The Corner

Middle East Anniversaries and Freedom’s Decline

June 4 marks the one-month anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of Sardasht Osman, a young journalists who wrote a poem criticizing Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masud Barzani’s corruption and nepotism. Circumstantial evidence revolves around one suspect, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s security agency which is led by Masrour Barzani, Masud’s son. Masud and Masrour promised an investigation, but this has turned out more rhetorical than real. Public anger is high, and the situation is dangerous: Masrour, qualified by family name like Saddam’s sons before him, behaves in a manner increasingly erratic. (If Masud were wise, he’d order his eldest son to take a permanent vacation to cool off, just as Iraqi president Jalal Talabani did with his eldest son Bafil, who Kurdish insiders say was caught once too often engaging in criminal behavior).

It is telling that neither Masud nor Masrour nor, for that matter, Kurdish prime minister Barham Salih nor Talabani’s younger son Qubad (who is in Kurdistan now) have visited Sardasht’s grave or paid respect to the family, according to an independent journalist in the region. Iraqi Kurds and local journalists long since concluded they were insincere. To be fair, though, Qubad’s twittering suggests he is busy with other things. Several journalists have visited Sardasht Osman’s family to pay respects.

On this, the one-year anniversary of Obama’s Cairo speech, the silence of the Obama administration in the face of backsliding on rights, freedom, and liberty in Kurdistan, Turkey, and Arab states such as Egypt and Yemen, is deafening. In recent weeks, independent journalists in Kurdistan have begun to receive cell phone death threats (as Sardasht did before his murder). When they have gone to security to lodge complaints, the journalists are harassed. It is now only a matter of time until more journalists are whacked. The victims are not insurgents nor violent Islamists, but rather liberals and the best of the new generation. Obama’s inaction is dangerous because, when administration officials like assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman or U.S. congressmen on a junket take their photos with Barzani, cynicism grows about perceived U.S. endorsement dictators; this in turn encourages anti-Americanism.

Many visitors describe their experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan as positive; my twenty-plus trips were. Certainly, Kurdistan shines compared to Baghdad if not, increasingly, Basra. The problem is that, on human rights, stability, and liberty, the trajectory in Iraqi Kurdistan is backwards.

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.


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