Freedom in the World 2003 - Kurdistan [Iraq]

Polity: Dual leadership
Population: 4,000,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Sunni Muslim (majority)
Ethnic Groups: Kurdish, Assyrian, Armenian, Iraqi Turkoman

Political Rights Score: 5
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change
Kurdistan's civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to changes in the survey methodology.


In the face of American preparations for war with Iraq in 2002, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) proclaimed that they had set aside their differences, and the Kurdish National Assembly met for the first time in eight years.

Since the withdrawal of Iraqi military forces and administrative personnel from northern Iraq and the establishment of a U.S.-enforced no fly zone north of the 36th parallel in 1991, most of the three northern provinces of Erbil, Duhok, and Suleimaniyah have been under the control of Massoud Barzani's KDP and Jalal Talabani's PUK. After holding elections in 1992, which produced an evenly divided National Assembly, the KDP and PUK shared power in the nascent Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) for two years. Disputes over power and revenue sparked a three-year civil war from 1994-1997 and the two rival Kurdish groups set up separate administrations, with the KDP controlling the western region from its headquarters in Erbil, and the PUK controlling the southeast from its headquarters in Suleimaniyah.

In spite of this rivalry, northern Iraq experienced rapid development during the 1990s. With their 13 percent share of Iraqi revenue from United Nations-authorized oil exports, and customs duties from Iraqi-Turkish trade, the Kurdish authorities built schools, roads, hospitals, sewage systems, and other development projects. Anxious to win international support for long-term Kurdish self-governance, both the KDP and the PUK allowed a flourishing of political and civil liberties not seen anywhere else in the Arab world.

In 1998, the two sides signed an agreement, known as the Washington Accord, which called for the establishment of an elected government after a transitional period of power sharing, the equitable distribution of revenues from cross-border trade with Turkey, and the elimination of checkpoints to allow for freedom of movement throughout the region. However, implementation of the agreement remained stalled by disputes over revenue and the composition of a joint regional government.

In 2001, the two rival factions took steps to ease restrictions on travel between their respective sectors and resumed dialogue. This reconciliation was facilitated by the emergence of a militant Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda in northeastern Iraq. Initially calling itself Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam) before changing its name to the more moderate-sounding Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), the group seized two Kurdish villages near the town of Halabja in September 2001, touching off weeks of bloody clashes in which some 150 PUK fighters were killed. The KDP, which had suffered the assassination of a senior official by Islamist terrorists in February, quickly joined the PUK in containing the threat, but the Ansar al-Islam continue to occupy a small enclave of territory near the Iranian border and has reportedly received assistance from the Iraqi government. In 2002, the group carried out several major attacks that left scores of people dead.

The KDP-PUK rapprochement deepened in 2002 as the United States prepared for a possible invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. In August, the KDP released a document outlining its vision of a postwar federal system in which a self-governing Kurdish entity would control oil-rich Kirkuk and have its own president, prime minister, and regional assembly. The Turkish government, which has long feared that Kurdish autonomy in Iraq would spawn demands for self-governance from its own restive Kurdish minority, quickly began reinforcing its military presence in northern Iraq and warned that it would respond to any Kurdish attempt to seize Kirkuk with a full-scale invasion. Within days, Barzani and Talabani held their first face-to-face meeting in Iraq in seven years and declared that they had set aside their differences. The Kurdish parliament convened in October for the first time since 1994, ratified the Washington Accord, and set up a committee to prepare for legislative elections in 2003. For the time being, however, there are no plans to form a unified government.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Iraqi Kurds cannot change their government democratically, as factional strife has precluded parliamentary elections since 1992. The KDP and the PUK have separate administrations and cabinets for the territories under their control. While municipal elections held by the PUK in February 2000 were generally free and fair, the May 2001 municipal elections in the KDP enclave were marred by Assyrian Christian allegations of vote rigging and intimidation of boycott supporters by Kurdish police.

The KDP and the PUK maintain separate judicial systems in areas under their control, but reliable information about judicial integrity is difficult to obtain. Reportedly, hearings are conducted, adjudicated, and enforced by local officials of the two parties. The two groups also run separate prisons and detention facilities where human rights violations, including denial of due process and torture, have occurred. However, both sides regularly grant access to their prisons to delegations from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Freedom of expression is generally protected. The KDP and PUK have allowed approximately 200 print publications, two satellite television channels, around 20 local television stations, and scores of radio stations to operate in areas under their control. Most, however, are affiliated with political parties. While few media outlets are, in fact, independent, there is an open climate for discussion of political issues. While three journalists were arrested for two weeks by the KDP in 2001, there were no such reports in 2002. Internet access and satellite dishes are available without restriction.

Freedom of association is also protected. Around 30 licensed political parties have been established, representing a broad ideological and sectarian spectrum, though the activities of the Iraqi Turkmen Front and the Iraqi Workers Communist Party have been curtailed in recent years. Scores of human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations operate freely. Both Kurdish factions have enacted laws protecting workers' rights.

While the Kurdish authorities have been much more tolerant of ethnic and religious minorities than the central government, some Assyrian Christian and Turkmen groups have complained of ethnic cleansing policies by both the KDP and PUK. While most of these claims are highly politicized and unreliable, both Kurdish factions are known to have forced Assyrian and Turkmen schools to fly the Kurdish flag and teach the Kurdish language.

Women face social and legal discrimination in Iraqi Kurdistan. Local women's organizations report widespread "honor killings" of women who deviate from traditional social norms; the PUK has abolished legal provisions legitimizing them. In 2002, the Independent Women's Organization reported that the number of honor killings in PUK territory declined from 75 in 1991 to 15 in 2001. The KDP has not taken similar measures. In areas of Iraqi Kurdistan under the control of Ansar al-Islam, women are reportedly forced to wear veils and barred from employment and education.

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