Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kurdistan

Islamic State vs. Syrian Kurds

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

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Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

Largely out of deference to Turkey, the State Department has steered clear of Syrian Kurdistan, refusing to welcome its representatives to the ill-considered and ill-fated conferences in Geneva earlier this year, while choosing instead to bring in Syrian Kurdish politicians lacking any real constituency on the ground in Syria.

The U.S. position is both strategic and moral malpractice. The Assad regime has implemented, in the words of State Department official Stephen Rapp, “the kind of machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen frankly since the Nazis.” The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, of course, has broken away from al-Qaeda because it considers that extremist group too moderate. Since renaming itself the Islamic State and taking over broad swaths of Iraq, its atrocities have been well covered by the media. That given the option between Assad or a radical Islamist group on one hand, and a secular, democratic-leaning entity on the other, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry place the United States against the secular, democratic-leaning entity says a lot about the current moral bankruptcy infusing U.S. policy.

For months, that lack of support made life difficult for Syrian Kurds, Christians, and other citizens within Rojava. What has not been covered, however, is the all-out battle now occurring between ISIS and Syrian Kurds. Tweets from residents of the region now under ISIS attacks have also reported that the Syrian opposition has been using chemical weapons against the Kurdish population. See, for example, this account from July 9 and 10. Now, of course, just because someone tweets something does not make it true. But there is no indication the reports are false, and every indication they are true At the very least, this is a charge American and UN officials should investigate. How ironic that just over a quarter century after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds—and the Reagan administration remained silent because speaking up would be too diplomatically inconvenient—history seems to be repeating against Kurds once more. It’s a good thing there are now public intellectuals like Samantha Power who put their moral compass above ambition. Or not.

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Should Kurds Still Seek Iraq’s Presidency?

Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has officially nominated Barham Salih, a life-long member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to be Iraq’s new president.

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Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has officially nominated Barham Salih, a life-long member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to be Iraq’s new president.

Barham is a capable politician, a former minister of planning for Iraq, and is popular among many journalists and officials in the United Kingdom and Washington D.C., where he had been based for decades. He has carefully cultivated an image as a reformist and, indeed, probably aspires to be one although during his time in power, he was unable to overcome impediments put in his path by Barzani and others. Importantly, against the backdrop of Iraqi realpolitik Barham has also won Iran’s confidence to preside over the largely ceremonial position. Barzani’s decision to nominate Barham ends months of internal infighting, especially within the PUK because Hero Khan, the current first lady of Iraq who is also a PUK power broker and a gatekeeper to PUK finances, absolutely despises Barham for reasons both real and imagined.

Being nominated by Barzani and assuming the Iraqi presidency are two different things, however. The nature of Iraq’s constitution means that the president, prime minister, and speaker of the parliament will often be decided together as part of a package meant to assuage various political (and ethnic, and sectarian) constituencies.

Kurdish officials insist Iraq’s presidency should be reserved for a Kurd. That ultimately is a decision for Iraqis—Arab and Kurd alike—but the assumption does condemn Iraq to a sort of Lebanon-style confessionalism where religion and, in Iraq’s case, ethnicity mean more than ability. Nevertheless, after years of oppressions, Kurds seek the symbolism of holding the Iraqi presidency, even if the power of the presidency is less than that of the speakership of the parliament.

Barzani’s nomination of Barham for the presidency right now, less than a week after Barzani called for a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan independence, raises some very real questions, however, about the future of the Kurds inside Iraq and Barzani’s true intentions. After all, it is unclear why any Iraqi Arab would accept an Iraqi Kurd (or at least an Iraqi Kurd from the provinces which together form the Kurdistan Regional Government) for the presidency of their country when Kurds could within months move down the path to complete independence. Barham has always handled his dual roles in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan well, but it is unclear how he can or should hold the presidency while the political party in which he is an activist if not the major policy-setter seeks at the same time Iraq’s division.

I have often argued that Barzani has treated Kurdish nationalism more as a policy tool to be wielded against his opponents rather than a sincerely-held belief and been the target of opprobrium by many of those surrounding Barzani because of it. I base my argument on historical evidence: After all, in 1996, he invited Saddam Hussein into his capital Erbil. It seemed that Barzani prioritized maintaining power against Kurdish rivals (including, at the time, Barham’s party) over the risk of losing all Kurdish autonomy to a man like Saddam who had conducted genocide against the Kurdish people and, indeed, had murdered 8,000 members of Barzani’s tribe just years earlier.

More recently, Barzani has allied himself with Turkey against Kurds seeking autonomy or federalism in both Turkey and Syria, again because those Kurds follow political leadership which does not subordinate itself to Barzani’s more tribal model of power and because they look to other Kurdish leaders beyond Barzani for their future. Perhaps I am wrong, however.

Still, it was noteworthy that, when speaking before his rubber-stamp parliament last week, Barzani did not offer a date for a referendum, again suggesting Barzani was treating nationalism as a political tool rather than a personal goal. And while Kurds across Iraqi Kurdistan overwhelmingly seek independence, a complete break with Iraq would mean forfeiting Iraqi Kurdistan’s share of revenue from southern Iraq’s oil fields which produce far more than those than the much-storied but declining fields around Kirkuk. Only time will tell how sincere Barzani is when it comes to prioritizing Kurdish nationalism above the material benefits he derives from remaining a part of Iraq.

However, with the nomination of Barham Salih to be Iraq’s president, it is unclear how Barzani can act simultaneously as a Kurdish nationalist while also seeking to remain a power broker within Iraq proper. The same holds true with Barham Salih, who should tell Iraq’s parliament without ambiguity or delay about where he stands on the issue of Kurdish secession and to which entity, Iraq or independent Kurdistan, his ultimate loyalty would remain.

If Kurds are going to remain in Iraq for the next four years, then they should participate fully in the horse-trading and any political bargains involved in forming the next Iraqi government. But if the Kurds are going to split within weeks or months—and that is their right and the overwhelming desire of their people—then they should make their intentions 100 percent clear now and abandon their demands for the leadership of Iraq proper and push ahead with independence.

The formula for political compromise in Baghdad would be far different if Kurdish leaders from those provinces splitting away did not seek to take any plum positions that might otherwise go to Iraqis—Shi‘ite, Sunni, or anything else—intending to remain a part of Iraq. At the same time, the possibility for Iraqi stability would be far higher if the bargaining to form the next government could move forward with clarity about the Kurdish nationalist intentions rather than creating a situation where, just months into the new government, the Iraqi president, foreign minister, and other cabinet officials simply abandoned their posts in favor of a new country.

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Iraq and the End of Shame

I’m currently in Jordan, where I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a variety of Iraqi Sunnis who have come from al-Anbar to discuss the situation there. It’s rare nowadays to find any consensus on Iraq, but one observation they make coincides with observations I heard over the past year while talking to Iraqi Sunnis in Mosul and Tikrit; Iraqi Shi‘ites in Basra and Baghdad; and Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani. That is that one of the major problems Iraq faces is the end of shame.

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I’m currently in Jordan, where I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a variety of Iraqi Sunnis who have come from al-Anbar to discuss the situation there. It’s rare nowadays to find any consensus on Iraq, but one observation they make coincides with observations I heard over the past year while talking to Iraqi Sunnis in Mosul and Tikrit; Iraqi Shi‘ites in Basra and Baghdad; and Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani. That is that one of the major problems Iraq faces is the end of shame.

Politicians and generals in Iraq (and elsewhere in the Middle East) always face great temptation. They could steal millions and, indeed, some now steal billions. But before the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent 13 years of sanctions, Iraq was among the least corrupt Arab countries. What changed over the last 35 years has not only been the economy, but more fundamentally the culture of shame. Sure, some politicians and officers during the Republic and early Baath years were corrupt, but many resisted the temptation out of fear of how their children would inherit the shame if their parents gained a reputation for corruption or other misdeeds. Simply put, family reputation trumped a desire for immediate gratification.

No longer: I’ve written here about the problem of Middle Eastern rulers’ first sons. Iraqis nickname Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s son Ahmed “Uday” because they allege he acts like Saddam Hussein’s son. Masrour Barzani, the eldest son of Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, acquired a $10 million mansion in suburban Virginia despite his relatively small official salary. While Barzani’s spokesman denied any connection to the property, Masrour had grown so arrogant and shameless that he held his birthday party there for close KDP associates, many of whom subsequently bragged about the event and its location.

The problem goes deeper and cuts across the political class, however. The children of many ministers think nothing of buying fancy sports cars—top-end Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Porsches—to drive around London from their new posh flats, no matter that both Iraqis and European or American neighbors once knew them as poor and impoverished. They do not hesitate to flaunt ill-gotten wealth and care little if everyone knows they or their parents are corrupt. Other former ministers and their aides travel to Jordan, Lebanon, or even suburban Chicago and build palatial mansions after serving little more than a year or two in Iraq. Iraqis often have nothing to show for their tenure, but they do with little concern if their family names have become synonymous with corruption. Whereas a generation or two past would have felt shame for such a reputation, the new Iraqis no longer do.

Those training Arab militaries are familiar with shame going back generations. It became an impediment since it hampered and made dangerous even constructive criticism. But shame was not all bad, because it kept order in society and helped buttress basic integrity. Things have changed. It is easy for diplomats to talk about reconstructing society but when personal integrity lacks, religion or ethnicity becomes a patina and money becomes the real subject of worship, and shame disappears it is almost impossible to rebuild society. The problem is no longer Maliki, Barzani, or Nujaifi—it goes far, far deeper.

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The Complexities of Kurdish Secession

Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, announced yesterday before the region’s rubber-stamp parliament that he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. If the referendum goes forward—Barzani is coy about the date and seems loathe to forfeit the oil subsidies he received from southern Iraq’s oil fields which are far more lucrative than Kirkuk’s—then the Kurdish public will overwhelmingly accept it. That is their right, and if they decide to become the world’s newest state, congratulations to them. Kurds deserve statehood. (And with it, maybe Google will finally add Kurdish to the languages Google Translate covers.)

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Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, announced yesterday before the region’s rubber-stamp parliament that he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. If the referendum goes forward—Barzani is coy about the date and seems loathe to forfeit the oil subsidies he received from southern Iraq’s oil fields which are far more lucrative than Kirkuk’s—then the Kurdish public will overwhelmingly accept it. That is their right, and if they decide to become the world’s newest state, congratulations to them. Kurds deserve statehood. (And with it, maybe Google will finally add Kurdish to the languages Google Translate covers.)

Statehood, however, will be not the end of the story but rather its beginning, both within Kurdistan and in the region.

Within Kurdistan, Kurds will have to address a government which is both disorganized and often acts in its own self-interest rather than that of its supposed constituents. That can be dismissed as an internal matter. Ultimately quality of government is an internal Kurdish matter, though, and one which Kurds will eventually resolve whether it takes months, years, or decades. Despite Kurdistan’s impressive development over the past decade, it still lacks basic financial infrastructure. That has helped ruling party members get rich because it enables them to better hide ghost employees or skim money from those under them who owe their jobs to their patron’s influence. Kurds might also need to standardize their language and alphabet, although that too is an internal issue.

Kurdistan’s formal birth, however, will also have international reverberations. While the West sees Kurdistan moving closer to Turkey, Kurdish leaders cultivate Iran as enthusiastically for balance. Whether the United States can sway the balance or not with bases of its own is an open question, although one which President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will defer given budget constraints and a lack of appreciation of American force projection abroad.

Then there’s water: The Euphrates bypasses Kurdistan, going from Turkey through Syria and into Iraq in al-Anbar. But the Tigris (or its tributaries) cuts across Kurdistan, traverses Turkey and forms part of the Syrian-Turkish border, before it heads into central Iraq. The negotiations over its flow were complex at the best of times, when the water only needed to be divided between three countries. A fourth will only add additional complexity. That’s not Kurdistan’s problem, as they get the water before the rest of Iraq does, but as one Iraqi told me in Jordan, “We Sunnis can make nasty neighbors if you make us mad enough.”

If Kurdish independence eventually spreads beyond Iraq’s current borders, the implications will be greater. Turkey, for example, is a NATO member. It hosts a major airbase in Diyarbakir, which many Kurds see as a future capital. Even if Turkey becomes a federal, biregional state, the implications are the same as Kurds there would seek a division of resources and infrastructure.

None of this is a reason for the United States to oppose Kurdish nationhood. But it should mean planning for the day, week, and months after. None of this planning or more than the most superficial considerations has apparently yet occurred.

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Is Turkey’s Partition Inevitable?

World turmoil in 2014 increasingly recalls that of one hundred years ago as national aspirations and trans-national ambitions set the world on a path to war. I do not suggest that the world is on the verge of a catastrophe such as that unleashed when an assassin’s bullet struck down Archduke Ferdinand just over a century ago, but rather that forces now at work could fundamentally remake the map.

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World turmoil in 2014 increasingly recalls that of one hundred years ago as national aspirations and trans-national ambitions set the world on a path to war. I do not suggest that the world is on the verge of a catastrophe such as that unleashed when an assassin’s bullet struck down Archduke Ferdinand just over a century ago, but rather that forces now at work could fundamentally remake the map.

I posted earlier regarding the possibility that Iraqi Kurds may soon declare their formal independence, a move with which even Iraqi Arabs have grown ambivalent. After all, Iraq’s real oil wealth is in southern Iraq, and many Iraqi Arabs would be fine keeping that for themselves.

Syrian Kurds have been coy about their future. The Kurdish administration in “Rojava,” an autonomous zone in northeastern Syria, is relatively secure, organized, and functioning. Kurds there say they will settle for federalism within the confines of Syria, although the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in the areas surrounding Rojava suggests that events outside their region may ultimately determine the outcome, much as it has in Iraq.

For Kurds, however, Turkey is the real prize. That is where the bulk of Kurds live, and southeastern Turkey remains an incubator of Kurdish culture. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which once waged an insurgency and terror campaign against the Turkish state. The PKK has accepted a ceasefire and temporarily laid down their arms. While Erdoğan has hinted that he will offer the Kurds a reform package ahead of the August presidential elections (for which he wants Kurdish support), history should not give the Kurds much confidence: every outreach Erdoğan has made to the Kurds has come against the backdrop of elections, and after elections have passed, Erdoğan reneges on his promises. Fool me once, fool me twice, but few Kurds are prepared to be fooled a third time, except perhaps against the backdrop of a fight.

Herein lies the problem: If Erdoğan makes good on his reforms to the Kurds, then it sets Turkey down the path toward federalism, the way-point for independence. Turks must also prepare for Öcalan’s release. They may consider Öcalan a terrorist, but Erdoğan has made him the indispensable man. There is simply no outcome that won’t see Öcalan released first from isolation, and then from prison entirely, at which point Kurds and many others will celebrate him as a Kurdish Mandela.

Demography, too, is in the Kurds’ favor. Erdoğan may hope that religious solidarity will trump nationalism, but this is a naïve hope. Turkish Kurds can smell a state, and with Iraqi Kurds on the verge of achieving that dream, there will be no denying Anatolian Kurds the same outcome. The map is changing. Turkey is celebrating its 90th anniversary. When it marks its centennial, however, expect the map of Turkey to be much different. When that happens, perhaps Turks can celebrate Erdoğan as their Sultan. The new Kurdistan, however, should put Erdoğan on their currency alongside Öcalan and Barzani as a man who made it happen.

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Why Hasn’t Kurdistan Declared Independence?

The only group to benefit from the combined Sunni tribal, Baathist, and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) uprising against the Iraqi central government has been the Iraqi Kurds. Peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have taken Kirkuk, while peshmerga answering to the Kurdistan Democratic Party have, according to some interlocutors, taken control of the half of Mosul populated by Kurds (Mosul is bisected by a river; Kurds tend to live on one side, Arabs on the other).

Many analysts, for example, Peter Galbraith, have spoken in recent days about Kurds finally achieving their dream of independence. And, certainly, independence is a dream the majority of Kurds hold dear, having been denied a state suggested in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and subsequently denied them by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

It was the policy of the United States throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom to insist on Iraqi unity, all the while recognizing a strong Kurdish autonomy under the guise of federalism. Kurdistan acted as a de facto independent state: It controlled its own borders, flew its own flag, spoke its own language, had its own parliament, maintained its own intelligence and security forces, etc.

The Kurds, however, still held out for Kirkuk. In a 2001 interview with Middle East Quarterly, Jalal Talabani, then simply the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and now the president of Iraq, referred to Kirkuk as “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” With the uprising against the central government, Iraqi forces evacuated Kirkuk and the Kurds now possess it, as well as other territories they claimed and Kirkuk’s oil. Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, has broken down his traditional animosity toward Turkey and embraced his neighbor to the north in a new partnership revolving around oil and other business dealings. Iraqi Kurdistan now exports oil through Turkey. Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani’s son Qubad earlier this week traveled to Tehran, not only to discuss Iraq’s current unrest, but also expand their partnership with Kurdistan’s neighbor to the east so that all eggs aren’t in the Turkish basket.

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The only group to benefit from the combined Sunni tribal, Baathist, and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) uprising against the Iraqi central government has been the Iraqi Kurds. Peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have taken Kirkuk, while peshmerga answering to the Kurdistan Democratic Party have, according to some interlocutors, taken control of the half of Mosul populated by Kurds (Mosul is bisected by a river; Kurds tend to live on one side, Arabs on the other).

Many analysts, for example, Peter Galbraith, have spoken in recent days about Kurds finally achieving their dream of independence. And, certainly, independence is a dream the majority of Kurds hold dear, having been denied a state suggested in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and subsequently denied them by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

It was the policy of the United States throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom to insist on Iraqi unity, all the while recognizing a strong Kurdish autonomy under the guise of federalism. Kurdistan acted as a de facto independent state: It controlled its own borders, flew its own flag, spoke its own language, had its own parliament, maintained its own intelligence and security forces, etc.

The Kurds, however, still held out for Kirkuk. In a 2001 interview with Middle East Quarterly, Jalal Talabani, then simply the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and now the president of Iraq, referred to Kirkuk as “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” With the uprising against the central government, Iraqi forces evacuated Kirkuk and the Kurds now possess it, as well as other territories they claimed and Kirkuk’s oil. Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, has broken down his traditional animosity toward Turkey and embraced his neighbor to the north in a new partnership revolving around oil and other business dealings. Iraqi Kurdistan now exports oil through Turkey. Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani’s son Qubad earlier this week traveled to Tehran, not only to discuss Iraq’s current unrest, but also expand their partnership with Kurdistan’s neighbor to the east so that all eggs aren’t in the Turkish basket.

Indeed, it does seem to be the Kurdish moment, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan but elsewhere. An autonomous entity has emerged in Syrian Kurdistan. Indeed, today, “Rojava” is the only peaceful, functioning region in Syria. The Turkish government has initiated peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. Having recognized PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan effectively as the representative of Turkish Kurds, it will be extremely difficult for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop a process that ultimately will result in Öcalan’s release from prison and a federal solution for wide swaths of southeastern Turkey.

The question then becomes why, with all the stars aligned in Kurdistan’s favor, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani hasn’t declared independence? He has always embraced robust Kurdish nationalist rhetoric, and there is nothing stopping him. Should he declare independence, there is little the Iraqi central government could or would do to stop him, and Turks seem to have come to terms with the idea of a Kurdish state as well, so long as it falls outside the borders of Turkey. Nor are there political impediments to Barzani: he is a Middle Eastern strongman in the traditional sense. He controls the parliament, the treasury, and his son runs the intelligence forces. His second and constitutionally last term as president ended several months ago, and yet he still retains his position. In short, if he wanted independence, he could declare it today.

I have long said as an analyst rather than as an advocate that Barzani was not sincere about Kurdish nationalism. Maybe I’m wrong, but increasingly it seems I wasn’t. After all, in 1996, Barzani invited Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guard into Erbil, effectively risking Kurdish autonomy for the sake of ensuring bullets in the necks of his Kurdish political opponents. (Today, more than 3,000 Kurds remain “disappeared” from the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war; neither Barzani nor Talabani have come clean with regard to their fate.) Barzani also seems to prioritize money over nationalism: Kurdistan not only exports its own oil, but received a portion of Iraq’s oil. While Kirkuk is often in the headlines, decades of exploitation and questionable management by Saddam Hussein’s government have left its fields in decline. The bulk—perhaps 70 percent or more—of Iraq’s oil comes from Iraq’s southern oil fields. If Kurdistan separates, Kurdistan loses its subsidies and Barzani no longer is able to maintain the lifestyle for him and his sons to which they have become accustomed.

In every almost meeting with American officials, Kurdish civil society leaders have made the argument for independence. Rather than assume it is the United States holding them back, perhaps it’s time to recognize its their own leaders.

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Partition of Iraq Won’t Solve Terrorism

As Iraq again confronts insurgency, terrorism, and political chaos, analysts and pundits have revived Joe Biden and Les Gelb’s proposal to divide Iraq in three: Kurdistan, a Sunnistan, and a Shiastan. It’s quite possible the Kurdistan will go off on its own, at least if its president, Masoud Barzani, decides that independence trumps his desire for a share of southern Iraq’s oil proceeds. That Syrian Kurdistan is also freer than it has ever been before and that Turkey is openly negotiating with the once-pariah Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) makes an independent Kurdistan far more a reality than at any time since the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. And that’s not a bad thing. Many Iraqis with whom I speak have come around to the idea that Kurdistan will go its own way; it speaks a different language, embraces a different culture, and already functions as a de facto state.

But the idea that carving a Sunni Arab state out of the remainder of Iraq will bring peace is false. Proponents of partition may believe division would be worth the human cost in ethnic cleansing—after all, the population of the ‘Sunni belt’ isn’t homogenous. And they may believe that the new Sunni state would be sustainable, even despite its dearth of natural resources, although perhaps it could survive on dates, sheep, and a rapidly depleting underground aquifer.

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As Iraq again confronts insurgency, terrorism, and political chaos, analysts and pundits have revived Joe Biden and Les Gelb’s proposal to divide Iraq in three: Kurdistan, a Sunnistan, and a Shiastan. It’s quite possible the Kurdistan will go off on its own, at least if its president, Masoud Barzani, decides that independence trumps his desire for a share of southern Iraq’s oil proceeds. That Syrian Kurdistan is also freer than it has ever been before and that Turkey is openly negotiating with the once-pariah Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) makes an independent Kurdistan far more a reality than at any time since the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. And that’s not a bad thing. Many Iraqis with whom I speak have come around to the idea that Kurdistan will go its own way; it speaks a different language, embraces a different culture, and already functions as a de facto state.

But the idea that carving a Sunni Arab state out of the remainder of Iraq will bring peace is false. Proponents of partition may believe division would be worth the human cost in ethnic cleansing—after all, the population of the ‘Sunni belt’ isn’t homogenous. And they may believe that the new Sunni state would be sustainable, even despite its dearth of natural resources, although perhaps it could survive on dates, sheep, and a rapidly depleting underground aquifer.

The problem is that simply granting the Sunni state independent or functional autonomy wouldn’t solve the radicalism problem. The issue isn’t Sunnism; it’s the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and any other Al Qaeda affiliate. If those promoting partition believe that changing borders resolves the danger posed by ISIS, then I have a unicorn to sell them. Simply granting ISIS a safe-haven in the guise of a state won’t make the problem go away, no matter how much American officials want to divorce themselves of Iraq. Nor will borders constrain ISIS. The group seeks not only Mosul, but also Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, and ultimately Istanbul and Jerusalem.

Make no mistake: partition is an interesting proposal and sparks a useful debate, and the Iraqi constitution allows for strong federalism even if not explicitly partition, but secession is no substitute for a strategy to confront, roll-back, and defeat the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency which Iraq now faces.

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Tom Friedman, Autocratophile

Last week I was in Warsaw, taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, when I saw a poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland. I asked the taxi driver but, alas, I speak no Polish and he spoke no English. We drove past the poster and next to it I saw a short, squat man with a mustache and I thought, “Every country seems to have short, squat men with mustaches. Poland had that guy and we have Tom Friedman.”

And that led me to consider: Poland was a land under Soviet domination, a country in which people struggled for freedom, and so I wondered, “What does Tom Friedman think about freedom?” Alas, that’s an easy question to answer, but not in a good way, sort of like when the “check engine” light went on in my 2003 Nissan and I wondered what that meant as my car sputtered to a halt.

Just as babies have a soft spot on their heads (or so my Polish taxi driver probably said, although I can’t be sure because of the language barrier), Friedman has a soft spot for dictatorship. His paeans to China are both legendary and embarrassing. When Friedman was a young student and journalist, he backpacked around the Middle East and was astute in his observations. From Beirut to Jerusalem was a good book. But there is a reason why a peace corps volunteer or backpacker in Haiti have a better idea of society than tourists who book five-star trips and tend not to learn much about the troubles and travails of the societies which they visit. Taking a Royal Caribbean cruise to a private beach in Haiti does not make one an expert on Haitian politics, corruption, or earthquake reconstruction. It simply suggests one is rich. There’s nothing wrong with being rich—unless, of course, you are a senior Chinese Communist party functionary, in which case you likely got your money upon the blood of the tens of millions of people your party has murdered. But most rich people are smart enough to realize that luxury tourism doesn’t make them smart.

But then again, Tom Friedman isn’t most people. Any analyst or writer knows not to simply parachute into a country, talk to politicians for a few hours or a few days, and then wax eloquently about how enlightened and forward thinking that polity is. But, alas, Tom Friedman is not just any analyst. Earlier this month, Friedman visited Iraqi Kurdistan as a guest of Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician currently aspiring to the Iraqi presidency, if he can overcome the animosity of Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Iraq’s current first lady. Barham gave Friedman the royal treatment. They hiked in the mountains. Kurdish journalists wrote on Facebook about seeing the two in local restaurants. Friedman gave the keynote at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, an impressive university for which Barham deserves credit, even if it is not as free from politics as Friedman imagines.

Friedman then wrote a predictable column:

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Last week I was in Warsaw, taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, when I saw a poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland. I asked the taxi driver but, alas, I speak no Polish and he spoke no English. We drove past the poster and next to it I saw a short, squat man with a mustache and I thought, “Every country seems to have short, squat men with mustaches. Poland had that guy and we have Tom Friedman.”

And that led me to consider: Poland was a land under Soviet domination, a country in which people struggled for freedom, and so I wondered, “What does Tom Friedman think about freedom?” Alas, that’s an easy question to answer, but not in a good way, sort of like when the “check engine” light went on in my 2003 Nissan and I wondered what that meant as my car sputtered to a halt.

Just as babies have a soft spot on their heads (or so my Polish taxi driver probably said, although I can’t be sure because of the language barrier), Friedman has a soft spot for dictatorship. His paeans to China are both legendary and embarrassing. When Friedman was a young student and journalist, he backpacked around the Middle East and was astute in his observations. From Beirut to Jerusalem was a good book. But there is a reason why a peace corps volunteer or backpacker in Haiti have a better idea of society than tourists who book five-star trips and tend not to learn much about the troubles and travails of the societies which they visit. Taking a Royal Caribbean cruise to a private beach in Haiti does not make one an expert on Haitian politics, corruption, or earthquake reconstruction. It simply suggests one is rich. There’s nothing wrong with being rich—unless, of course, you are a senior Chinese Communist party functionary, in which case you likely got your money upon the blood of the tens of millions of people your party has murdered. But most rich people are smart enough to realize that luxury tourism doesn’t make them smart.

But then again, Tom Friedman isn’t most people. Any analyst or writer knows not to simply parachute into a country, talk to politicians for a few hours or a few days, and then wax eloquently about how enlightened and forward thinking that polity is. But, alas, Tom Friedman is not just any analyst. Earlier this month, Friedman visited Iraqi Kurdistan as a guest of Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician currently aspiring to the Iraqi presidency, if he can overcome the animosity of Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Iraq’s current first lady. Barham gave Friedman the royal treatment. They hiked in the mountains. Kurdish journalists wrote on Facebook about seeing the two in local restaurants. Friedman gave the keynote at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, an impressive university for which Barham deserves credit, even if it is not as free from politics as Friedman imagines.

Friedman then wrote a predictable column:

But it was the Kurds who used the window of freedom we opened for them to overcome internal divisions, start to reform their once Sopranos-like politics and create a vibrant economy that is now throwing up skyscrapers and colleges in major towns of Erbil and Sulaimani. Everywhere I’ve gone here, I’ve met “reverse immigrants,” Kurds who’ve come back to their homeland in northeastern Iraq because of all the opportunities.

Kurdistan represents everything that has not happened in Shiite-dominated Baghdad and the Sunni regions of Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has behaved like a visionless, pro-Shiite sectarian chief and violence remains rife. Maliki was “our guy.” So you could say that we left two big “gifts” behind in Iraq: an American-installed autocrat and an American university that is teaching the values of inclusiveness that Maliki doesn’t practice… Kurdistan is an island of decency in a still-roiling sea. But the power of example is a funny thing. You never know how it can spread. More American universities, please — not just drones.

Kurdistan has achieved a lot, but hagiography does not make it a beacon of freedom any more than Vogue’s profile of Asma al-Assad made the Syrian regime a beacon of progressivism. Kurdistan has not rid itself of its internal divisions; they are just more easily hidden. Both major political parties maintain their own separate security forces, much like Hamas and the PLO. Perhaps Friedman ignores this fact because he couldn’t figure out a way to blame settlements.

Friedman apparently doesn’t realize that the skyscrapers he so admires in Iraqi Kurdistan have occupancy rates of around 20 percent according to numerous Iraqi Kurds who live there. Much of the land they are built on was either appropriated by Barham’s political party or simply given as gifts to those who supported Barham’s political party. This wasn’t Barham’s fault, but it is the reality. The family of one of my former students—and, here, unlike Tom Friedman, I cannot mention name or age because in the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan, that can lead to a prison sentence—was forced from Kirkuk by Saddam, and then forced from their home by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—Barham’s party—so that a brother-in-law of party leader Jalal Talabani could speculate in real estate.

Nor is Kurdistan really that much of a democracy. How powerful it would have been had Friedman actually given a shout-out to the young journalists—theoretically his real protégés—whose families today mourn their sons because they had the courage to write about corruption and nepotism in Iraqi Kurdistan. Barham probably did not mention that the party that he presides over and that of Masud Barzani have run death squads. That may sound harsh, but that’s the proper word for the politicized security forces sent out to kidnap and kill those who disagree. Friedman may not have been aware that the same street he drove down to get to the American University campus was the scene of a shooting by Kurdish security forces on protestors during Barham’s premiership. Barham could have resigned rather than allow his reformist reputation to serve as cover for such action, but sometimes it is easier to talk about reform than actually implement it. Regardless, the perpetrators in each case remain at large. So much for “the values of inclusiveness” that Friedman observed.

Barham is smooth but he is a political player. There’s nothing wrong with that. Politics can be healthy, especially in a country which aspires to democracy. But dirty tricks are dirty tricks. Convince a visitor to bash Maliki in a widely-read American paper? That’s good politics for someone who has tied his fortunes to Maliki’s competitors. Last year, Barham invited another writer and convinced him to criticize Kirkuk, a town which the writer had not visited but which is booming economically and happens to be governed by a man from Barham’s party who happens to be one of Barham’s chief rivals. Kudos to Barham, because he gets his point across and his guests often do not seem to realize they are being used.

True, violence is worse in Baghdad but discrimination is as bad in Kurdistan. Just ask any non-Kurd humiliated at the region’s borders. In January, I drove from Tikrit to Erbil and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Corruption is rife in both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Even Friedman’s host has dabbled in business. And while Friedman castigates Maliki for taking the fight to al-Qaeda, what does he expect the prime minister to do? How luxurious it must be to criticize Baghdad’s leaders on one hand for insecurity and on the other hand for fighting to restore security. Maybe the drones would have been helpful after all.

What else did Friedman forget? In praising the Kurds, he appears unaware that rather than step down at the end of his second term, Kurdish President Masud Barzani simply extended his tenure. So much for democracy. Barzani can hire and fire ministers on a whim. They answer to him. He trumps the prime minister of Kurdistan, who happens to be his nephew, and the chief of Kurdish intelligence, who happens to be his son. Not so in Baghdad, where the nature of compromise and political pluralism means that the prime minister is saddled with ministers whom he may not trust and whom he cannot fire, even if they are incompetent, corrupt, or abusive. If he even tries, people label him autocratic. But for Friedman, autocratic in Baghdad is democratic in Kurdistan. Maliki has faults, indeed many. But at least he subjects himself to elections. But in Friedman’s world, democracy is about dictatorship and dictatorship is democracy.

Kurdistan is impressive and, I must admit that after spending time in Basra or Baghdad, it’s a pleasure to go to Sulaymani, sit in an outdoor café and have a beer or tea with friends. And to Barham’s credit, he (and current Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani) do tolerate more dissent than either Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Masud Barzani, Masour Barzani, Falah Mustafa, Fuad Hussein, or Karim Sinjari. But for all of Kurdistan’s success, it is on a trajectory to become not a new bastion of democracy, but yet just another dictatorship. But then again, that may be what attracts Tom Friedman—or at least his subconscious—to it the most. Friedman likes making up words and catchy phrases. Perhaps he illustrates one: Autocratophile, the love of dictators.

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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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