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Iraqi Kurds Growing Restless Over Unpaid Wages

May 16, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

IRBIL, Iraq — In sharp contrast to desperate Baghdad, there are no gas lines here, electricity is uninterrupted, and water flows so plentifully that verdant parks offer respite from the baking heat.

But even here in Kurdistan, where Americans are cheered as allies and saviors, anger is mounting at the mess the U.S.-led war has made of the economy and at the absence, a month after the allies won the war, of any visible effort to win the peace.

Because this region in northern Iraq had been severed from the regime of Saddam Hussein for a dozen years, Kurds were largely spared the bombing, destruction and ensuing lawlessness that hit the rest of the country. But the chaos elsewhere threatens to spill into this region as government salaries go unpaid and businesses go under.

"Where is the government? Where is the water, the electricity, the security? What are you doing here?" Sami Abdul Rahman, the deputy prime minister in the western half of Kurdistan, demanded to know from Americans, whom he accused of creating a dangerous power vacuum in Baghdad.

In an interview at his lavish office, air-conditioned and appointed with the requisite portrait of late Kurdish freedom fighter Mustafa Barzani, Abdul Rahman criticized U.S. allies for the paralyzing delays in getting Iraqi money into the hands of Iraqi people.

Civil servants who haven't been paid for three months listen keenly to TV and radio broadcasts about the Iraqi riches found abroad and in Baghdad, stashed by Hussein and his inner circle in the frantic last days of his rule. U.S. investigators Wednesday announced the discovery of $495 million in Iraqi assets at a Lebanese bank, and Treasury officials in Washington acknowledge that they have now accounted for most of the $1 billion plundered by Hussein's son Qusai from Iraq's central bank on the eve of war.

"This is Iraqi money that should be used to pay salaries. We have provided two of the three essentials -- security and public services -- but it is up to the U.S. to give Iraqi people their money," said Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish region's No. 2 official and a key figure in western Kurdistan's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Kurds, like most Iraqis, are grateful that Hussein has been ousted and a path opened to developing a united and democratic Iraq, Abdul Rahman said. But holdouts from Hussein's Baath Party are exploiting the U.S. inaction, he cautioned, in a campaign that could turn Kurds against the Americans as fiercely as in lawless Baghdad.

"Imagine what would happen in the United States if salaries weren't paid for three months," he said. "Saddam made this country into an empire of government workers, not us. We would prefer to see private business. But at present, 60% to 70% of our people live on wages from the government."

Compounding the economic stagnation that has set in since the U.N. "oil-for-food" program was interrupted by war is a growing impression among Kurds that U.S. mediators expect them to make all the concessions necessary to forge a new national alliance.

Kurdish leaders were outraged when U.S. troops from the Army's 101st Airborne Division ordered Kurds out of a military housing block in the town of Domiz. The housing block was built on land from which Hussein expelled Kurds a decade ago so he could settle Arabs there and shift the ethnic balance in the region. U.S. officers insist that it is up to Iraqi courts to address all property disputes.

"Americans must stop taking us for granted," Abdul Rahman warned, adding that Kurds have managed to maintain reasonable security and social services but can't do so forever without income.

At grocery stores and produce stands, merchants complain that their sales have plummeted since the bombing because civil servants haven't been paid.

"My sales are down about 50%, which means I can't afford new orders," lamented Ahmed Maki, owner of the Majestic supermarket. "No one is getting paid. No one has any money."

Part of the money problem stems from the perception among some U.S. officials with the Pentagon-run Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance that the Kurds have their own resources and are holding back on the public payroll to get a share of the money that will be paid out from Baghdad.

The Kurdish region was in effect exempt from U.N. sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, because its border with Turkey was open and Kurds imposed trade tariffs on incoming goods. The Kurds also had separate oversight of the oil-for-food program in their territory.

Kurdistan's payroll totals about $40 million a month, a sum Abdul Rahman described as a pittance compared with the Iraqi wealth at the United States' disposal. Salaries would kick-start businesses, he said, and help workers survive until vital oil facilities can be repaired.

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