Shortly after the end of the first Gulf War, the newly semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq held a rare democratic election. The region-wide election, however, provoked a civil war. There has not been another since.
The war broke the region, which calls itself Kurdistan, into two zones, each dominated by a single political party. Neither party tolerates political pluralism. Both have used torture, killings and kidnappings to achieve their political goals, many people here say.
As US authorities consider how to build democracy in Iraq, they have repeatedly held up this region as a model. In a message to the Kurdish parliament, Paul Bremer, the American in charge of administration in Iraq, said, "I am confident that the example you set, with free elections, will be an inspiration for the rest of the country."
There is little doubt that the Kurdish political system has been less repressive than Saddam Hussein's. But a look at the Kurds' faltering experiment with democracy, where patronage and tribal allegiances crowd out the rule of law, shows how difficult it will be to establish a pluralistic political system in Iraq.
"Compared to the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan is fantastic," said David McDowall, author of A Modern History of Kurds (St. Martin's Press, 2000). "But it's a long way short of democracy as we know it in the Western world. It's incredibly important that Americans understand that democracy is in no way coming tomorrow."
The parties are not new. The revered Kurdish leader, Mustafa Barzani, formed the Kurdish Democratic Party in 1946. Thirty years later, a headstrong young Kurd, Jalal Talabani, quit the party and formed his own -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. After a bitter war for power in the 1990s, the two parties agreed to an American-brokered peace in 1998, and recently began looking for ways to share power.
The Kurdish parties have cemented their power through a near-monopoly on the economy. The lack of clear laws for the region left much room for financial maneuvering. Politicians grew rich off the proceeds of sanction-busting trade with Baghdad, Iran and Turkey. Now political elites zoom around in shiny SUVs, the most conspicuously wealthy in a region where the average salary is US$100 a month.
"Before 1991 senior leaders in both political parties were working in Iran picking apples," said Farhan Sharafani, a tribal leader here who ran the Kurdistan Democratic Party's office in London from 1978 to 1991 but quit in 1994 because of what he now says was corruption. "Now they are rich," he added. "They are hungry for money."
Political leaders bristle at questions about corruption. The party leader, Talabani, when interviewed, said angrily that "only enemies and propagandists" would raise questions about conflicts of interest in his party.
Party supporters acknowledge that the Patriotic Union wields significant control because it is so popular. Heavy-handedness, they say, is simply a function of the fact that the area is new at democracy.
"We started as a resistance movement," Barham Salih, the prime minister of the part of this region controlled by this party, said in an interview. "We have developed more and more democratically, but there is still a lot more to do."
Some party officials privately acknowledge the parties' excesses, though.