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Corruption in Iraqi Kurdistan

By Kate Clark
Reporter, Crossing Continents

Kurdish Flag
The Kurdish flag is flown widely in Iraqi Kurdistan

Flying into the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Irbil and its glitteringly new international airport, it is difficult to believe you are entering Iraq.

"Welcome to Kurdistan," the signs say. There are no Iraqi flags, only Kurdish flags, flying throughout this self-governing region.

The safety and apparent prosperity also makes Kurdistan feel a long way from the rest of Iraq.

Irbil looks like a boom town. Cranes and new multi-storey buildings litter the skyline.

There are shopping malls, luxurious gated communities, conference centres and grandiose headquarters for the factions who once fought Saddam and now rule Kurdistan - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The Regional Government is selling Kurdistan as flourishing, progressive and democratic.

"Bite of the pie"

But beneath the fašade, ordinary Kurds are struggling to survive, while state money gets siphoned off into private pockets.

Street in Irbil
Inflation adds to the economic problems of ordinary Iraqi Kurds

The state also punishes those who stand out of line. An unpublished report by the United Nations, which we were given access to, said thousands of people are detained each month in Kurdistan, mostly for political crimes.

Most are held without trial or access to lawyers.

Businessmen were generally too frightened to speak openly about the corruption they encountered. But Saman Jaff, a former peshmerga - a guerrilla who fought the Saddam regime from the mountains - did agree to an interview.

Corruption is like a virus. It is killing Kurdistan.
Saman Jaff

"If you are a relative of one of the political leaders," he said, "you may be given a government job with a budget or a contract worth, for example $2m or $3m to rebuild a road."

He said it was immaterial whether the relative could actually build a road. The contract would be sold on, repeatedly, until it reached a real construction company. By that time, there might only be half of the money left.

"Corruption is like a virus," he said. "It is killing Kurdistan."

A whistleblower within the Ministry of Planning confirmed that public works were not tendered in a transparent, bidding process.

"Ministers or officials try to give contracts to their own company or their friends' companies," said a senior civil servant, "to gain a bite of the pie."

Beneath the fašade

Meanwhile, ordinary Kurds are struggling to get by. People described rampant inflation, high unemployment and erratic water and electricity supplies.

A street seller in Irbil

In Sulaimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan's second city, people said they got running water for four hours every three days and electricity for three-to-four hours a day.

Contaminated water supplies have led to cholera outbreaks.

"Too many times, we have asked the government to help us,"said one woman who had lost her father-in-law and a baby to cholera said. "But it is in vain. They promise and do nothing."

She described the fear of living through an outbreak last September, knowing her water supply was contaminated, but not having the electricity to boil the water.

"When I think of the budget and the millions and see my situation," she said, "I feel like I am dead."

They see how ordinary people are living. They have no shame
Ari Harsin
Journalist with Awene newspaper

Kurdistan's budget is large - more than $6bn last year - the region's share of Iraq's oil revenues. But there is a growing gap between ordinary Kurds and the political elite.

"I see some of the officials who, 20 years ago, were with us in the mountains," said Ari Harsin, another former peshmerga, who is now the Irbil bureau editor of the independent Awene newspaper.

"They used to be purists, partisans. Now they are driving land cruisers with dark windows and a lot of body guards. They see how ordinary people are living. They have no shame."

One of the up-and-coming Kurdish politicians, Qubad Talabani, accepts there are problems with corruption and that reform is needed. But he believes Iraqi Kurdistan is still, "a glimmer of hope in a very radical Middle East".

He said Kurdish politics were generally secular and the economy was moving towards a free market, "We are not a democracy, but we are democratising."


But Qubad also seems to represent some of the problems in Kurdistan.

Qubad Talabani
I do not think we should be inhibited because we are related to a leader, but it is important for there to be an inclusive environment
Qubad Talabani
Iraqi Kurd Politician
He is certainly smart and speaks eloquently, but he is only 30 years old and has been the Kurdish representative in Washington since he was 22.

His father is the President of Iraq and the leader of one of the two main Kurdish parties, the PUK. His brother is the head of one of the security services.

The other major family, the Barzanis, leaders of the KDP faction, fill the posts of Kurdish president, prime minister and head of the other main security service.

"Obviously I can see how it could be perceived as nepotism," said Qubad.

But he said both families had sacrificed much during the struggle.

"I do not think we should be inhibited because we are related to a leader, but it is important for there to be an inclusive environment."

All the interviewees stressed that it was impossible to compare problems in today's Kurdistan with the Saddam era, when villages were razed and tens of thousands of people were gassed and massacred.

Even so, for many, there is a fear that the dream of a free and democratic Kurdistan is slipping away.

Sometimes, says the journalist, Ari Harsin, Kurdistan seems like a mafia state.

"There is no transparency. They are dividing the budget of the Kurdish Regional Government between the PUK and the KDP, 52% for the KDP. 48% for the PUK. It is a very strange model of democracy."

Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 reports from Kurdistan on Thursday, January 10 at 1100 GMT.

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