruled northern Iraq since 1992. He agrees that his administration has not done enough to rebuild Hallabja. He also says Iraqi Kurdistan needs democratic reform.

Mr. AMIN: Until now, we were working in some way in a totalitarian system. We should change this way to a social democrat, to give more freedom to mass media, to the organization of civil society, and more transparency for our budget spending and expenditures.

WATSON: Despite statements like this, the ruling Kurdish elite seems to be cracking down on dissent. Last October, a Kurdish journalist with Austrian citizenship was jailed and sentenced to 30 years in prison for publishing essays that harshly criticized Massoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, of corruption.

Under pressure from the Austrian government, Kurdish authorities eventually released the journalist. But the persecution of other Kurdish reporters has continued.

One of them, Assos Hardi, received a suspended sentence this month for writing a newspaper story about the firing of two mobile telephone company employees after they cut the phone line of a top Kurdish official who hadn't paid his bill.

Mr. ASSOS HARDI (Editor of Hawalati Newspaper): Can you say, in a such legislation system, you have freedom of speech? Of course not.

WATSON: Serco Jahlal(ph), the Chief of Security in Sulaimania(ph), denies reports that the Kurdish authorities have been threatening and intimidating journalists who report on government corruption and abuse of power.

Mr. SERCO JAHLAL (Chief of Security, Sulaimania): They're now free. They write as they wish.

WATSON: The new provincial government headed by the nephew of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani vows to root out corruption and protect democratic principles. But on the day of the inauguration, 17-year-old Rabeen Abdul Kareen(ph) was not convinced.

The young activist and journalist showed the scars on his head that were left by Kurdish security services who beat him with rifle butts at a protest rally last September.

Mr. RABEEN ABDUL KAREEN (Kurdish Journalist): (Through translator) This is (unintelligible). Also we see that in Kurdistan they'll do anything for keeping themselves in power.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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