Kurdistan: Meet the New Bosses

The neocons in Washington love to talk about how they’re promoting freedom and democracy in Iraq. They often cite as their example the country’s Kurdish population, staunch allies of Washington, who have been protected by the American military since no-fly zones were imposed after the 1991 Gulf War.

But just how much freedom is there in northern Iraq?

Consider the case of Dr. Kamal Sayid Qadir, a well-known Kurdish writer, lawyer, and university lecturer who holds Austrian citizenship. He was picked up by the Kurdish security service in Arbil on Oct. 26 and sentenced to 30 years behind bars.

Qadir’s arrest is clearly an affront to freedom, and his case has been taken up by key human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the international writers group PEN, as well as the Iraqi Journalists Guild. Dozens of prominent Kurdish journalists and intellectuals around the world have also signed a petition calling for his immediate release.

Qadir was arrested because he was a fierce critic of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – the two armed Kurdish factions who have ruled northern Iraq under U.S. auspices.

Earlier this year, for example, he wrote that Kurdish leaders have failed to "transform Iraqi Kurdistan into a model democracy for Iraq, or even the Middle East, because, instead, the Kurdish parties transformed Iraqi Kurdistan into a fortress for oppression, theft of public funds, and serious abuses of human rights like murder, torture, amputation of ears and noses, and rape."

In same article, also pointed to Washington’s culpability in this situation:

"All this was conducted under American protection because the Kurdish parties, and others in the region, know too well that all the privileges and gains achieved since 1991 by the Kurdish parties were impossible without direct American backing and support. Indeed the Americans, who had established and directly protected the safe heaven in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, and after the fall of the former regime in April 2003, were behind the rewarding of the Kurdish parties further privileges in the form of a federal region and a bigger share of Iraqi budget, which no one knows where it went and how it has been spent to this date."

Now Qadir is in prison.

Since 1991, these two political groups have developed their own secret police (or asayeesh, in Kurdish).

Elections have been held, but parties who side against the KDP and PUK slates often find their leaders beaten. In January, covering the election of an interim government, I found vote-buying and intimidation, including the beating of campaign workers for the moderate Kurdistan Islamic Union. This December, the party’s headquarters in Dohuk were burned and looted, and four members of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, including one politburo member, were killed.

The Kurdish people deserve better.

In 1994, the KDP and PUK fought a war over control of Iraqi Kurdistan. Whole villages were destroyed when they found themselves on the wrong side. The conflict ended when Massoud Barzani (the leader responsible for Qadir’s arrest) called on Saddam Hussein to help him oust his rival, Jalal Talabani, from Arbil, the largest city in the Kurdish autonomous region.

Since then, the two factions have learned to cooperate. So when you enter northern Iraq from its border with Turkey, there are large pictures of both Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, where Saddam’s used to be.