The Corner

The Betrayal of Iraqi Kurdistan

Shortly before returning to Iraqi Kurdistan with a delegation that had visited Washington for the trade conference, Qubad Talabani, the Iraqi president’s son, wrote:

The Kurdish American community in the US offers great hope to strengthening Kurdistan’s relations with the US, while at the same time, being a voice for reason to ensure that Kurdistan stays true to its word of reform and continued democratization.

It would be good to see Qubad truly advocate for reform. Since the July election, the Kurdistan Regional Government — run by Masud Barzani and the political party of Qubad’s dad — have sacked nearly 3,000 officials on the suspicion that they had voted for the opposition political party. These were not political appointees, but rather ordinary civil servants whose families are now left destitute. The decision to exact political revenge for thought crimes is something that can be reversed, if only the Kurdish leadership wanted to do so.

Another key issue for reform is how the next Iraqi election will be conducted. Qubad’s dad’s party and Masud Barzani both are insisting that voting occur on closed lists rather than open lists. In effect, this means people cannot know for what individuals they are voting and instead seats are allotted by party bosses. It’s a nice way to dispense patronage, but it’s not what most Kurds tell newspapers they want. And its not the way the rest of Iraq held provincial elections. Holding politicians accountable is good for reform; protecting corrruption is not. It is quite interesting that the Gorran list, which beat Qubad’s dad’s party on its home turf in July, has come out in favor of open lists. As such, it is possible that Talabani may lose the Kurdish vote in Baghdad, just as he lost it in Sulaymani.

Corruption is another key issue for reform. I’ve blogged about the Norwegian oil scandal in Iraqi Kurdistan. The documents released under Norway’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act suggest that the Kurdish oil minister took kickbacks. How disappointing it is, then, that the new Prime Minister Barham Salih — a man I greatly respect — has reappointed the oil minister. Then again, this is readily explanable as Barham, unfortunately, has little say in his own parliament (Masud Barzani remains master) and is being set up to fail. Qubad, on the other hand, by nature of his family pedigree has a true bully pulpit if he would only treat reform and anti-corruption as something more than a throwaway talking point.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.