INTERNAL bickering among Kurdish rebel groups and a three-month economic blockade by Baghdad have reduced Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to near chaos.
Bands of armed Kurds, many of them outside the control of the main guerrilla groups, carry out extrajudicial executions, smuggle relief supplies and heavy equipment to Iran, and engage in violent crime.
"Many activities are committed in the name of the Kurdistan Front," says Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, speaking of the umbrella organization that acts as a de facto government. "Some local commanders have misused their power. There have been problems with corruption, especially at the local level. We all realize that we must clean up our ranks."
Many Kurds, suffering from severe food and fuel shortages, have turned on their leadership, angered by its constant infighting and often blatant corruption.
"Nobody has the ability to provide a better way of life," says Fouad Baban, who heads the Sulaymaniyah general hospital. "The Kurdistan Front is not laying down any rules."
The 4 million Kurds in northern Iraq live under the protection of a security zone set up by the Western allies above the 36th parallel and in some Kurdish-held areas below the zone. The zone was created last April to convince about 1.5 million Kurdish refugees who had fled to Iran and Turkey that it was safe to return.
But since the withdrawal of Iraqi troops, the Kurds have been unable to establish any central authority. The eight guerrilla groups that comprise the Kurdistan Front are paralyzed by internal disputes and stymied by large-scale corruption by many local Kurdish leaders.
Generators, bulldozers, and even water pumps are smuggled across the border to Iran for sale.
"I have tried to block these routes to Iran," says Mr. Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two main rebel groups. "But every time I block one road, another one opens up."
The 350,000 civil servants and pensioners in the north have not received salary checks for three months, food stocks are dwindling, and prices on the black market are pushing items beyond the reach of most households.
Throngs of retirees pushed their way to the counters of the Al-Rasheed Bank, one of the few banks in the north that remains open. They come for small stipends handed out through the bank by the Kurdistan Front.
But many who arrive say they are never helped, and bank officials say that the little assistance they do offer will end soon because of a lack of funds.
"We have nothing to eat and things cost too much," says Ali Mohammed Amin, an unemployed father of 10. "Nothing works around here."
Kurdish leaders, in an effort to establish order, have agreed to hold elections in early April for a Kurdish parliament and a single leader.
They contend that if they can form a central government, they can put an end to the rule of local militias who, with heavy snows and a breakdown in the telecommunications system, now run much of northern Iraq like feudal landlords.
But the Kurds, who have been unable to reach an autonomy agreement with Baghdad, must also face the withdrawal of most of the international agencies. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will leave by April; the allied monitoring team will depart in June. If these agreements are not renewed, Iraqi troops, now stationed in a line that roughly corresponds to Iraq's known oil reserves, may begin to move north again.
"Everyone is afraid that Saddam [Hussein] will come back, so they take what they can without thinking about the consequences for tomorrow," says a Western relief worker. Relief workers worry that as the agencies withdraw the anarchy may get worse.
Gangs of young men, well-armed and often dressed as peshmerga, or "those who defy death," now set up road blocks to extort money or steal vehicles. Many Kurds say they live in fear.
"I haven't taken my car outside of the garage for three months," says Mohammed Gaza Noori, who heads the Sulaymaniyah teaching hospital. "They would kill me and steal it."
Kurdish leaders say they have arrested "dozens" of Kurds engaged in criminal activity and executed the worst offenders. But these executions have only heightened tension between the fractious groups.
Seven people were executed by members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan three weeks ago in Shaklawa. Two of them, charged with the murder of a surgeon during a robbery, had been released by the Kurdistan Front's supreme court a few days before.
"We have asked for an explanation," Barzani says.