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Arab Spring crackdown damages Kurdistan's image as regional model

The US has long championed semi-autonomous Kurdistan as a democratic model for the rest of Iraq and the Middle East. But Kurdish leaders have violently shut down dissenters.

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The gap between the democratic rhetoric and the party-first reality has widened under the long-serving lions of Kurdish politics: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), whose leader Massoud Barzani is president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG); and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who leader Jalal Talabani is now president of Iraq.

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"The PUK and KDP until recent years had a very romantic relationship with the people; they were the tools of the people against Saddam Hussein and people loved that," says one Kurdish analyst who could not be named for fear of reprisals. "But that image has been shattered – it doesn't exist anymore."

There are indeed some progressive laws on the books, and in fact internal divisions in both parties over the use of force and content of reform. But recent steps point to an authoritarian tendency especially in KDP areas, where yet more Barzani family have recently been given top posts. PUK influence has declined since the breakaway Goran [Change] movement took up the opposition role.

"There are a few trappings of democracy, around the same faces. The faces that I know are the same ones that my father knew, and that my kids will probably know," says the analyst. "One thing they [KDP and PUK] know very well is how to survive, which can't be until the end of time. Protests have been fruitful because they made clear to leaders that a good part of society does not want them."

Kurdish soul-searching

The violence has certainly prompted some soul-searching, and promises of change. KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih, a PUK leader with a progressive reputation, says failure to act on demands "will take the Kurdistan experiment into a dark tunnel."

"We admit without any hesitation that there have been some shortcomings in the corruption files, bad management, and parties have been in control [which] led to protests and legitimate demands for reform," Mr. Salih told the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat this week. "The solution lies in root reform."

The need for such contrition after so many years of Kurdish self-rule is for some a betrayal of decades of suffering and sacrifice. Episodes include Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign that culminated in 1988 with as many as 100,000 dead, and his forces’ crushing of a 1991 Kurdish uprising that pushed 1 million Kurds into Turkey and Iran.

On their lips as they marched across the mountains back then, this reporter heard Kurds praying for an end to tyrannical rule and for freedom. After that, the UN created a safe haven in northern Iraq, marred by a KDP-PUK civil war that took thousands of Kurdish lives in the 1990s.

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