In 2006, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) launched an advertising campaign calling Iraqi Kurdistan “the Other Iraq.” The concept was simple: As insurgency raged in Baghdad, the advertisements contrasted Iraqi Kurdistan’s peace and stability with the insurgency then-raging in central Iraq and thanked the United States for ridding the country from the scourge of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
It was a smart public relations move but covered up a darker reality: In his private emails, Kurdish officials like Qubad Talabani, now the KRG deputy prime minister, castigated the United States for the “lies that led to war.” Just as Kurdish officials told their American counterparts what Washington wanted to hear, so too did they tell Iranians and Turks what Tehran and Ankara wanted to hear.
Iraqi Kurdistan might have been more secure than the rest of Iraq, but the notion that they were more democratic was and is nonsense. Two families and their respective political parties have dominated the region since the 1991 withdrawal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces. The first is Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is unapologetically tribal and socially conservative. For instance, many family members have multiple wives who remain shielded from the public and the family history is intertwined with both family betrothals and honor killings of women who aspired for a life beyond family rigidity. When a journalist penned a poem lampooning Barzani’s nepotism, either he or his sons had the young journalist kidnapped and killed.
It was in reaction to this sort of insular tribalism that the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, once a deputy to Masoud’s father, broke away to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). At first, Talabani professed progressivism and socialist values but, nearing the end of his life, he turned back inward to ensure that his now-Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife and their two sons, Bafil and Qubad, maintained control over his political machine and the fortune which it allowed him and his family to amass.
As the Barzanis and Talibanis have consolidated their control in Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad has overcome insurgency and embraced democracy, however, messy. Baghdad now boasts five prime ministers whom the Iraqi electorate has retired since the 2004 return of sovereignty, and incumbent Mustafa al-Kadhimi is likely not far behind: Iraqis are notoriously unkind to incumbents. Nor is there any certainty that President Barham Salih will gain a second term. Nowhere else in the Middle East with the exception of Israel do so many retired politicians live in peace in the country they once served.
In sharp contrast to Baghdad, there is no tradition in Iraqi Kurdistan of leaders abiding by the rule-of-law or electoral will. There was a relatively free election in 1992 in which Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani nearly split the vote. Rather than develop a system of leadership and opposition, they merely split the spoils between them. When a financial dispute developed over revenue sharing at the Ibrahim Khalil customs station on the Turkish frontier, civil war erupted. While Barzani often tells foreigners about the sacrifice of his tribe in the fight against Iraqi dictators Saddam Hussein, only eight years after the massacres he allied with Saddam to push Talabani out of Erbil and maintain his monopoly over the lucrative smuggling trade with Turkey. After the adoption of the 2005 constitution, Barzani served as regional president but subsequently refused to abide by the two-term limit and demanded repeated extensions. In short, Barzani had the choice to be the Kurdish equivalent of Nelson Mandela or Yasir Arafat. He could demonstrate through his actions a commitment to democracy, or he could turn Kurdistan into a corrupt plutocracy. He chose the latter. Masoud Barzani will be remembered as a man who entered Iraqi Kurdistan penniless, and retired a billionaire several times over. He prioritized tribe over people in most actions: Consider the Bekhme Dam: Conceived in the 1950s with preliminary construction in the 1980s, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and subsequent war and sanctions forced the project’s suspension. Following Saddam ouster, the Kurdish government had the funds to complete the project and power not only Iraqi Kurdistan but much of Iraq as well, but Barzani balked, fearing that the resulting reservoir might cause tourists to flood into his tribal homeland. Likewise, while Barzani might strike rhetorical chords as a tribal man of the people, he chose to live isolated from his fellow Kurds on a mountain top resort once owned by Saddam and ostentatious even by Trumpian standards.
Whatever Masoud Barzani’s and Jalal Talabani’s flaws, even their critics acknowledge they were crafty, wise to tribal dynamics, and understood that too much repression would cause backlash. The same talents and understandings did not necessarily pass to the new generation. After Masoud theoretically stepped down, his nephew Nechirvan became regional president while his son Masrour Barzani assumed the premiership. (On the Talabani side, eldest son Bafel and nephew Lahur Talabani have taken over as PUK co-leaders while second son Qubad works as Masrour’s deputy). Talent, however, is not evenly spread. Nechirvan spent years as prime minister and understands that he must provide for the people even as he attends to his own wealth. It is corruption, but in the Tammany Hall sense. Lahur has a similar reputation: Kurds complain about the PUK administration, but acknowledge his competence. That is not the case with Bafel, whom most Kurds consider unstable. Qubad, meanwhile, may be seen as affable and a useful interlocutor for diplomats, but Kurds say he is a lightweight and in over his head.
The broadest dismay, however, surrounds Masrour, whose talent has always been inversely proportional to the power he wields. As a student at American University, he was mediocre and spent more time shopping and in luxury properties off-campus but received a degree after the Barzani family endowed a program at the university. Masrour’s intemperance and propensity to violence has been at the center of many of the human rights controversies which have afflicted Iraqi Kurdistan: murders at home and attacks on dissidents abroad. While Nechirvan understood the necessity of balancing his own business interests with the ability of others to make money, Masrour has moved to monopolize various sectors and has often used his power to arrest or violently silence those who stood in his way. Masrour’s portrait, meanwhile, increasingly graces public spaces, and cars in Erbil and Duhok feature sun shades and decals with his portrait.
If he believes this is an expression of affection, he will be as mistaken as was Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Qadhafi, and Saddam Hussein. As prime minister, Masrour stumbled. He has blamed Nechirvan for Kurdistan’s poor balance sheets and has shirked responsibility for his own role in regional problems. Beyond the cities, he has upset the delicate tribal balance which his father prioritized as he has sought to wield security forces to arrest members of rival tribes in order to compel (unsuccessfully) their subordination.
Masrour has always cloaked himself in nationalism but, here too he has failed. In 2017, against both inside and outside counsel, he oversaw the referendum which ultimately led the region to lose control of vast swaths of territory and valuable oil wells. For all his nationalist discourse, he uses Iraqi rather than Kurdish law to justify the arrest of dissidents and protestors for allegedly disturbing public order. Journalists—most recently Sherwan Amin Sherwani—have disappeared for the crime of journalism. Perhaps he believes if journalists do not report problems, starving and dispossessed locals will neither notice their plummeting livelihoods nor juxtapose their lot with Masrour’s ostentatiousness. While his grandfather, the legendary Mulla Mustafa Barzani, fought to carve out a Kurdish entity, Masrour has for personal profit subordinated Kurdish hopes and dreams to Turkey’s interests. Today, he remains largely silent while Turks bomb Kurdish villages and Turkish soldiers stop and interrogate local villagers. He has become to Kurdish nationalism what Marshal Philippe Pétain was to French nationalism.
Repression and security are not synonymous, and Iraqi Kurds are discovering that the combination of Masrour’s volatility, greed, and incompetence will bring them neither freedom nor prosperity. The other Iraq indeed.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This piece was originally featured in August 2019 and is being republished due to reader’s interest.