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Before polls, Iraq Kurds fret about graft not land

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurds going to the polls this month are losing interest in age-old battles with Baghdad over land or oil, and starting to care more about the corruption that plagues their largely autonomous region.

Kurdish parliament members hold a session in Arbil, 310 km (193 miles) north of Baghdad July 23, 2008. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

Kurds vote on July 25 in parliamentary and presidential polls widely expected to return President Masoud Barzani to power and give an alliance of Kurdistan’s two most powerful parties a comfortable majority in parliament.

Past polls were decided on the basis of how the Kurdistan regional government’s (KRG) fared in its power struggle with Baghdad over disputed territories, like the oil-producing city of Kirkuk, energy contracts and Kurdish independence.

This time, issues closer to home like graft and a perceived lack of democracy in the northern enclave are taking precedence.

“I’m fed up with this government,” said Lanja Karim, 32, as she played with an infant in a leafy park in Kurdistan’s largest city of Sulaimaniya.

“I’m sick of hearing about Kirkuk and oil when there’s so much corruption here. Who cares if the blood gets sucked out of Kirkuk by Baghdad or by the KRG? Someone still sucks our blood.”

Such anger is unlikely to unseat Barzani, who is worshipped by many Kurds and whose smiling, red-turbaned image adorns almost every street, cafe and office in Sulaimaniya.

Nor is it likely to loosen the grasp of the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - Kurdish Democratic Party alliance.

But by shifting the focus away from the tussle with Iraq’s government, Kurds might be giving their leaders less reason to play hardball in a row that used to buy them easy popularity.

“These elections are more focused on domestic Kurdish issues as opposed to relations between Kurdistan and Baghdad,” Iraqi deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, told Reuters in Sulaimaniya, where he is heading up the PUK-KDP campaign.

“The focus is on the record of the KRG, services provided. On corruption, on accountability,” he said in an interview.

HISTORY LOOMS LARGE

Kurdish politics, still reeling from the suffering inflicted on Kurds by Saddam Hussein, has often seem dominated by the KRG’s various rows with the central government in Baghdad.

Saddam displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk, which Kurds see as their ancient capital, and other areas in a policy of “Arabisation.” He killed thousands with poison gas in the 1980s in gruesome events Kurds will not forget soon.

But Kurds are increasingly focused on their own leaders, whom many see as corrupt, nepotistic and unaccountable. Some, like student Halo Khalil, 22, are barely old enough to remember Saddam. Kurdistan has enjoyed de facto autonomy since allied powers imposed a no-fly zone on Kurdistan in 1991.

“It’s like Saddam all over again,” Khalil said, to applause from his friends. “We swapped one dictatorship for another. The main parties control everything and don’t give a damn about us.”

Others complain about abuses by security forces, indimidation of a tiny independent media, mismanagement of public funds and an atmosphere seen as intolerant to dissent.

A new, independent candidate called Noshwan Mustafa is hoping to capitalize on these sentiments. His “Change” party is fielding a number of candidates for the parliamentary vote.

“The current situation is unbearable,” Change spokesman Shaho Saeed said. “The governing parties are feeding off the problems between them and Baghdad to monopolize Kurdistan.”

Saeed said the Change party policy was that the people of Kirkuk must decide its fate, not Kurdish authorities outside it.

The PUK-KDP say that they’re taking measures against graft.

“There are some serious problems with corruption, mismanagement, lack of accountability...I do not want to underestimate the scale of the problem,” Salih said. “(But) if you were to compare Kurdistan with any other part of Iraq its an amazing example of economic activity, openness and security.”

Writing by Tim Cocks; Additional reporting by Ahmed Ali; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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