Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kurdistan

Will Masud Barzani Become Iraqi President?

It has now been more than a year since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. And while Kurdish authorities have recently released another photograph showing that despite persistent rumors he is still alive, the refusal to allow visitors or release any video of Talabani speaking seems to suggest that concerns about his mental and physical abilities are warranted. It is understood across the Iraqi ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum that Talabani will not return. And while Iraqis are willing to maintain the fiction that he is still president, they have been discussing for months his successor.

Visiting Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk last summer, I was surprised to hear a suggestion from a wide range of officials that Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, might take over as Iraq’s president after next year’s elections.

While it might seem illogical that Barzani would move to Baghdad, it’s actually not so farfetched. Barzani might like to depict himself as a Kurdish nationalist leader, but that’s always been more a means to an end rather than the end itself. For Barzani, power, money, and title trumps Kurdish nationalism: How else to explain Barzani inviting Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guards to Erbil in 1996, or more recently his efforts to undercut Kurdish autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan, or his willingness to cooperate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to undercut Kurdish officials inside Turkey. Being president of Iraq can be a lucrative position, and Masud—who lives in a former mountaintop resort he confiscated for his own personal use—likes the finer things in life.

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It has now been more than a year since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. And while Kurdish authorities have recently released another photograph showing that despite persistent rumors he is still alive, the refusal to allow visitors or release any video of Talabani speaking seems to suggest that concerns about his mental and physical abilities are warranted. It is understood across the Iraqi ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum that Talabani will not return. And while Iraqis are willing to maintain the fiction that he is still president, they have been discussing for months his successor.

Visiting Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk last summer, I was surprised to hear a suggestion from a wide range of officials that Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, might take over as Iraq’s president after next year’s elections.

While it might seem illogical that Barzani would move to Baghdad, it’s actually not so farfetched. Barzani might like to depict himself as a Kurdish nationalist leader, but that’s always been more a means to an end rather than the end itself. For Barzani, power, money, and title trumps Kurdish nationalism: How else to explain Barzani inviting Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guards to Erbil in 1996, or more recently his efforts to undercut Kurdish autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan, or his willingness to cooperate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to undercut Kurdish officials inside Turkey. Being president of Iraq can be a lucrative position, and Masud—who lives in a former mountaintop resort he confiscated for his own personal use—likes the finer things in life.

The Iranian government, for its part, is also in favor of a Barzani presidency. Their reason, according to various Iraqi politicians, is more Machiavellian: If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seen as Tehran’s man in Baghdad (an exaggerated characterization as Maliki is an Iraqi nationalist, but he does listen and consider quite carefully what the Iranians say), then Nechirvan Barzani, currently the prime minister in Iraqi Kurdistan, is Iran’s man in Erbil, paying as much deference if not more to Qods Force chief Qasim Suleimani and the other powers that be in Tehran as Maliki does. If Masud Barzani goes to Baghdad, and the Kurds eliminate the presidency in favor of a stronger premiership, then the Islamic Republic figures it’s game, set, match in Iraq, with Masud Barzani shunted off to some honorary position. That U.S. officials also find Nechirvan (and Maliki) professionals seems to suggest that both have the support of the powers whose opinion still counts in Iraq.

Masud is being coy, but he seems to want the job. He is term-limited, and his second term as president should have ended several months ago. He has illegally extended his term to remain president for a couple more years, but that might simply be to wait until the spot formally opens in Baghdad. Certainly, Barzani’s rivals would be glad to have him out of Kurdistan, be it for selfish reasons or because Barzani’s tribal mentality has always held back more progressive forces.

There are problems with such a scenario. It’s bad for Iraq, for it confirms—in the word of one Iraqi official—the transactional nature of Iraqi politics, and sets Iraq down the path of the Lebanon model of confessional (and ethnic) politics. And Barzani does not have Talabani’s talent. He seldom sees the big picture and often exacerbates conflict rather than calms it. Many Sunni Arabs may be upset that they will not achieve the presidency, even if Usama al-Nujayfi wields more power as speaker of parliament. Masud’s eldest son Masrour might also cause trouble if left out: He sees himself as a natural successor to his father, and would object to the far more talented Nechirvan Barzani effectively becoming the kingmaker in Kurdistan.

It’s a game of thrones right now in Iraq, and it looks like Masud Barzani might win the title of which he’s always dreamed, even if the reason has less to do with his individual talents and more to do with others seeking to rise up in his place. While Maliki’s reelection remains uncertain (another sign that Iraq is not the dictatorship some claim; not too many autocrats have to fight for their political lives at the ballot box), Barzani’s new role at this point in time seems a sure thing. Whether the United States is ready for that scenario: well, that’s another question whose answer is far from clear.

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Another Journalist Murdered in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is often described as Iraq’s bright spot, a region enjoying both security and democracy. Certainly, the region is more secure than Baghdad since, with only occasional exceptions, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have given it a pass. Praise for Kurdish democracy has also been highly exaggerated. Opposition parties are more active and there have been more successive political transitions in southern and central Iraq, especially in provincial elections, than in Kurdistan.

The real blight on Iraqi Kurdistan, however, has been its treatment of the press. Corruption is rife in Iraqi Kurdistan, as it is in Iraq itself. In both portions of Iraq, the press has sought to tackle the problem. In Kurdistan, however, that is often a fatal task. On the evening of December 5, Kawar Germyani was gunned down outside his home in Kalar. Germyani was the editor-in-chief of Rayal, and a contributor to Awene (a journal for which, full disclosure, I occasionally contribute). He becomes the third journalist murdered in five years. Despite the Kurdish Regional Government’s rhetoric of security, none of the killers have been brought to justice. Germyani had previously sued Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) politburo member Mahmud Sangawy for threatening the writer’s life after a corruption expose. When Sangawy refused to obey the court summons, he suffered no consequences.

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Iraqi Kurdistan is often described as Iraq’s bright spot, a region enjoying both security and democracy. Certainly, the region is more secure than Baghdad since, with only occasional exceptions, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have given it a pass. Praise for Kurdish democracy has also been highly exaggerated. Opposition parties are more active and there have been more successive political transitions in southern and central Iraq, especially in provincial elections, than in Kurdistan.

The real blight on Iraqi Kurdistan, however, has been its treatment of the press. Corruption is rife in Iraqi Kurdistan, as it is in Iraq itself. In both portions of Iraq, the press has sought to tackle the problem. In Kurdistan, however, that is often a fatal task. On the evening of December 5, Kawar Germyani was gunned down outside his home in Kalar. Germyani was the editor-in-chief of Rayal, and a contributor to Awene (a journal for which, full disclosure, I occasionally contribute). He becomes the third journalist murdered in five years. Despite the Kurdish Regional Government’s rhetoric of security, none of the killers have been brought to justice. Germyani had previously sued Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) politburo member Mahmud Sangawy for threatening the writer’s life after a corruption expose. When Sangawy refused to obey the court summons, he suffered no consequences.

The PUK’s targeting of journalists and its efforts to muzzle free speech are problematic for other reasons: The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani declares its political independence, but employees and students say they must be mindful of PUK sensitivities. That senior PUK officials involved in the university have yet to condemn the murder is more troubling still.

Iraqi Kurdistan could yet become a shining beacon, but it will never match its politicians’ rhetoric or its citizens’ hopes so long as the price for reporting on the activities of senior political party members is death. Unfortunately, while the United States has no leverage in Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan following its withdrawal, its silence amidst the murder of journalists seems to be interpreted by nominally pro-American parties like Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as a license to kill. Alas, the problem is not limited to Kurdistan. American progressives and Middle Easterners both hoped that President Barack Obama’s administration would usher in new attention to human rights and liberal values in the Middle East. That his commitment to human rights and liberty were rhetorical only is underscored by the fact of the tremendous decline in free press across the region, not only in Kurdistan, but also in Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere.

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U.S. Should Embrace Syrian Kurdistan

Twenty-two years after their Iraqi Kurdish brethren proclaimed their autonomy against the backdrop of an uprising against Saddam Hussein, Syrian Kurds yesterday formally declared the creation of an autonomous government. The United States should embrace the move. Syrian Kurds have largely restored order to the territory they control in and around the town of Qamishli. Children go to school, hospitals are open, and the local government provides basic services. This was no mean feat: Syrian Kurdish militias had to defend their region from encroachments and attacks from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

So far, the United States has avoided contact with the Syrian Kurds, and has repeatedly denied Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim a visa. The problem is two-fold: First, the PYD maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Ninety percent of Syrian Kurds sympathize with the PKK, which is no surprise since its leader Abullah Öcalan had for years resided in Syria and because they see the revived Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as both corrupt and tribal: Syrian Kurds have no desire for leaders who prioritize a distant family over their own. American officials also say that the PYD is too close to Bashar al-Assad. This is an exaggeration: the PYD sees extremism on both sides of the conflict, and has worked to maintain their neutrality.

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Twenty-two years after their Iraqi Kurdish brethren proclaimed their autonomy against the backdrop of an uprising against Saddam Hussein, Syrian Kurds yesterday formally declared the creation of an autonomous government. The United States should embrace the move. Syrian Kurds have largely restored order to the territory they control in and around the town of Qamishli. Children go to school, hospitals are open, and the local government provides basic services. This was no mean feat: Syrian Kurdish militias had to defend their region from encroachments and attacks from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

So far, the United States has avoided contact with the Syrian Kurds, and has repeatedly denied Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim a visa. The problem is two-fold: First, the PYD maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Ninety percent of Syrian Kurds sympathize with the PKK, which is no surprise since its leader Abullah Öcalan had for years resided in Syria and because they see the revived Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as both corrupt and tribal: Syrian Kurds have no desire for leaders who prioritize a distant family over their own. American officials also say that the PYD is too close to Bashar al-Assad. This is an exaggeration: the PYD sees extremism on both sides of the conflict, and has worked to maintain their neutrality.

To ignore the autonomous Kurdish government in Syria would be a major mistake, however. The Syrian opposition has radicalized over the years. The moderates have long since been pushed aside. The alternative to the secular Kurdish administration is the Nusra Front and other opposition groups which hold the West in disdain.

In 1991, the Iraqi Kurds were pariahs, and treated poorly by the United States. Let us be glad that the Iraqi Kurds were forgiving, because they ultimately proved to be a great strategic asset to the United States. So long as the Syrian Kurds do not prematurely try to change Syria’s borders, there is no reason why we should not embrace the opportunity to bolster U.S. strategic interests and local liberty at the same time.

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How to Cheat Americans in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan has often been upheld as a model of stability in Iraq. Last month, it held largely free, even if limited elections. (Masud Barzani, facing a two-term limit, in tin-pot dictator fashion, simply decided to extend his second term so as to remain regional dictator). And while there’s much to that assessment—last week’s quintuple car bombings notwithstanding—Kurdistan has also become perhaps the most corrupt region within Iraq, which already is a pretty corrupt place.

Seldom, however, are the mechanisms of corruption exposed in great detail in the West. That has changed in an ongoing court case involving Bafil Talabani, the eldest son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Basically, a U.S.-based company won a contract to supply power plant equipment to the Kurdistan Regional Government for $187 million. The U.S. firm had an agreement with an offshore company to act as their agent for a commission of around $60 million, but Talabani and other Kurdish officials maneuvered to cheat the Americans out of their money. The court records allege in great detail how this occurred.

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Iraqi Kurdistan has often been upheld as a model of stability in Iraq. Last month, it held largely free, even if limited elections. (Masud Barzani, facing a two-term limit, in tin-pot dictator fashion, simply decided to extend his second term so as to remain regional dictator). And while there’s much to that assessment—last week’s quintuple car bombings notwithstanding—Kurdistan has also become perhaps the most corrupt region within Iraq, which already is a pretty corrupt place.

Seldom, however, are the mechanisms of corruption exposed in great detail in the West. That has changed in an ongoing court case involving Bafil Talabani, the eldest son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Basically, a U.S.-based company won a contract to supply power plant equipment to the Kurdistan Regional Government for $187 million. The U.S. firm had an agreement with an offshore company to act as their agent for a commission of around $60 million, but Talabani and other Kurdish officials maneuvered to cheat the Americans out of their money. The court records allege in great detail how this occurred.

Corruption remains a huge problem across the region, perhaps greater than terrorism even, and it remains a huge impediment in Kurdistan both for its own democratic development and for the bilateral relationship between Erbil and Washington. How sad it is, in effect, that so many family members of senior Kurdish politicians would mortgage the future of their region (and, perhaps one day, country) for the sake of a quick buck. Or a couple million of them.

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Where in the World Is Jalal Talabani?

Nine months ago tomorrow, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a devastating stroke. While there were rumors at the time he had died on the spot, he was revived and taken while still in a coma to Germany where, over the course of weeks and months, his family said he was improving steadily. They would not allow him any visitors, but last May, amidst a revival of rumors that he had not improved, they released a photograph which purports to show Talabani convalescing. That photograph was not able to dispel rumors that Talabani is paralyzed, unable to talk, and permanently impaired.

In recent weeks, as elections approach in Iraqi Kurdistan—elections in which Talabani’s political party is not expected to do well—a number of Iraqi politicians have sought to meet Talabani in Germany. After all, if Talabani has improved as much as his wife and sons suggest, then he should be able to meet visitors. Without exception, all visitors have been turned away and no new photographs have been forthcoming. Not surprisingly, then, rumors have again rebounded in Iraq that Talabani has died, and that Kurdish politicians are cynically hiding the fact until after the forthcoming Kurdish elections and perhaps until the next Iraqi elections, next year. After all, it will be much easier to resolve Iraq’s outstanding issues as part of a political grand bargain after new elections rather than under the current stalemate.

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Nine months ago tomorrow, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a devastating stroke. While there were rumors at the time he had died on the spot, he was revived and taken while still in a coma to Germany where, over the course of weeks and months, his family said he was improving steadily. They would not allow him any visitors, but last May, amidst a revival of rumors that he had not improved, they released a photograph which purports to show Talabani convalescing. That photograph was not able to dispel rumors that Talabani is paralyzed, unable to talk, and permanently impaired.

In recent weeks, as elections approach in Iraqi Kurdistan—elections in which Talabani’s political party is not expected to do well—a number of Iraqi politicians have sought to meet Talabani in Germany. After all, if Talabani has improved as much as his wife and sons suggest, then he should be able to meet visitors. Without exception, all visitors have been turned away and no new photographs have been forthcoming. Not surprisingly, then, rumors have again rebounded in Iraq that Talabani has died, and that Kurdish politicians are cynically hiding the fact until after the forthcoming Kurdish elections and perhaps until the next Iraqi elections, next year. After all, it will be much easier to resolve Iraq’s outstanding issues as part of a political grand bargain after new elections rather than under the current stalemate.

There is something very, very wrong with a situation in which a president is quite literally kept on ice, but normal isn’t normal in the Middle East. It should not, however, pass without comment in the U.S. press. Talabani was once a favorite source for U.S. journalists, and he is head of state. That he has effectively disappeared for nine months and journalists simply take his immediate family’s testimony as fact is a fundamental betrayal of basic journalism. From a policy perspective, it is also unfortunate since it suggests that a single person is more important than a constitutional system.

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Telling the Truth About Iraqi Kurdistan

A visit to Iraqi Kurdistan is truly a humbling experience. Both 13 years ago, when I first visited the region, and now it’s easy to be impressed with all that the Iraqi Kurds have achieved. Indeed, Fouad Ajami—who recently spent a couple days in the region—wrote eloquently about his most recent visit, with a paean to policymakers in Washington to side with the Kurds in their dispute with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

I seldom disagree with Ajami, but his praise of Kurdistan seems incongruous with his previous work. In effect, he comes perilously close to embracing dictatorship over democracy, especially coming alongside regional President Masud Barzani’s announcement delaying elections on the curious logic that he need not adhere to his two-term limit if his second term never formally ends.

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A visit to Iraqi Kurdistan is truly a humbling experience. Both 13 years ago, when I first visited the region, and now it’s easy to be impressed with all that the Iraqi Kurds have achieved. Indeed, Fouad Ajami—who recently spent a couple days in the region—wrote eloquently about his most recent visit, with a paean to policymakers in Washington to side with the Kurds in their dispute with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

I seldom disagree with Ajami, but his praise of Kurdistan seems incongruous with his previous work. In effect, he comes perilously close to embracing dictatorship over democracy, especially coming alongside regional President Masud Barzani’s announcement delaying elections on the curious logic that he need not adhere to his two-term limit if his second term never formally ends.

Ajami is correct to note what an oasis the American University of Iraq-Sulaymani has become, but he ignores the grumbling of many locked outside the gate: AUI-S has taken tens of millions of dollars in Kurdish government funds as public universities in the region are increasingly starved for cash. In effect, AUI-S represents the opposite of Robin Hood: Stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Nor is AUI-S as free from Kurdish politics as some of its students and supporters once hoped.

I was troubled by Ajami’s praise for Stran Abdullah, whom he describes as “one of Kurdistan’s most informed and talented journalists.” Mr. Abdullah may be a good journalist and an honorable man, but it is strange to omit that Abdullah works for Kurdistan Nwe, the official organ of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, not an independent newspaper. There is no mention of the dozens of Kurdish reporters working for independent newspapers that face harassment, arrest, and, in some cases, even death. Praising Abdullah exclusively is akin to praising a reporter for Pravda, rather than the stringer for Radio Free Europe.

Regarding Kirkuk, Ajami writes:

Kirkuk alone should suffice to sober up those who rush into the breach—it is a city as rich in oil as it is in political troubles. One doesn’t have to be terribly imaginative to foresee catastrophe in that tinderbox: ethnic cleansing, a Kurdish victory in Kirkuk matched by the eviction of Kurds from the Sunni Arab side of the dividing line.

Kirkuk, however, is thriving. It has been remarkably calm over the past couple years, as Najmaldin Karim, its governor, has shown that politicians who spend the resources allocated to them to the benefit of all communities bring good will, and the resulting local confidence amplifies economic development further. Indeed, Kirkuk has transformed itself from trouble spot to proof that Iraq can work when its leadership does.

Ajami reserves his true animus for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when he writes:

The Kurds remain the most pro-American population in this swath of broad Middle Eastern geography. Yet Washington spurns the Kurds as it courts a strongman in Baghdad who has cast his lot with the Iranian theocracy and the Syrian dictatorship. In December 2011, as President Obama boasted of his strategic retreat in the region and of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he held up Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq.” Never mind that Mr. Maliki was hard at work intimidating the opposition, consolidating power and warning the Kurds that all oil proceeds must run through Baghdad.

Maliki’s government faces many challenges—and certainly the prime minister is an imperfect man—but Ajami is not being accurate when he characterizes Maliki as a strongman and Barzani as some sort of democrat. If Maliki is a strongman, then he is a curious sort: Maliki governs over an unwieldy cabinet that constantly checks him as he tries to implement his agenda. His picture may hang in a few government offices, but on the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, and any other major Iraqi city, it is often absent. Investors enter the Iraqi market without being forced into partnership with Maliki. In the last elections in Baghdad and Basra, Maliki’s man lost out to the opposition and, in both cases, stood down gracefully. Contrast that with the “democrat” Barzani: His photograph is ever present in Kurdistan; he has appointed his nephew prime minister and his son presides over the security services and national security agency, and people quickly find themselves in prison for criticizing the great leader. The last journalist killed in Kurdistan? His crime was questioning Barzani nepotism. U.S. policy should be to pressure for transparent elections not only for Maliki, but also for Barzani. Alas, only Barzani believes that he need no longer bother with public accountability.

As for Iranian influence? The amount of Iranian outreach to both Iraq proper and Iraqi Kurdistan is troubling. The recent summit in Erbil between Barzani and Maliki was not done at the behest of America, but rather on the instructions of Qods Force commander Qasem Suleimani, a man whom Iraqis jokingly refer to as Iran’s “real president.” That said, if Professor Ajami has the opportunity and desire to travel through the entirety of Iraq rather than simply the Iraqi Kurdish cities of Sulaymani and Erbil, he will find that Iranian commerce is much more overt and plentiful in Kurdish Iraq than in southern, Shi’ite Iraq.

The United States should not be indifferent to Kurdish aspirations, but the best possible way to do so would be to confront the reality of Kurdistan’s declining human rights, not pretending it to be Xanadu. And while many of us are and have been friends with prominent Kurdish politicians, it is important to recognize that everyone in Iraq has an agenda, even in Kurdistan.

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Fethullah Gulen: Islamize or War

On March 21, 2013, after years of armed struggle, Abdullah Öcalan—Turkey’s imprisoned Kurdish leader—accepted a peace deal proffered by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While Erdoğan will claim credit for winning an agreement to have PKK fighters withdraw, the life expectancy of the deal remains in question because Erdoğan seems unwilling to implement the confederation which Turkey’s Kurds and Öcalan’s followers demand. Such a confederation would not only require political reorganization, but would also demand fundamental reform of Turkey’s arm forces and security services to enable Kurds to serve in the bodies which once oppressed them.

So what is Turkey’s motive for pushing a peace process which the Turkish leadership is not willing to see to the end? In my Kurdistan Tribune column, I cynically suggested two theories: First was Erdoğan’s desire to win the Kurdish vote for any constitutional referendum that could propel Erdoğan into a revamped presidency, offering him even greater powers. And the second was a desire to win the 2020 Summer Olympics, the award of which to Turkey could personally net Erdoğan’s family hundreds of millions of dollars since, regardless of what debt hosting the Olympics might incur to the Turkish people, seldom is there a large project which Erdoğan cannot direct to Çalik Holdings, a company run by his son-in-law.

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On March 21, 2013, after years of armed struggle, Abdullah Öcalan—Turkey’s imprisoned Kurdish leader—accepted a peace deal proffered by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While Erdoğan will claim credit for winning an agreement to have PKK fighters withdraw, the life expectancy of the deal remains in question because Erdoğan seems unwilling to implement the confederation which Turkey’s Kurds and Öcalan’s followers demand. Such a confederation would not only require political reorganization, but would also demand fundamental reform of Turkey’s arm forces and security services to enable Kurds to serve in the bodies which once oppressed them.

So what is Turkey’s motive for pushing a peace process which the Turkish leadership is not willing to see to the end? In my Kurdistan Tribune column, I cynically suggested two theories: First was Erdoğan’s desire to win the Kurdish vote for any constitutional referendum that could propel Erdoğan into a revamped presidency, offering him even greater powers. And the second was a desire to win the 2020 Summer Olympics, the award of which to Turkey could personally net Erdoğan’s family hundreds of millions of dollars since, regardless of what debt hosting the Olympics might incur to the Turkish people, seldom is there a large project which Erdoğan cannot direct to Çalik Holdings, a company run by his son-in-law.

In a recent speech, Fethullah Gülen, the controversial Turkish religious thinker in self-imposed exile in the United States, has suggested a third goal. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Gülen has spoken out on the peace process, calling on everyone to “find religion as the common ground…” Gülen said groups should unite over what they hold in common, “our God, our prophet, our religion,” warning people against ignoring these common points, which would lead them to “disunity.”

That sounds good but, in effect, Gülen is arguing Kurds—who tend to prioritize ethnic identity over religious identity—should embrace more Islamist thinking in order to find commonality with their oppressors. It is worth noting where we have heard such thinking before: In 1971, after the Pakistani Army lost Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), the Pakistani military and President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto sought consciously to promote religion as the identity which would unite all Pakistanis regardless of ethnic group. (Pakistan had been formed as a state for the Muslims but, in practice, ethnic identity remained as important if not more so among the Pashtun, Baluchi, and Bengalis). The result was a deliberate—and largely successful—attempt to radicalize the population.

Pakistan is a mess today largely because the Pakistani military and its component, the Inter-Services Intelligence–implemented Bhutto’s vision. It got worse: After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan was able to leverage its position as the only point of egress for the West into Afghanistan as a way to exclusively support the so-called Peshawar Seven, in effect transforming Pakistan’s religious obsession into their far more liberal neighbor, forever changing that land as well.

Make no mistake: It is long past time for Turkey to make peace with the Kurds. Let us hope that Turkey does not believe that the path to peace lies in promoting religious identity over righting historical wrongs.

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Iraqi Kurdistan’s Choice: Emirate or Democracy

Every so often, an article or report will come out that repeats a common theme: Iraq itself may be a disaster, but Iraqi Kurdistan is secure, developing, and democratic. Here’s one from CBS News, another from the Washington Post, a third from National Review Online and, most recently, a piece from the Weekly Standard, in which the author ironically does not realize that he relies on a man accused by the U.S. army of corruption.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is slick and does not hesitate to pay visitors’ ways, shower them with hospitality, or hold out the possibility of a slice of the Kurdish oil pie. As with the Mujhaedin al-Khalq, which essentially was able to bribe former officials to get it de-listed as a terrorist group, too many former officials—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to let greed trump principle when it comes to the Kurds. Yes, Kurds have made tremendous success (as has southern Iraq) since their removal from the yoke of Saddam’s dictatorship, but democratic they are not.

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Every so often, an article or report will come out that repeats a common theme: Iraq itself may be a disaster, but Iraqi Kurdistan is secure, developing, and democratic. Here’s one from CBS News, another from the Washington Post, a third from National Review Online and, most recently, a piece from the Weekly Standard, in which the author ironically does not realize that he relies on a man accused by the U.S. army of corruption.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is slick and does not hesitate to pay visitors’ ways, shower them with hospitality, or hold out the possibility of a slice of the Kurdish oil pie. As with the Mujhaedin al-Khalq, which essentially was able to bribe former officials to get it de-listed as a terrorist group, too many former officials—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to let greed trump principle when it comes to the Kurds. Yes, Kurds have made tremendous success (as has southern Iraq) since their removal from the yoke of Saddam’s dictatorship, but democratic they are not.

The West should learn from its past love affair with Saddam. Handshakes and feasts do not a democrat make. Journalists who question the region’s corruption or why its leading families operate above the law often wind up hurt or dead (another prominent journalist disappeared in Iraqi Kurdistan yesterday). And while much of Iraq prepares for 2013 provincial elections this month, Iraqi Kurdistan has yet to hold the 2009 round. Prime Minister Maliki and the administration in Baghdad may have serious flaws, but the true autocrat has always been in Erbil. Maliki’s picture doesn’t grace walls, shops, and schools. Barzani can’t say the same.

Too often, journalists distracted with the glitter of Kurdish hospitality and politicians hoping for a golden parachute have been willing to turn a blind eye, but regional leader Masud Barzani’s latest stunt may be a bridge too far. By law, Barzani is limited to two terms as president. His second term is soon to end. He had his proxies ask opposition parties to acquiesce to a third term, and appears shocked that opposition leaders refused. The law is clear, they said, and Barzani should stand down.

Barzani, who came to Kurdistan penniless after the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and subsequent Kurdish uprising, has transformed himself into one of the world’s richest men. A few years ago, his son used a shell company to purchase a veritable chateau in one of Washington D.C.’s ritziest suburbs. Masud appears unwilling to let democracy intrude on transforming Iraqi Kurdistan into his personal fief and gravy train, and Kurds speak openly of how his vision for Iraqi Kurdistan is less as a democracy and more as an emirate or sheikhdom like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, or Qatar.

Kurds deserve better, and so do Americans. Masud Barzani does not personify Kurds; he personifies only Masud Barzani. The opposition—Noshirwan Mustafa in the Gorran, Kosrat Rasul for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Mohammad Faraj in the Kurdistan Islamic Union are all honorable men, as are a host of retired figures who might seek a shot at the top spot. U.S. interests are not at issue and, indeed, by supporting the system over the man, the United States could even increase its influence. Washington has no obligation to bestow legitimacy on a power grab nor should it be the White House’s place to bless dictatorship. All of those who sang Kurdistan’s praises as a democracy emerging from war should also speak up if they are true to their principle. Masud has the choice between becoming a Mandela and becoming an Assad. Unfortunately, he appears to be choosing the latter.

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Give Syrian Kurdish Leader a Visa

Salih Muslim is the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The U.S. government has long considered the PKK a terrorist group, a designation which Secretary of State John Kerry reinforced in his recent swing through Turkey. He has applied for a visa to enter the United States to take part in consultations with officials in Washington, but the State Department has so far been unresponsive.

Denying the PYD leader a visa makes no sense for five reasons:

Salih Muslim is the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The U.S. government has long considered the PKK a terrorist group, a designation which Secretary of State John Kerry reinforced in his recent swing through Turkey. He has applied for a visa to enter the United States to take part in consultations with officials in Washington, but the State Department has so far been unresponsive.

Denying the PYD leader a visa makes no sense for five reasons:

  • First, there is no specific information about the PYD to tie it to terrorism. Indeed, the PYD has taken pains to distinguish itself from the broader PKK in Turkey.
  • Second, the Turkish government has begun peace talks with the PKK. It is ironic that Washington would do Ankara’s dirty work, when even the Turkish government no longer operates under the pretense that the PKK must be isolated.
  • Third, despite efforts by Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani to assert his control over Kurdish regions in Syria, it is Salih Muslim and the PYD to whom Syrian Kurds overwhelmingly turn. It is the PYD which administers territory, runs schools, and has restored a modicum of normalcy to territory it controls.
  • Fourth, the PYD is a secular movement. Its main opponent—the Nusra Front—no longer hides the fact that it is an al-Qaeda affiliate. By failing to recognize–let alone coordinate with–the PYD, the Obama administration is effectively strengthening a group which, unlike the PYD, is dedicated to killing Americans.
  • Fifth, as soon as the PKK and the Turkish government announced their peace process, the Assad regime reportedly responded by attacking neighborhoods in Aleppo in which Kurds reside and which have a heavy PYD presence. According to one Turkish journalist familiar with the situation, the assault seemed to be Iran’s warning to the Syrian Kurds that Iran would oppose Kurdish empowerment at any cost (Iran has a large Kurdish minority unhappy with the Islamic Republic for both ethnic and sectarian reasons).

Let us hope that the decision to sit on Salih Muslim’s application is just the result of some junior Foreign Service officer who doesn’t know better, and doesn’t have instructions. After all, Kerry is busy traveling and so has yet to get his house in order. Still, it is a pretty sad testament to the lack of any coherent policy in Washington that U.S. policy defaults, in effect, to the same side as both al-Qaeda and Iran.  

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Halabja’s Lessons

Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.

Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:

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Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.

Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:

The German government has been dragging its feet for more than 20 years now and systematically plays down its responsibility for the build-up of the Iraqi chemical weapons program. Yet, German assistance in building up a chemical weapons production was essential: Without German economic aid the Iraqi chemical weapons production would not have been possible… Many documents and sources, though, not only suggest that German cooperation was essential for the Iraqi poison gas program. They also show that there was already some awareness about this in Germany back then. All the same, the relevant goods were delivered… 70 percent of the equipment for Iraqi chemical weapons plants were delivered by German companies. German foreign intelligence service personnel had been present in at least one of these companies. Most parts to enhance Iraq’s rockets, grenades and missiles were delivered from Germany. The military-economic cooperation was backed politically by export credit guaranties. The armament of Iraq was wished for.

Western officials—and human rights activists—should push for the German government and German businesses to acknowledge their role in making possible Saddam’s weapons program if only because the same pattern appears to be repeating today with regard to Iran. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may talk a good game, and German Green Party members may cynically shroud themselves in the rhetoric of human rights, but when push comes to shove German officials across the political spectrum appear to put profits above the fight against the most genocidal autocrats. Hence, rather than curtail German businesses investing in Iran, Berlin seems to be encouraging them.

It is time to shine light on Germany’s dangerous cynicism. That German officials and businesses continue to shirk responsibility for their role in enabling Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign suggests the West can have no confidence that German officials are serious about denying a potentially genocidal regime the weaponry to act upon their ideological impulses.

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Will Iraq Have a Female President?

While Iraqi officials have a tight hold on news, reports both from Iranian doctors who treated Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and some Iraqi sources suggest that Jalal Talabani may be stable, but that he cannot recover nor, for that matter, can he live without permanent attachment to life support machines. Let us hope such rumors are untrue, but the embargo on news does little to contradict the whispered reports.

Over at CNN, I discussed the politics surrounding the choice of successor, and at AEI-Ideas, I outlined some of the candidates whose names have been bantered about as successor. Several Iraqi Kurds—and a commenter on my AEI-Ideas post–have put forward another name: Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, also known as Hero Khan.

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While Iraqi officials have a tight hold on news, reports both from Iranian doctors who treated Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and some Iraqi sources suggest that Jalal Talabani may be stable, but that he cannot recover nor, for that matter, can he live without permanent attachment to life support machines. Let us hope such rumors are untrue, but the embargo on news does little to contradict the whispered reports.

Over at CNN, I discussed the politics surrounding the choice of successor, and at AEI-Ideas, I outlined some of the candidates whose names have been bantered about as successor. Several Iraqi Kurds—and a commenter on my AEI-Ideas post–have put forward another name: Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, also known as Hero Khan.

Hero Khan has long been a major power within Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Her power is based not only on her marriage, but also her pedigree and frankly her intellect and ability. Her father, Ibrahim Ahmad, was a famous Kurdish writer whose split with Masud Barzani’s father ultimately led to the PUK’s creation. Many Westerners are impressed with her for her obvious independence and intelligence. I first met the chain-smoking Hero more than 12 years ago, when she gave me a tour of the television studio she ran in Sulaymani. She came in wearing a t-shirt and jeans to serve me coffee as I waited, and it took me a moment to realize that she was—at that point—the PUK’s first lady. She also has established a number of “non-governmental organizations” in Iraqi Kurdistan, most notably Kurdistan Save the Children.

Kurds, however, will also point out her dark side: She is a ruthless businesswoman—who has not hesitated to use her position, skirt the law or have competitors hurt in order to score triumphs. Independent Kurdish journalists suggest she is unforgiving, defensive and, at times, spiteful against those she feels have wronged her. (Barham Salih can thank Hero Khan’s interference for his earlier failure to become foreign minister. To a lesser extent, I have suffered her cold shoulder when, ironically at her son Qubad’s suggestion, I wrote a long essay detailing the growing problem of corruption in Kurdistan.) Her NGOs are among the most partisan; political independents need not apply. Kurdish medical professionals visiting the United States on exchanges say she is also a manic depressive. She will replicate the best aspects of Jalal Talabani’s personality when she is riding high, but may allow the darker sides of her personality shine through when not.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and PUK, based on their previous agreements, are insistent that the presidency should not only be reserved for a Kurd, but for a member of the PUK. (Many Arabs dispute this.) In the wake of Jalal Talabani’s stroke, the internally popular Kosrat Rasul has become provisional head of the PUK, and the externally popular Barham Salih has become deputy PUK head. That leaves Hero Khan—arguably the PUK’s most powerful member—left floating, a strange outcome unless she has her eye on something bigger.

The presidency is ceremonial—the speaker of parliament wields more power—and both Iraqi Kurds and Iraq Arabs say that the next president will be more constrained by the limits of the presidency than was Talabani, whose gregarious personality and the goodwill of Iranians and Americans allowed him to assume greater power than his position merited.

Should Hero Khan assume the presidency, the results will be mixed. Traditionally, she has been more willing to stand up to the KDP than her husband. The symbolism of a female president in Iraq will be positive, especially against the backdrop of Muqtada al-Sadr’s fierce Islamism–though her accession will also reinforce the worst aspects of Iraqi wasta.

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Arab-Kurd Tensions Flare in U.S. Absence

A few days ago, I mentioned one of the baleful consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq: our current inability to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Syria via Iraqi airspace. This article highlights another worrying issue: the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Two New York Times correspondents write:

When federal police agents sought to arrest a Kurdish man last month in the city of Tuz Khurmato in the Kurdish north of the country, a gunfight ensued with security men loyal to the Kurdish regional government.

Kurdish security forces, called the Peshmerga, have been in a standoff with the Iraqi Army near Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs and Kurds. When the bullets stopped flying, a civilian bystander was dead and at least eight others were wounded.

In response, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, rushed troop reinforcements to the area, and Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, dispatched his own soldiers, known as the Peshmerga, and the forces remain there in a tense standoff.

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A few days ago, I mentioned one of the baleful consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq: our current inability to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Syria via Iraqi airspace. This article highlights another worrying issue: the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Two New York Times correspondents write:

When federal police agents sought to arrest a Kurdish man last month in the city of Tuz Khurmato in the Kurdish north of the country, a gunfight ensued with security men loyal to the Kurdish regional government.

Kurdish security forces, called the Peshmerga, have been in a standoff with the Iraqi Army near Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs and Kurds. When the bullets stopped flying, a civilian bystander was dead and at least eight others were wounded.

In response, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, rushed troop reinforcements to the area, and Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, dispatched his own soldiers, known as the Peshmerga, and the forces remain there in a tense standoff.

Prior to December 2011, such a dispute would have been mediated by U.S. troops positioned on both sides of the disputed Green Line dividing Kurdish territory from Iraq proper. American troops were even running joint patrols with the Iraqi army and the peshmerga in a confidence-building measure. But now the American buffer has been removed and tensions are predictably flaring.

Odds are that the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, wily survivors both, will step back from the brink. But you never know–they could miscalculate and, amid surging emotions on both sides, an actual war could break out. Certainly the odds of such a dangerous outcome have been appreciably increased by the White House’s irresponsible failure to secure an extension of the Status of Forces Agreement keeping U.S. troops in Iraq.

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What’s Next if Assad Falls?

Bashar al-Assad increasingly appears on the ropes, unable to contain the violence his brutal regime unleashed. The government’s violence has not been indiscriminate but has sectarian cleansing overtones, as Sunni Arabs are forced from towns and villages which the minority though dominant Alawites hope to make their own.

Behind its rhetoric, the Obama administration hopes the Syria problem will simply resolve itself. If there was any move behind-the-scenes to stop the worst atrocities, this ended the moment a bomb went off in Syria’s national security headquarters. Deep down, the Obama team hopes a coup or an assassin’s bullet will head off the need for any action.

Assad’s fall, however, will mark the end of one chapter and the start of another that could be far bloodier in the region.

What could come next?

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Bashar al-Assad increasingly appears on the ropes, unable to contain the violence his brutal regime unleashed. The government’s violence has not been indiscriminate but has sectarian cleansing overtones, as Sunni Arabs are forced from towns and villages which the minority though dominant Alawites hope to make their own.

Behind its rhetoric, the Obama administration hopes the Syria problem will simply resolve itself. If there was any move behind-the-scenes to stop the worst atrocities, this ended the moment a bomb went off in Syria’s national security headquarters. Deep down, the Obama team hopes a coup or an assassin’s bullet will head off the need for any action.

Assad’s fall, however, will mark the end of one chapter and the start of another that could be far bloodier in the region.

What could come next?

Expect a Radical Opposition: Whatever hopes are placed in the White House or the State Department on the Syrian National Council filling the vacuum are likely misplaced. They are an exile organization based in Istanbul and increasingly tainted by Turkish penetration; it seems the Turkish government hasn’t learned the lessons from its attempt to hijack opposition groups ahead of the Iraq war. The real influence on the ground will increasingly be with more radical factions, including al-Qaeda affiliates. The issue is not popularity and broad appeal, but rather the willingness to use unbelievable cruelty to seize power and repress opposition.

The Chemical Weapon Conundrum: The Syrian government now acknowledges what has been, for decades, an open secret: Syria has manufactured and possesses chemical weaponry. If the White House believes they can utilize SEAL Team 6 or other special forces to secure these, they are sorely mistaken. Securing chemical weapons is not just the matter of parachuting in and guarding a door for 24 hours, but can take days if not weeks. Just ask the intelligence teams which rushed to secure Libyan WMD in 2003 before the mercurial Muammar Qaddafi could change his mind. Simply put, the United States will be hard pressed to secure chemical weapons without a lengthy occupation. The United Nations will provide no solace: Just remember all that armament Hezbollah achieved under the UN nose. This raises the possibility that the unconventional munitions could fall quickly into al-Qaeda or Hezbollah hands.

The Flight of the Christians: If you think Iraqi or Egyptian Christians have had it rough in recent years, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Christians are perhaps 10 percent of the country. As a strategy of sectarian survival, they have collectively been as pro-Assad as the Alawi community. And many Sunni Muslims resent them for it. Just as Islamist terrorists targeted churches in Baghdad, expect terrorists to target Christians in Damascus with the goal of pushing them out of Syria. Motivation may not only be religious but also economic. Many Christians have leveraged their political ties into business success, and dispossessed Sunni Muslims will figure that now is the time to redistribute the wealth.

Lebanon: So where will the Christians go? Many will flee into nearby Lebanon where those with greater foresight have already bought apartments and squirreled away money. Lebanon has always been a sectarian tinderbox, though. Whenever demography shifts, the communal relations fray. Renewed fighting is always just around the corner.

Kurdistan Redux: The Turks have long played a double game with Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was for Bashar al-Assad before he was against him. While Erdoğan has darkly warned of international action, he has resisted proposals to create a safe haven in northern Syria for the simple reason that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Turks sympathize with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has for almost three decades led a separatist insurgency inside Turkey. Turks fear that any safe haven will bring the region one step closer to a greater Kurdistan, of which what now is southeastern Turkey would form the core. In effect, yesterday Erbil, today Qamishli, and tomorrow Diyarbakir. Of course, the Turks are now between a rock and a hard place because, with Syrian government control evaporating along the frontiers, the PKK and its sympathizers may effectively get the safe haven they crave with or without Turkey.

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Editor of Israel-Kurd Magazine Still Missing

It has now been a month since Mawloud Afand, the editor of Israel-Kurd magazine, went missing in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymani. Afand had published Israel-Kurd for two years when he disappeared. Abe Greenwald covered the kidnapping, here.

Both Israeli intelligence sources and the Kurdish press say he was kidnapped by Iranian intelligence agents in Sulaymani after the Kurdish government ignored Iran’s demands that the Kurdish government shut down the magazine. In July 2010, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative to Tehran sent a letter to Barham Salih, the Kurdish prime minister, in which he reported Iranian unhappiness with the magazine, after Kurdish authorities promised Tehran that it would be closed down.

Rudaw, a Kurdish news outlet funded by Nechirvan Barzani, places blame on both Iranian authorities and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PUK, for its part, refuses to investigate the case. While the PUK has a pro-American reputation in Washington, thanks largely to the efforts of Barham Salih and Qubad Talabani, the pro-Iranian faction inside the organization has long been dominant. Indeed, Barham Salih recently left for a four-day trip to Iran, and Qubad’s eldest brother Bafil Talabani was exiled after he helped Iranian agents infiltrate through PUK territory and into Mosul, where they killed American contractors.

According to Kurdish authorities, the exile came after an American intelligence ultimatum that he either leave Kurdistan or suffer the consequences more directly. Former PUK Prime Minister Kosrat Rasul has once again cast his lot with the Iranians, after concluding the Americans are a fleeting power, at least in Iraq. Barham Salih, while perceived as pro-American in Washington, is perceived as pro-Iranian in Tehran. He often travels to Iran to meet with senior Iranian politicians and security officials and, according to the Iranian press, he is there now. When Jalal Talabani fell ill several years ago, Barham met Iranian authorities to help him fill the vacuum should Talabani not recover. Abe Greenwald was right when he concluded that Afand’s kidnapping was “another reminder of the Iranian regime’s implacable and ever more brazen savagery in a world abandoned by the leadership of the American superpower.”

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It has now been a month since Mawloud Afand, the editor of Israel-Kurd magazine, went missing in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymani. Afand had published Israel-Kurd for two years when he disappeared. Abe Greenwald covered the kidnapping, here.

Both Israeli intelligence sources and the Kurdish press say he was kidnapped by Iranian intelligence agents in Sulaymani after the Kurdish government ignored Iran’s demands that the Kurdish government shut down the magazine. In July 2010, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative to Tehran sent a letter to Barham Salih, the Kurdish prime minister, in which he reported Iranian unhappiness with the magazine, after Kurdish authorities promised Tehran that it would be closed down.

Rudaw, a Kurdish news outlet funded by Nechirvan Barzani, places blame on both Iranian authorities and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PUK, for its part, refuses to investigate the case. While the PUK has a pro-American reputation in Washington, thanks largely to the efforts of Barham Salih and Qubad Talabani, the pro-Iranian faction inside the organization has long been dominant. Indeed, Barham Salih recently left for a four-day trip to Iran, and Qubad’s eldest brother Bafil Talabani was exiled after he helped Iranian agents infiltrate through PUK territory and into Mosul, where they killed American contractors.

According to Kurdish authorities, the exile came after an American intelligence ultimatum that he either leave Kurdistan or suffer the consequences more directly. Former PUK Prime Minister Kosrat Rasul has once again cast his lot with the Iranians, after concluding the Americans are a fleeting power, at least in Iraq. Barham Salih, while perceived as pro-American in Washington, is perceived as pro-Iranian in Tehran. He often travels to Iran to meet with senior Iranian politicians and security officials and, according to the Iranian press, he is there now. When Jalal Talabani fell ill several years ago, Barham met Iranian authorities to help him fill the vacuum should Talabani not recover. Abe Greenwald was right when he concluded that Afand’s kidnapping was “another reminder of the Iranian regime’s implacable and ever more brazen savagery in a world abandoned by the leadership of the American superpower.”

What is truly shameful, however, is the muted response of both the White House and major American papers. It is rather telling when a Lebanese newspaper in Beirut shows more interest in the fate of Afand than the New York Times or the Washington Post, let alone Jewish interest publications like Tablet Magazine and the Forward.

Now, realists may say that by promoting mutual understanding in a place like the Middle East or by countering incitement, Afand was too provocative, and others may say that his return to Iraqi Kurdistan simply isn’t a U.S. interest. Both are wrong: Civil society must start somewhere, and by the way Iranian leaders think, every action is a trial balloon. If it engenders no response, than Iranian authorities conclude they can kidnap with impunity. Today it may be Afand; tomorrow, it will be an American. After all, considering the scope of the last three decades of American-Iranian relations, Iranian kidnapping of Americans is more the rule than the exception.

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Iran Kidnaps Pro-Israeli Kurd

There is some horrible news out of Kurdistan today.  Ekurd.net reports that Mawloud Afand, editor of an Israel-Kurdish magazine called Israel Kurd “disappeared ten days ago in [the] Kurdistan region of Iraq.” Israeli news sources say he was kidnapped by Iranian intelligence in the city of Sulaimaniyah. Ekurd.net claims that Iran had told the Kurdish government to shut Israel Kurd down and it refused.

The Kurds have long been accused of Zionist collaboration owing to their mostly cooperative relationship with Israelis. In fact, one popular argument against a safe and autonomous Kurdistan is that it would be a “second Israel” in the region. There are obvious commonalities between the Middle East’s Kurds and Jews. Both are overwhelmingly pro-American (the Kurds rightly credit the U.S. with saving them from Saddam), largely inclined toward democracy, and have histories as persecuted minorities.  Afand’s interest in an Israeli-Kurdish connection is representative of a not-so-quiet sense of Kurdish solidarity with Jews. He also, from what I can gather, has some Jewish family. There are Jewish Kurds, some of whom claim that Abraham of the Hebrew Bible was Kurdish.

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There is some horrible news out of Kurdistan today.  Ekurd.net reports that Mawloud Afand, editor of an Israel-Kurdish magazine called Israel Kurd “disappeared ten days ago in [the] Kurdistan region of Iraq.” Israeli news sources say he was kidnapped by Iranian intelligence in the city of Sulaimaniyah. Ekurd.net claims that Iran had told the Kurdish government to shut Israel Kurd down and it refused.

The Kurds have long been accused of Zionist collaboration owing to their mostly cooperative relationship with Israelis. In fact, one popular argument against a safe and autonomous Kurdistan is that it would be a “second Israel” in the region. There are obvious commonalities between the Middle East’s Kurds and Jews. Both are overwhelmingly pro-American (the Kurds rightly credit the U.S. with saving them from Saddam), largely inclined toward democracy, and have histories as persecuted minorities.  Afand’s interest in an Israeli-Kurdish connection is representative of a not-so-quiet sense of Kurdish solidarity with Jews. He also, from what I can gather, has some Jewish family. There are Jewish Kurds, some of whom claim that Abraham of the Hebrew Bible was Kurdish.

The current Kurdish relationship with Iran is tricky. As the American presence in Iraq dwindled and then disappeared, Iran took the opportunity to increase its political influence both in Baghdad and with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. Among the Kurds, this manifests in day-to-day commercial ties and an increased oil trade with Iran.  While the Kurds would be far happier to deal with Americans on both a commercial and political level, their precarious status leaves them few options about whom to accept as business partners. Many political decisions for the Kurds are a matter of survival, not prosperity (something else they share with Israelis). Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is Kurdish and there are reports that Tehran is pressuring him to save the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from a no-confidence vote. The idea that Iraq is now an Iranian satrapy is way over the top but there’s no question that Iran has a troubling amount of influence on Iraqi affairs.

If Afand was kidnapped by Iran it stands as yet another tragic consequence of the United States’ failure to maintain a presence in post-war Iraq and especially to build up our relationship with our most eager and appreciative Muslim allies.  It also highlights the singular bravery and decency of the Kurds that they make mortal enemies of the fanatical Iranian thugs to whose will they refuse fully to bend. Last, it’s another reminder of the Iranian regime’s implacable and ever more brazen savagery in a world abandoned by the leadership of the American superpower.

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Will Scandals Destabilize Kurdistan?

Kurdistan may be the “other Iraq” but, when it comes to corruption, it is in a league all its own. After a disappointing trip to Washington capped off when TSA agents subjected his entourage to searches, Kurdish President Masud Barzani has now, according to a report in the Kurdistan Tribune, cut short a trip to the United Arab Emirates after his son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million in a local casino. Where his son got $3.2 million, whether it came from government coffers and, if so, why Barzani was traveling with so much cash is unanswered. Mansour has always been tempestuous; in his youth, a dispute about a woman led to a botched suicide attempt. Elder son Masrour Barzani, whom Kurdish dissidents accuse of running death squads, has, according to multiple sources in the American Kurdish community, set up a corporation to acquire a $10+ million villa in northern Virginia. Youngest son Mullah Mustafa publicly consorts with figures during his Washington trips which make even Secret Service agents blush. Masud Barzani’s nephew expropriated $600 million from the public coffer to fund his bid for the Korek company. The multibillion dollar return flowed not into the public coffers, but into Barzani private coffers.

The question regarding Barzani’s family holdings will come to a head next year as the Kurdish presidency again comes up for election and could undermine the stability and security about which the family brags and foreign investors depend. Masud Barzani, first elected in 2005 and then re-elected four years later in elections marred by widespread fraud, should, by law, not run for a third term. If he does seek to become president for life, the disgruntled youth may again take to the streets, and all pretense of Kurdistan being anything but a Mafioso state will disappear. Few expect Barzani to follow the lead of the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union party leader who resigned his post to allow a true successor to emerge.

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Kurdistan may be the “other Iraq” but, when it comes to corruption, it is in a league all its own. After a disappointing trip to Washington capped off when TSA agents subjected his entourage to searches, Kurdish President Masud Barzani has now, according to a report in the Kurdistan Tribune, cut short a trip to the United Arab Emirates after his son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million in a local casino. Where his son got $3.2 million, whether it came from government coffers and, if so, why Barzani was traveling with so much cash is unanswered. Mansour has always been tempestuous; in his youth, a dispute about a woman led to a botched suicide attempt. Elder son Masrour Barzani, whom Kurdish dissidents accuse of running death squads, has, according to multiple sources in the American Kurdish community, set up a corporation to acquire a $10+ million villa in northern Virginia. Youngest son Mullah Mustafa publicly consorts with figures during his Washington trips which make even Secret Service agents blush. Masud Barzani’s nephew expropriated $600 million from the public coffer to fund his bid for the Korek company. The multibillion dollar return flowed not into the public coffers, but into Barzani private coffers.

The question regarding Barzani’s family holdings will come to a head next year as the Kurdish presidency again comes up for election and could undermine the stability and security about which the family brags and foreign investors depend. Masud Barzani, first elected in 2005 and then re-elected four years later in elections marred by widespread fraud, should, by law, not run for a third term. If he does seek to become president for life, the disgruntled youth may again take to the streets, and all pretense of Kurdistan being anything but a Mafioso state will disappear. Few expect Barzani to follow the lead of the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union party leader who resigned his post to allow a true successor to emerge.

Masud has, since his return from exile, lived in a mountaintop resort expropriated first by Saddam Hussein and then, in the wake of the 1991 uprising, by Masud himself. The questions Kurds will face—and which may also presage violence in the region—is what happens to the substantial properties which Masud Barzani has acquired. Barzani is used to luxuries—sources in the high-end retail industry reported that his agent once dropped $50,000 in a Bulgari store without blinking.  The question which Kurds have never addressed is whether such property belongs to the presidency, his political party, or Barzani himself. If Barzani claims the property for himself, then it raises questions about how he acquired multibillion dollar holdings on a politician’s salary. In the unlikely event Barzani releases the property to his Kurdistan Democratic Party, it could exacerbate squabbling within the party between his eldest son and nephew and myriad other family factions.

In the face of Iraqi central government opposition, Exxon is trying to extricate itself from Kurdistan. During Barzani’s meeting at the White House, both President Obama and Vice President Biden underscored that, in the dispute between Kurdistan and Baghdad, the United States stood with Baghdad. Unrest in Kurdistan may spook further oil investment. Questions about Barzani’s power and the legality of his holdings—especially should a new Kurdish government seek to reclaim property the Barzanis hold—may cause them to question their shadow partnerships with Barzani proxies. The opposition, which says it stands against corruption, has not gone beyond the rhetoric of change, however, and so may seek its own shadow partnerships. This in turn could further spook investors and send them fleeing, just as Western oil firms cut their losses and fled Russia and Turkmenistan when local corruption became insurmountable.

Good governance and transparency matter. Iraq is one of the most corrupt states on Earth, and Kurdistan is perhaps the most corrupt part of Iraq. Whenever corruption thrives, stability becomes increasingly an illusion.

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