June 4 will mark the month anniversary of the kidnapping and subsequent murder of 23-year-old Sardasht Osman, a student at Salahuddin University and a contributor to several independent Kurdish newspapers and websites. The Kurdistan Regional Government has promised to investigate Sardasht's death but, as with the murder of Mushir Mizuri in 2005 and Soran Mama Hama in 2008, the case remains unresolved.
Iraqi Kurds and foreign analysts, however, agree that the only suspect which has both motive and means to pull off the attack is the Parastin, the Kurdistan Democratic Party's intelligence and security agency which is led by Masrour Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masud Barzani's eldest son. Sardasht had insulted the Barzani family with sarcastic articles and biting criticism. Given the number of security checkpoints in Erbil and along the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq proper, the idea that terrorists can infiltrate Kurdistan, grab a random student, and make their way outside the region without getting stopped at myriad checkpoints is laughable.
Across the Kurdish political divide, from the Barzani compound on Sar-i Rash to Noshirwan Mustafa's house in Sulaymani, and from Erbil to Washington, there is one fact upon which everyone can agree: Sardasht's murder was a public relations disaster for Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Regional Government has spent millions of dollars on public relations. In the United States, it has cultivated former generals, congressmen, senators, former ambassadors, and think tank scholars. Kurdish leaders have given speeches at international conferences and run expensive advertisements on American television. The purpose of the Iraqi Kurdish public relations campaign has been to convince Americans that Iraqi Kurdistan was an ally, a democracy, and a promising place to invest, especially as a decision point nears about the extent of U.S. relations with Kurdistan following the departure of U.S. combat forces in the coming year.
Rather than speak of Kurdistan's progress, Sardasht's murder has caused the international press- -major American newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as Great Britain's The Guardian, and international wire services like Associated Press and Agence France Presse--to cast Iraqi Kurdistan as a region either of insecurity, criminality, and repression. Non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists continue to advocate for justice
What these organizations and diplomats know is that this is not the first time that rash action by the Parastin has embarrassed Iraqi Kurdistan. On October 26, 2005, the Parastin detained Kurdish writer and Austrian citizen Kamal Said Qadir in Erbil. Like Sardasht, Kamal Said Qadir had angered Barzani with several articles describing corruption and nepotism in the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Parastin held Qadir for weeks without charge and without access to an attorney or his family. As today, prominent human rights organizations interceded and international media covered the scandal. For any competent Kurdish official, the spotlight should have been predictable; Kamal was not only a Kurd, but also an Austrian, with the full benefits of Austrian citizenship. That made the brazen attack upon Kamal three years later in the streets of Vienna even more disturbing. Eyewitnesses pointed the finger at Masrour and his bodyguards. One bodyguard is serving a prison term in Austria for attempted murder. The Kurdistan Regional Government and Masud Barzani himself reportedly had to expend significant diplomatic capital to have the Austrian police give Masrour himself a pass.
The Kurdistan Regional Government and some Kurdistan Democratic Party officials cast dispersions upon Sardasht Osman and Kamal Said Qadir. The writings of both could be crude and insulting. Neither was well-known outside Kurdish circles until the Parastin's actions threw them into the spotlight. Had the Parastin not targeted them, their writings would have been ignored or forgotten.
The question President Barzani should ask is why the Parastin made the decision to target these journalists and bloggers in such a thuggish way. Whoever gave the command to murder Sardasht or kidnap Kamal did not think strategically or professionally: The Parastin's attacks did not erase what Sardasht or Kamal wrote and, indeed, justified it to the wider audience. Simply put, the decision to execute operations against both Sardasht and Kamal demonstrated incompetence in the Parastin's leadership or, perhaps, even above it in the presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Perhaps Masud Barzani believes he can turn a blind eye to the Parastin's incompetence. He had appointed his eldest and relatively inexperienced son to lead the organization at an age when most security specialists are still learning the trade. Perhaps he calculated his son could handle the responsibility. This might have been the case if the Parastin's leadership learned the cost of rash action or the reaction to its mistakes. Alas, it appears as if the Parastin and Barzani's son has made the same mistake at least three times, if not more. Masud Barzani must recognize that he faces a problem. It would be a mistake for him to believe the current crisis will fade away with time for, even if the international press loses interest in the investigation of Sardasht's murder, Masud must now assume that his son's temperament will spark new crises which individually or in sum may undermine the stability which Kurdistan needs to thrive.
Given the implications of Sardasht's murder, the lack of Kurdish and international confidence in the subsequent investigation, and the fact that, whether the Parastin carried out the hit or simply failed to prevent it, one thing is clear. For the sake of Kurdistan's democracy and stability, and U.S. interests in the region, it is time to clean house at the Parastin. Change must start at the top.