ERBIL // A few weeks ago, Kawa Mahmoud Shakir was driving his mud-flecked, silver Chevrolet back from the town of Sulaimaniyah in Kurdish Iraq, when he stopped for a hitch-hiker.
As the two proceeded along the potholed highway, Mr Shakir asked the man what he did, and was told he was a carpenter. The young man then asked Mr Shakir what he did, and was told he was a government minister and an official spokesperson for the Kurdish Regional Government. "He looked at me strangely," said Mr Shakir, recalling the incident in his office in the ministry of culture and youth in Erbil.
The carpenter's reaction is hardly surprising. Although it is significantly safer than the rest of Iraq, almost every person of consequence in the KRG travels with security. Each of Kurdistan's 111 members of parliament is entitled to a driver and two bodyguards. Ministers are entitled to an eight-man security detail. Mr Shakir, however, a member of the Kurdistan Communist Party, curretly in coalition with the ruling KDP/PUK alliance, declined the security staff available to him when he became a minister last November.
"I think the others are strange," he said. "I believe having bodyguards destroys my freedom." Responding to pressure from his staff, he did agree to use a ministry car on business trips "to look a little bit official", but the rest of the time he travels unaccompanied in his little 2006 Chevrolet. Mr Shakir insists his decision to go without security is a matter of personal choice and not a political point, but the gesture has resonance in a society with a widening gap between ordinary people and the political elite, and increasing demands for greater transparency on security spending.
Many feel that the ruling class, hidden behind the tinted windows of their 4x4s, are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Kurds, many of whom still lack access to basic services. "We are in the beginning process of a democracy," said Qassim Khidhir, a young Kurdish journalist, "and to see officials with a lot of bodyguards, it is a conflict with the idea of democracy. I have more respect for an official who has fewer bodyguards."
Although peshmerga and asayish (plain-clothes) security forces are acknowledged as playing a vital role in keeping the KRG safe, critics say that security spending is not accountable enough, and is often politically motivated. "The government spends an unreasonable amount on security," said Zana Rauf, an MP for the Goran Party, which campaigned in the recent elections on an anti-corruption platform. "They are going to recruit 8,000 asayish for 2010, it's not necessary because we have good security."
While Baghdad continues to be plagued by regular violence, the last major attack in Kurdistan was a suicide bomb detonated outside a hotel in Sulimainyiah two years ago. Mr Rauf said the number of bodyguards used by politicians "doesn't make sense", given the relative stability of the KRG region. "It's a very cultural thing, they think if they have a bodyguard it gives them more personality." Friends and staff of Mr Shakir, however, are bemused and alarmed by his decision to go without security. "It's a good thing that the minister doesn't have bodyguards, but I don't support him 100 per cent," said Halgurd Ali, a senior official at the ministry of culture.
"Sometimes terrorists infiltrate. He is an influential target. He should be cautious, he is not only Kawa Mahmoud, he's also a minister." Denise Natali, a Kurdistan expert at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, has been trying since 2005 to get budgets on security. "No one knows how much they're spending," she said. Ms Natali believes the heavily securitised political culture of Kurdistan is not a hangover from the Kurdish civil war, or the struggle with Saddam, but a reflection of the millions of dollars that have poured in to KRG coffers since it began receiving money from the national budget of Iraq.
"The Kurdistan region was not like this between 1991 and 2003," she said, referring to the ubiquity of armed guards. "Since the creation of security budgets, millions of dollars have been creating an elite sense of self-importance. It goes along with ostentatious displays of wealth." While the security forces' work is essential in preventing the terrorism that continues to blight the rest of Iraq from crossing over, Ms Natali argues, "there is a difference between securing the region and creating a new level of VIPs".
Mr Shakhir is careful not to criticise government's, or even other minister's security spending. "We need asayish, we need police," he said. "When I talk to the interior minister I say 'so long as you are alive, I don't need a bodyguard'." But he is well aware of the dangers his country faces. He fought with the peshmerga and has a photograph of himself on the wall of his office, opposite a reproduction of Picasso's Guernica, as a bearded young warrior with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder during the 1988 Anfal campaign, in which an estimated 100,000 Kurds were killed.
Nonetheless, his behaviour marks him as different from the average high-level Kurdish politician During the recent election campaign, one candidate, who was also a senior official in the PUK party, travelled from his house to various appointments in a convoy of two enormous, luxuriously upholstered 4x4s with a retinue of staff. The minister by contrast cuts a homely figure as he leaves the office, fumbling for his car keys in the pocket of his rumpled overcoat with one hand, clutching a bag of lightbulbs with the other.
When the car becomes stuck in the rush hour traffic of Erbil, he recalls his student days (he has a degree in law from Baghdad University and a PhD in Islamic theology from Holland), his youthful ambitions for social change, and his time in the mountains as a peshmerga. He has struggled, he says, to get to a point where he feels like a minister. "I think all ministers are human beings." * The National