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In northern Kurdish areas, security carries a high price

ERBIL, Iraq -- While daily car bombings and political upheaval roil Baghdad, Iraq's northern Kurdistan region has enjoyed a reputation of an oasis of security where terrorist attacks are rare, families picnic on holidays, and Westerners can travel the countryside unscathed.

But residents of Kurdistan's three provinces, lying along Iraq's mountainous borders with Iran and Turkey, say that security has come at a price.

Iqbal Ali Muhamad, said that although his income has increased and his material life has become more comfortable, his spiritual life suffers.

''Even though the majority of the Kurds are Muslims, I am not able to practice my religion as openly as I want to because they might accuse me of being a terrorist," he said.

Sroosh Janab Muhamad, a government employee in Sulaymaniyah, said her life has become easier in some ways.

''Security is good. I can travel outside the country if I want. There are more job opportunities," she said.

''But sometimes the police disappear people and say they are terrorists," she added. ''And the parties control everything. Everything serves their interests."

Power in the largely autonomous Kurdish region is divided between two longtime ruling parties, largely to the exclusion of dissenters. A heavily policed state strictly limits political opposition and speech, residents and human rights advocates say.

In a war-ravaged country where sectarian violence has become the norm, officials of Kurdistan's ruling parties make no apologies.

''Here if you are suspected, you will be detained -- it's as simple as that," said Mohamed Tofiq, a high-ranking member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that largely dominates eastern Kurdistan.

''People here don't have a problem with that," he said. ''Here, if that happens, everybody claps."

Not everybody. Critics of the ruling parties -- the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party, which controls western Kurdistan -- say the squelching of political dissent goes too far.

Some of the critics are officials of Kurdistan's nominal government, who say party-affiliated militias, intelligence services, and security agencies operate largely outside their control.

''The security forces are like political tools in the hands of the parties," said Hadi Ali, minister of Justice for the KDP-controlled administrative center located here.

The parties ''each have their own secret agencies and their own courts. I'm the minister of justice, and they're arresting many people in my party without my approval."

Ali is a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, a small opposition party, which has been attacked by both ruling parties in recent months.

In December, hundreds of people attacked the Islamic Union's headquarters in the western Kurdish city of Dahuk, throwing stones and firing guns into the building.

On a videotape of the attack that was reviewed by The Times, dozens of militia members and security agents could be seen standing idle as rioters destroyed cars parked outside the office, pelted the building with stones, and eventually set the structure on fire.

More than two hours into the riot, a storm of automatic weapons fire could be heard. At least one Islamic Union member was fatally shot.

Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the regional governor for Erbil province, said he regretted the violence, but that Islamic Union members were to blame. Islamic Union members had spoken out against the two main political parties and had withdrawn their support from the Kurdish alliance in Baghdad before the country's Dec. 15 election, he said.

''You can't control people when they say bad things about the KDP and PUK," Mawlood said.

In recent weeks, both parties have jailed journalists who have written articles claiming government corruption. A day after the Halabja riot, PUK guards arrested Hawez Hawezi, a teacher and reporter for the independent Kurdish weekly Hawaliti, for criticizing the two parties. Hawezi has charged the security forces with ''abducting" him without a warrant. He was later released on bail.

Earlier, KDP security forces arrested Kamal Kasim Qadir, an Iraqi-born Kurd with Austrian citizenship, who had written an article asserting that Masrour Barzani, a leading member of the KDP's founding family and the head of the party's intelligence service, had hired prostitutes to spy on him while he was in Austria.

Last month, a judge reduced Qadir's 30-year prison sentence to 18 months. Then he was pardoned by Barzani's father, Massoud, who is the president of the Kurdish regional government and head of the KDP.

The party was founded by Massoud Barzani's father, Mustafa, in 1946. One of Massoud Barzani's other sons, Nechervan, is the regional government's prime minister.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, the KDP -- and the Barzani clan -- led armed resistance to Iraq's central government, pushing for an independent Kurdish state.

In 1975, the PUK, led by Jalal Talabani, who is now Iraq's president, split off from the Barzani-led party.

For years, the two fought Hussein's government. During the 1990s, they also fought each other. Both supported the 2003 US-led invasion and have allied themselves with the Shi'ite political bloc in Baghdad to become the central government's ruling faction.

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