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Safety Over Liberty in Kurdistan

The two ruling parties in the largely autonomous Iraqi region leave no room for dissent.

April 10, 2006|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

IRBIL, Iraq — While daily car bombs and political upheaval roil Baghdad, Iraq's northern region of Kurdistan has enjoyed a reputation as an oasis of security where terrorist attacks are rare, families picnic on holidays, and Westerners can travel the countryside unscathed.

But residents of Kurdistan's three provinces, lying along Iraq's mountainous borders with Iran and Turkey, say that security has come at a price.

Iqbal Ali Mohammed said that although his income has increased and his material life has become more comfortable, his spiritual life suffers.

"Even though the majority of the Kurds are Muslims, I am not able to practice my religion as openly as I want to because they might accuse me of being a terrorist," he said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Kurdish leaders: An article in the April 10 Section A gave an incorrect family relationship between Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdish regional government, and Massoud Barzani, the president. Nechirvan is a nephew of Massoud, not a son.

Sroosh Janab Mohammed, a government employee in Sulaymaniya, said her life has become easier in some ways.

"Security is good. I can travel outside the country if I want. There are more job opportunities," she said.

"But sometimes the police disappear people and say they are terrorists," she added. "And the parties control everything. Everything serves their interests."

Power in the largely autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq is divided between two longtime ruling political parties, largely to the exclusion of dissenters. A heavily policed state strictly limits political opposition and speech, residents and human rights advocates say.

In a war-ravaged country where sectarian violence has become the norm, officials of Kurdistan's ruling parties make no apologies.

"Here if you are suspected, you will be detained, it's as simple as that," said Mohammed Tofiq, a high-ranking member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that largely controls eastern Kurdistan.

"People here don't have a problem with that," he said. "Here, if that happens, everybody claps."

Not everybody. Critics of the ruling parties -- the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party, which controls western Kurdistan -- say the squelching of political dissent goes too far.

Some of the critics are officials of Kurdistan's nominal government, who say that party affiliated militias, intelligence services and security agencies operate largely outside their control.

"The security forces are like political tools in the hands of the parties," said Hadi Ali, justice minister for the KDP-controlled administrative center in Irbil.

The parties "each have their own secret agencies and their own courts. I'm the minister of justice, and they're arresting many people in my party without my approval."

Ali is a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, a small opposition party, which has been sharply criticized by both ruling parties in recent months.

In December, hundreds of people attacked the KIU's headquarters in the western Kurdish city of Dahuk, throwing stones and firing guns into the building.

In a videotape of the incident that was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, dozens of militia members and security agents could be seen standing idle as rioters destroyed cars parked outside the office, pelted the building with stones and eventually set the structure on fire.

More than two hours into the riot, a storm of automatic weapons fire could be heard. At least one KIU member was shot to death.

Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, governor of Irbil province, said he regretted the violence, but that KIU members were to blame. KIU members had spoken out against the two main political parties and had withdrawn their support from the Kurdish alliance in Baghdad before the country's Dec. 15 election, he said.

"You can't control people when they say bad things about the KDP and PUK," Mawlood said. Divisions within Kurdish ranks could weaken Kurdistan's bargaining power in Baghdad, he added. "Maybe in 10 years it will be OK to say such things, but not now."

A second violent incident recently took place in the eastern Kurdistan village of Halabja, where in 1988 about 5,000 Kurds died in a poison gas attack for which former President Saddam Hussein's air force is believed to be responsible.

Last month, high school and college students and others staged a protest against government corruption at an annual commemoration of that incident. PUK security forces fired into the crowd, killing a 15-year-old boy. Amid gunfire and chanting of anti-government slogans, the mob torched a memorial museum dedicated to the 1988 massacre.

In recent weeks, both parties have jailed journalists who have written articles alleging government corruption. A day after the Halabja riot, PUK guards arrested Hawez Hawezi, a teacher and reporter for the independent Kurdish weekly Hawlati, for criticizing the two parties. Hawezi has charged the security forces with "abducting" him without a warrant. He was later released on bail.

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