Iraqi Kurdistan * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Iraqi Kurdistan *

Iraqi Kurdistan *

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Kurdistan's political rights and civil liberties ratings improved from 6 to 5, and its status changed from Not Free to Partly Free, because of a generally free climate for expression and association, efforts to implement the 1998 Washington accord, and the demilitarization of the ceasefire line between KDP- and PUK-controlled areas


The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) improved relations during 2001 and made progress on implementing the 1998 Washington agreement on power sharing. The agreement called for the establishment of an elected government after a transitional period of power sharing, arrangements for 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. The primary issue impeding cooperation appears to be the division of revenues, but other obstacles remain, including disputes over the composition of a joint regional government. The intermittent military conflict between the two sides has subsided, and the KDP and the PUK took steps in 2001 to enhance cooperation on security, demilitarization, the return of displaced people, and other issues.

In April 1991, the United States, Britain, France, and Turkey established a secure region with a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel in Iraq. Following the collapse of an autonomy agreement with the Iraqi government, the 105-member Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly was created in 1991. After a 1992 vote produced no clear winner, the KDP and the PUK agreed to fill 50 seats each. The remaining five seats were reserved for Christian Assyrians. Disputes over power and revenue sharing erupted into civil war in 1994, precluding operation of the government and any further elections. Frequent clashes occurred up until the Washington Agreement in 1998.

Currently, Kurdistan is split into two parts, with Massoud Barzani's KDP controlling about 1.8 million Kurds in the western regions, including the capital of Irbil, and Jalal Talabani's PUK controlling the region of Suleimaniyah toward the southeast, with a population of about 1.2 million. The KDP reaps a disproportionate share of revenues from trade--both legitimate and illicit--between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria via routes in KDP territory. In contrast, Talabani's region raises most of its revenue from duties on goods smuggled between Iran and Iraq, and from taxes on its population. Poverty and unemployment are widespread in PUK territory, though not nearly as serious as in Baghdad-controlled Iraq. The KDP and PUK each maintain their own administrative, legislative, and executive structures, and despite the institutions created in Irbil under power-sharing arrangements, the PUK has established its own courts and other bodies.

Kurdistan receives 13 percent of Iraq's oil revenues under the 1996 oil-for-food arrangement initiated by the United Nations to allow Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil to pay for humanitarian goods. Kurdish authorities, with UN supervision, have used their share of the revenues to build schools, roads, hospitals, sewage systems, and other development projects, even in rural areas. Infant mortality is actually lower today than it was in 1990, when the UN first imposed sanctions. Meanwhile, indices of human welfare continued to decline in Baghdad-administered Iraq, leading many to conclude that the efficacy of the oil-for-food program depends on who administers it.

Barzani and Talabani improved their cooperation in several areas during 2001. In January, Talabani reportedly ordered media under his control to stop broadcasting anti- KDP propaganda. In April, the KDP and the PUK agreed to demilitarize the line dividing their areas of control and to open bureaus in each other's territory. They also agreed to cooperate on criminal procedures, eased restrictions on travel and trade between the two areas, and allowed displaced people to begin returning to their hometowns. However, they had not agreed on a unified administration by year's end.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the KDP and the PUK found themselves fighting an apparent terrorist threat in their own region. In September, the Jund al-Islam (soldiers of Islam), a group composed of splinter factions of the mainstream Islamic Unity Movement of Kurdistan (IUMK), occupied two villages near the town of Halabcha, southeast of Suleimaniyah. The PUK launched an assault, with offers of assistance from the KDP, and clashes continued into October. The PUK reportedly lost some 150 fighters before calling a ceasefire and declaring an amnesty for Jund al-Islam fighters in late October. PUK officials claimed that Jund al- Islam was funded by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network, and that its aim was to disrupt the region, spread religious rule, and eliminate non-Muslims. Skeptics, including IUMK leaders and Turkish officials, accused the Kurds of exaggerating the terrorist threat in order to crack down on Islamists, who constitute the third-largest political party in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As the only group possessing anti-Baghdad forces on the ground within Iraq, the Kurds could be key participants in any attempt to oust Saddam Hussein. Given that Iraq may be the next target in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, they face the possibility of reprisal from Baghdad in the event of an unsuccessful U.S. attack on Iraq, or the risk of losing U.S. protection if they refuse to take sides against the Iraqi dictator. Saddam has renewed past offers of rapprochement with the Kurds; according to the BBC, he "vowed to cut out the tongue of whoever refuses to enter 'calm dialogue'" with him. The Kurds have so far declined the offer.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Iraqi Kurds cannot change their government democratically, as factional strife has precluded parliamentary activity since 1995. However, the KDP and the PUK have separate administrations and cabinets for the territories under their control, and the PUK led generally free and fair municipal elections in February 2000. The KDP held municipal elections in its territory in May 2001. Assyrian Christians claimed that the elections were rigged by Kurdish tribal leaders, and that when they prepared to boycott the polls, the Kurds threatened them into participating in order to create the appearance of fairness. In one case, tribal villagers and security forces reportedly attacked the Assyrian village of Koso on May 17, severely beating some villagers in an apparent warning to Assyrian leaders contemplating a boycott.

Although the KDP and the PUK maintain separate judicial systems in areas under their control, reliable information about judicial independence 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.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) continues to use Iraqi Kurdistan as a base for its military insurgency against Turkey. Many PKK fighters fled to Kurdistan following the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. Turkey sent troops into northern Iraq in pursuit of PKK fighters during 2001. The PUK and the KDP have adopted a unified policy of expelling the PKK from the region. Iraq sent troops to the Kurdish region on several occasions in 2001. According to Human Rights Watch, Baghdad sent tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and infantry units south of Irbil in June, at the same time that the United States and Britain were making efforts to restructure the economic embargo on Iraq. There are some 900,000 internally displaced persons throughout Kurdistan, with dozens of new arrivals every day from the Iraqi town of Kirkuk, where Iraqi officials continue to carry out a policy of "Arabization." Islamic groups based in Kurdistan committed abuses as well; in February, Francois Hariri, the governor of Irbil, was apparently assassinated by a group that would become part of Jund al-Islam. In September, the Jund al-Islam abducted a doctor from his office in Halabcha and held him for 20 days.

Observers report a generally open climate for discussion of political issues. Dozens of newspapers and magazines appear regularly in the main cities, and opposition television and radio broadcasts are widely available. Kurdnet, a Kurdish satellite network, began broadcasting in 2000 from Suleimaniyah, while the pro-PKK "Voice of Mesopotamia" was launched in May 2001. Internet access and satellite dishes are available without restriction. In July 2001, a journalist from Hawlati in Suleimaniyah was reportedly arrested by KDP officials. Numerous political parties, social organizations, and cultural associations operate freely.

Kurds are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Ethnic and religious minorities face discrimination and harassment at the hands of Kurds in northern Iraq. According to the Assyrian International News Agency, the KDP in particular has pursued policies of land expropriation, assassination, abduction, rape, and torture against Assyrians, all with impunity. Teaching of the Assyrian language is restricted. The Turkoman-ethnic minority faces similar discrimination and has complained of a policy of "ethnic cleansing" against them by Kurdish authorities. In October 2001, KDP officials shut down the offices of the new Turkoman Student Organization, apparently because the office was not licensed by the relevant authorities.

In November 2001, Kurdish media reported that six women were among 140 applicants who passed the required conditions to become cadets in a new training course for police officers in Kurdistan. There are disproportionately more women than men in Kurdistan, according to the UN. This is reportedly because of the Anfal campaign, in which Baghdad killed some 200,000 Kurdish civilians using firing squads and chemical attacks following the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). In 2000, the PUK abolished legal provisions legitimizing honor killings of women. Several women's organizations operate in Kurdistan.