Dictatorship or Democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The West is sympathetic to Iraqi Kurdistan. The region is more secure than the rest of Iraq. Kurds are hospitable. And the narrative of triumph from oppression is compelling. Foreigners who visit Kurdistan are awed by the region’s progress. To cement the relationship, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has spent millions of dollars lobbying and, on occasion, bribing politicians, former diplomats, army officers, and policymakers in Washington. With 23-year-old journalist Sardasht Osman’s murder, however, the KRG risks shows its rhetoric of justice and democracy to be lies. Rather than appear a democratic oasis, the KRG now looks like the Iranian or Syrian regimes, where security forces assassinate opponents with impunity. Perhaps Sardasht Osman is Kurdistan’s Neda, the 16-year-old gunned down last summer in Tehran by the Basij for opposing election fraud. Or perhaps Sardasht’s murder is like former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Does Iraqi Kurdistan President Masud Barzani really want to be the new Assad? Was that Kurdish nationalist hero Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s dream?

It will be hard for any U.S. Congressman, in the Kurdish Caucus or not, to defend a regime guilty of such brutality or call for U.S. troops to stay behind to defend a region of Iraq which no longer a beacon of liberty.

Sardasht Osman’s murder could reverse years of Kurdish progress on the international scene. True, the U.S. Regional Reconstruction Team’s statement was weak. That is more a testament to the junior rank of American diplomats in Erbil. But this does not mean that the West is going to accept the KRG’s investigation. In Washington, there is little faith in the KRG’s promise to investigate. Every Kurdistan fan and follower understands the KRG’s strategy is to delay and ignore until the world forgets. That excuse may have worked once, but Sardasht is not the first victim. Whatever happened to promises to investigate opposition politician Mushir Mizuri’s murder in Duhok in 2005, journalist Soran Mama Hama’s assassination in Kirkuk in 2008, and Jalal Talabani’s nephew Lahur’s decision to fire into an opposition Goran Party rally this year? It will be hard for any U.S. Congressman, in the Kurdish Caucus or not, to defend a regime guilty of such brutality or call for U.S. troops to stay behind to defend a region of Iraq which no longer a beacon of liberty.

The KRG leadership risks Kurdistan’s reputation for safety by claiming terrorists kidnapped and killed Sardasht. The odds that terrorists infiltrated Erbil, randomly kidnapped a journalist whose writing antagonized the president’s family in plain view of security, and carried him away with impunity are astronomical. Interior Minister Karim Sinjari can sleep at night; the kidnapping was not the result of his incompetence. His job is secure.

Far more likely, Sardasht’s murder was ordered and executed by the parastin, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s intelligence agency. Only its leadership had the motive and means to carry out Sardasht’s assassination. Family should not supplant justice, however. Here, Masud Barzani should take a lesson from Jalal Talabani. Perhaps the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan did not prosecute Talabani’s eldest son Bafil, but when they could no longer control his behavior, they exiled him. Barzani’s brood is out-of-control. This is not the first time, Masud’s son has embarrassed the KRG and Kurds. Like Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, Masud's eldest son grows reckless with age. It is time for Masud to make a choice: Dictatorship or democracy, family or honor.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Kurdistan4all/Creative Commons

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