On December 2, rioters allegedly stirred up by preachers at Friday prayers rampaged through Zakho, destroying a controversial massage parlor before moving on to torch several liquor shops and hotels. In retaliation, a mob of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) activists attacked the local office of the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and KIU media offices in nearby Duhok and Semel. There is only one problem, a KIU activist explains to me: While the KIU used to have two imams in Zakho, they were fired a long time ago by the government. The KDP regulates the mosques and appoints the preachers. Ismael Osman, the cleric who called for worshippers to attack the massage parlor told Hawlati that he hates the KIU and belongs to the KDP.
Regional President Masud Barzani condemned the violence and promised that a special committee would investigate the incident. Alas, Barzani appointing a committee to investigate any outrage against democracy and security in which the perpetrators come from his own party is akin to the fox taking charge of an investigation into a break-in at a hen house, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad promising to investigate attacks against protestors on the part of his own security forces. Barzani may be sincere, but after so many attacks allegedly perpetrated with such seeming impunity by his own party – and even in some cases his own immediate family – against opposition political parties and independent journalists, Barzani has forfeited any credibility on issues of justice and human rights.
The list of unresolved investigations and unpunished attacks against political opponents in Kurdistan is growing. In October 2005, security forces detained dissident writer and Austrian citizen Kamal Sayid Qadir in Erbil. After a one-hour trial, a party-controlled court sentenced Kamal to 30 years in prison. Whether or not Dr. Kamal's journalism was professional, it was clear that the judicial process was not. To his credit, it was Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who first brought the case to the attention of people in Washington, DC, perhaps because the abuse was so blatant and the Kurdish representative realized more than those on Sar-e Rash the damage it could do to the region's image abroad. While human rights abuses predated the case, it was the KDP's overreaction to it and the involvement of Barzani family members in some of the worst alleged abuses that first internationalized concern about the human rights situation in Kurdistan.
Two months after Kamal's detention, KDP activists and security forces stormed the KIU headquarters in Duhok ahead of elections, summarily executing its local leader. The incident was discussed at the White House, not only among lower aides, but directly with President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Alas, while Barzani obsesses about image and whether or not he receives the respect he believe he deserves when he travels abroad, it is often his own decision to engage in the worst autocratic excesses which soil international attitudes toward him and his sons, rather than any imagined slight by protocol officers who do not book him a fancy enough suite or meet him in a posh enough parlor.
Perhaps because Barzani believed he could, literally, get away with murder, Kurdistan soon became a very dangerous place for journalists, or at least those who worked for newspapers or magazines which were independent, and not simply political party public relations arms. In 2008, Soran Mama Hama, a reporter for the Kurdish-language magazine Lvin was shot in his home in Kirkuk after reportedly investigating a story involving local and party official culpability in a prostitution ring. The story was relevant, and not simply partisan animosity. The tendency of Kurdish security agencies to use prostitutes to entrap foreign officials was well-known to Americans serving in the region, and indeed was used to blackmail at least one American colonel stationed in Erbil. Soran's killing remains unresolved, and there is no evidence that Kurdish authorities ever undertook any serious investigation. Najmaldin Karim, the new governor of Kirkuk, has shown no interest in pursuing the case.
Soran's death was followed two years later by the kidnapping and execution of Sardasht Osman, apparently in retaliation for a sharply satirical poem he had written regarding the enrichment of the Barzani family. Sardasht's murder again made international headlines in a manner which Kurdish officials should have been able to predict. While the Kurdistan Regional Government released the results of its investigation and accused Sardasht of terror connections, the government's accusations were neither backed by any evidence nor did they address how terrorists could kidnap a student in broad daylight from a university in the middle of Erbil, and spirit him unmolested through multiple KDP-run checkpoints.
Had the Kurdish authorities learned that they could not kill without consequence, the tragedy of this past February would have been avoided. When a small group of protestors threw stones at the local KDP headquarters in Sulaymani, a gunman from inside the building opened fire indiscriminately on the crowd, killing a teenage boy. Over subsequent weeks, violence spread, Kurdish forces killed more than a dozen and wounded several hundred. In any democratic society, the KDP gunmen would be in prison for manslaughter if not murder. An honorable prime minister would not remain in office after such outrage but, in Kurdistan, tenure in office can simply be too lucrative to abandon, even if it means exposing reformist rhetoric to be insincere.
Whether the KIU is too conservative or even radical for most Kurds' tastes or those of Western governments should be completely irrelevant to the violence in Zakho which, when it comes to the KDP reprisal, bears all the hallmarks of the tail wagging the dog. Barzani may have condemned the attack, but if he is serious about its unacceptability, there are several steps he can initiate immediately.
The first step would be to fire the interior minister who has seen most of the attacks occur on his watch. If the KDP is serious about its investigation into Sardasht Osman's murder, then Karim Sinjari displayed gross incompetence for allowing terrorists to operate in the heart of Erbil. At the same time, if the investigation was a farce, then the interior minister was simply providing cover for lawlessness which, in a democratic society, it should be his job to prevent regardless of the perpetrator's party or family connection.
The second step would be to dismiss the leadership of the KDP's security service. That the head of the Kurdistan-Iraq Regional Security Protection Agency happens to be his eldest son and heir apparent should be irrelevant. After all, when Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's son made some very poor decisions with regard to the PUK's security arm, his parents effectively exiled him to Europe. That might not be justice, but it was acknowledgement that a crime had occurred.
Lastly, while Barzani is right to promise an investigation, any such inquiry should be truly independent. Here, it may be time for Barzani to call upon the international community—diplomats, non-Kurdish and non-Iraqi civil society representatives, and academics—who are not invested in any way in Kurdish society, to handle the investigation. Barzani could simply promise to offer his full support, grant full access to any party members, and agree in advance to uphold its recommendations. Indeed, had Barzani accepted such a model when trouble began in 2005, many innocent lives may have been spared and Kurdistan would have advanced much further to fulfilling its quest for democracy and rule-of-law.