Kurdistan may be the “other Iraq” but, when it comes to corruption, it is in a league all its own. After a disappointing trip to Washington capped off when TSA agents subjected his entourage to searches, Kurdish President Masud Barzani has now, according to a report in the Kurdistan Tribune, cut short a trip to the United Arab Emirates after his son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million in a local casino. Where his son got $3.2 million, whether it came from government coffers and, if so, why Barzani was traveling with so much cash is unanswered. Mansour has always been tempestuous; in his youth, a dispute about a woman led to a botched suicide attempt. Elder son Masrour Barzani, whom Kurdish dissidents accuse of running death squads, has, according to multiple sources in the American Kurdish community, set up a corporation to acquire a $10+ million villa in northern Virginia. Youngest son Mullah Mustafa publicly consorts with figures during his Washington trips which make even Secret Service agents blush. Masud Barzani’s nephew expropriated $600 million from the public coffer to fund his bid for the Korek company. The multibillion dollar return flowed not into the public coffers, but into Barzani private coffers.
The question regarding Barzani’s family holdings will come to a head next year as the Kurdish presidency again comes up for election and could undermine the stability and security about which the family brags and foreign investors depend. Masud Barzani, first elected in 2005 and then re-elected four years later in elections marred by widespread fraud, should, by law, not run for a third term. If he does seek to become president for life, the disgruntled youth may again take to the streets, and all pretense of Kurdistan being anything but a Mafioso state will disappear. Few expect Barzani to follow the lead of the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union party leader who resigned his post to allow a true successor to emerge.
There’s an unfortunate correlation between high-level engagement with Middle East potentates and their human rights abuses. When Nancy Pelosi went to Syria, Syrian dissidents ran for cover. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak knew he was off-the-hook when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Egypt and failed to mention democracy. Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Iran a democracy and signaled regime hardliners that their path to repression was clear. President Barack Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan one of his favorite leaders; once an emerging democracy, Turkey now ranks below Russia and Venezuela in terms of press freedom and Erdogan rounds up political opponents in the dead of night.
Earlier this month, Kurdish strongman Masud Barzani joined the club. During his trip to Washington, he met not only with his usual interlocutor Vice President Joseph Biden, but also Obama. He gloated at his reception and calculated that the embrace meant that he would face no more pressure to curtail rampant corruption or respect basic human rights.
Almost a quarter-century after Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to utilize chemical weapons against Iraq’s Kurdish population, the Kurdistan Regional Government and many in the Kurdish Diaspora are gearing up to demand that the international community recognize the Kurdish genocide. The broader Anfal campaign—of which the bombing of Halabja was just the apex—was certainly ethnic cleansing, but if the Kurdish government succeeds broadly in gaining international recognition of genocide in which up to 182,000 Kurds died, then the repercussions may be wider than it would like.
After all, less than a decade later, Masud Barzani—the president of Iraqi Kurdistan—allied himself with Saddam Hussein and allowed the Iraqi dictator’s tanks and storm troopers into his capital in a devil’s bargain to liquidate his opposition. Saddam’s storm troopers also used Barzani’s open door to hunt down and summarily execute several hundred other Iraqi oppositionists who had escaped his thumb and settled in Kurdistan.