Iraqi Kurdistan was once a shining example of democracy’s potential in Iraq, but today it is freedom’s bleeding ulcer. While ordinary Iraqis have seen their freedoms increase since Saddam Hussein’s fall, the trajectory is the reverse in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the ruling families have grown more abusive with time.
Until last week, the Kurds could still claim to be the safest, most secure region. No longer: last Thursday, gunmen attached to regional president Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) opened fire on demonstrators in Sulaimani celebrating the ouster of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia. Barzani’s reaction had precedent in Egypt: just as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak burned down the headquarters of opposition leader Ayman Nour, so too did Barzani then proceed to seize and set fire to offices of the opposition Goran Party. And just as Egyptian security targeted the press, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Brownshirts attacked an independent television station to prevent television coverage of the atrocities. It was a stupid strategy; demonstrations continue, and with the deaths of protesters, have spread.
The senselessness Kurdish crackdown not only puts to rest the notion that Iraqi Kurdistan is a democracy but also should cause introspection about why so many Americans assume Barzani and Talabani are U.S. allies.
In hindsight, their embrace of the United States during its liberation of Iraq had more to do with power and money than ideology. Qubad Talabani has bragged of the CIA money Barzani and Jalal Talabani have received. Bribery worked for a while, but the U.S. government may no longer be the biggest paymaster. On February 11, Talabani’s party held a celebration in Sulaimani in honor of Iran’s Islamic Revolution; Barzani’s did too. Israelis embrace Barzani with the same naivete with which they did Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not realizing that both would sell them to the Iranians for the right price.
Kurdish officials also count on Americans’ having short attentions spans: they brag about their exploits fighting Saddam but seldom mention how Barzani used to ally himself with Saddam when it aided his power and pocketbook. In the Middle East, power always trumps principle.
American diplomats and analysts are often charmed too easily. Fancy dinners and seemingly earnest promises sway opinion. In the 1970s, American officials and analysts embraced Saddam Hussein. As today with Barzani, some were motivated by their own pocketbooks, while others were willing to believe him to be their great secular hope; many came to regret their handshakes.
Saddam may have been a brutal dictator, but he was a mentor; a generation of Kurdish politicians mirror his ways. Barzani and Talabani together ordered the disappearance and murder of several thousand Kurds during the 1990s. Barzani’s sons run intelligence and the militia, and his nephew is de facto prime minister. Greed, sycophancy, and isolation take their toll: Masud has become Saddam; his sons Masrour and Mansour act like Saddam’s sons Qusay and Uday; the affable Barham Salih has, like Tariq Aziz, become the acceptable face of a brutal regime, while Talabani’s son Qubad runs a charm offensive not unlike Saddam’s former ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon.
Kurds may be pro-American, but their leaders are only pro-themselves. Trying to develop a lasting relationship absent reform is about as wise as building a skyscraper on sand in an earthquake zone. Alas, as Iraqi Kurdistan also erupts, Obama is signaling to the Islamic world’s most pro-American population that he simply does not care.