On August 20, the newly-elected Iraqi Kurdistan parliamentarians took their oaths of office. Barham Salih took over the premiership from Nechervan Barzani, nephew of Masud Barzani, the region’s president.
Transfer of power is one test for democracy and rule-of-law. But another has yet to occur: Both major Kurdish parties — Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — have said they will work to tackle corruption. Such declarations are false, however, so long as Nechervan Barzani remains in the prime minister’s palatial estate, a house seized by the Kurdistan Regional Government after the 1991 uprising from a former senior official in Saddam’s government. If I’m not mistaken, the previous owner was Izzat Ibrahim ad-Duri, vice president of the Revolutionary Command Council.
One of the greatest frustrations among Iraqi Kurds revolves around how the Barzani family (and, to a lesser extent, the Talabani family) conflate the Kurdistan Regional Government’s property with political party property and with personal property. Nechervan Barzani’s continued residence in the “house of the prime minister” is perhaps a case in point. He has now, in effect, embezzled in plain sight a house worth millions — prime real estate and lavishly furnished with huge silk carpets, etc., a move which will be a reminder to everyone who drives the main road from Erbil to Salahuddin Masif of the emptiness of Kurdistan Regional Government promises to combat corruption.
In 2001, when Barham Salih became prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Sulaymani, he won populist points by returning to his boyhood house rather than building a palatial mansion. It will be curious to see what Barham Salih does as he establishes a residence in Erbil, and whether the new parliament will have the seriousness to protect the Kurdish populations’ interests in public property.