For Sale: Iraqi Kurdistan, a Nation & Its Values

Sheri Laizer in France – | Special to – 28 Jan 2016 – Iraqi Kurdistan has turned into a chaotic frontier land where the black economy and corruption flourish. Major international players and internal political forces secretly put aside their weapons to agree on how to divide the spoils.

Turkey, Iran, the USA, the Barzanis and other key tribal leaders cut shares in high profits from the revenues of Kurdistan while the peshmerga have not received their wages for the past seven months but are still expected to carry on the battle against ISIS. – Last August (2015), Nechirvan Barzani, Massoud Barzani’s nephew and Prime Minister claimed, “oil exports from Kurdish-controlled fields had reached 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) and could give Kurdistan the much needed $800 million per month to offset the deficit and pay salaries of civil servants in the region.” Despite this, nearly six months on wages are still not being paid and energy supplies depend on family status.1

Nechirvan Barzani this week blamed the economic downturn on the decrease in the price of oil, the battle against ISIS and the costs of hosting ‘close to two million refugees and displaced persons…”2

The official KRG website announced that in a meeting held on Monday 25 January 2016 between the US Ambassador to Iraq, Stewart Jones, other members of the US administration and Kurdish cabinet members, “Prime Minister Barzani presented a summary of the financial crisis and explained that it was caused by withholding by Baghdad of Kurdistan Region’s share in the national budget since February 2014” (and the other factors specified above).

“Both Prime Minister Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Talabani provided detailed information on the depth and complexity of the financial crisis.”3

But those factors were the same last August and oil exports have continued. Although the general economic situation is considered to be grave and this doesn’t appear to impact on the key players in the leading families that have become enormously wealthy through Mafia-style deals done at the expense of Kurdistan and its old values of warrior’s honour.

Barzani autocracy

Derek Monroe, an American commentator who had spent time in the Kurdistan region of Iraq astutely observed in June 2013: “The KDP and its historical rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have created interlocking mechanisms of power distribution and execution that put both of them in the driver’s seat at the same time. The balance is often altered slightly in favor of one or the other party, depending on the individual at the helm. In the Barzani clan’s case, the money trail reinforces ancient tribal allegiances and connections, making a de-facto “democratic” Barzani dynasty possible…”4

While the Kurdish fighters, police and other state employees are left without their salaries, many members of the Barzani family are still able to invest in building projects, as well as buying up restaurants, houses and land – and this is both inside and outside Kurdistan.

According to Arian Mufid, writing in the Kurdistan Tribune last October (2015), Kurdistan is facing previously unknown levels of hardships firstly owing to the war with ISIS along a 1100 stretch of border “halting all political and economic development for the time being. Secondly, the corruption of the Barzani party and family which controls the backbone of the government, and as a result is crippling prospects for political independence in the south of Kurdistan. Thirdly, the incompetence of the current government has damaged the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil and consequently the Iraqi budget is not reaching the KRG on time and there is a backlog in the payment of public employees’ wages …”5

Numerous Barzani family members have amassed huge wealth from keeping control of the economy as also of would-be rival entrepreneurs and small businessmen. Kurdish people resent this. They see that the politicians and heads of the powerful tribes have become enormously rich and believe they are stealing the money of Kurdistan to invest in private enterprises such as building projects in Kurdistan and buying up property abroad.

Members of the Barzani family also control import licenses and take large cuts from any entrepreneur that aims to launch projects that can be useful to the Kurdistan region such as wind farms for electricity and importing products from European countries. In the private sector, Massoud Barzani’s female relative, Aklima Barzani, reputedly demands an exorbitant cut of any project permit and any proposed contract to the point where the Kurdish businessmen whose project it is will receive the lesser share. Naturally, they are not happy about this. Sometimes the demand is said to involve an up-front fee and later, if the project is agreed, an on-going cut of the profits that can amount to millions of US dollars. Even the initial permit may cost up to a million US dollars.

Massoud Barzani’s son, Masrour, now head of security, allegedly relies on silencing through terror to maintain the family status quo. According to well-known US commentator, Michael Rubin “both the Barzanis (and Talabanis) confuse personal, party, and public funds. That said, while Nechirvan Barzani may be corrupt, it is in the Tammany Hall sense: his machine may be shady at times, but it delivers not only to his immediate inner circle but to the public at large…. Nechirvan also knows that it is far better to co-opt or ignore opponents than use force to imprison or kill them. Masrour is not so nuanced. Most of the crises which soiled the Barzani name over the past decade—the imprisonment of political critics, the attacks on critics in Virginia and Vienna, and the murder of journalists seem to rest at Masrour’s feet…”6

One Kurdish journalist, Sardasht Osman, known for his satire of the Barzani ‘royalty’ penned anallegory about how marrying the daughter of the president would transform the lives of all their relatives – an allusion to the nepotism afoot:

“…I would make my father become the Minister of Peshmerga [the Kurdish militia]. He had been Peshmerga in September revolution, but he now has no pension because he is no longer a member of Kurdistan Democratic Party.   

I would make my unlucky baby brother, who recently finished university but is now unemployed and looking to leave Kurdistan, chief of my special forces.

My sister who has been too embarrassed to go to the bazaar to shop, could drive all the expensive cars just as Barzani’s daughters do.

For my mother, who is diabetic and has high blood pressure and heart problems but who is not able to afford treatment outside Kurdistan, I would hire a couple Italian doctors to treat her in the comfort of her own house.

For my uncles, I would open few offices and departments and they, along with all my nieces and nephews would become high generals, officers, and commanders…”

Sardasht Osman did not marry a Barzani. Instead, he was kidnapped and killed.7

Turkey, Iran and the US push the buttons of the Kurdish leaders

The Barzani family and the KDP enjoy very good relations with Turkey along with having interests in the Turkish companies that enjoy most of the construction contracts in Kurdistan. The Turkish intelligence agency, MIT, also has agents active throughout the region and appears to operate with complete freedom.

The Turkish army continues to stage attacks on PKK positions inside Kurdistan, sometimes striking local Kurds “in error” as happened frequently and with tragic consequences in the 1990s. These forces have also established new positions up in the north of Kurdistan near the Turkish border.

These locations are well known to the local Kurdish villagers that live there. Some were surprised when recently the PKK’s forces were able to pass right through the middle of the Turkish army positions but neither side fired at the other. They asked themselves what secret deal might had been done whereas following the re-run of elections in Turkey on 1 November 2015, the Turkish army at once launched fresh attacks on the PKK and Kurdish targets after the AKP secured the parliamentary majority it sought.

Relations between the AKP government and the Kurdish movement have seriously declined. Violence increased and a return to the dark days of the 1990s is widely feared.

ISIS-driven oil tanker convoys move freely

Meanwhile, the illicit oil trade is flourishing across the border. In just one 24-hour period, Kurdish peshmerga fighters witnessed some 300-400 petrol tankers south of Sinjar, driven by non-bearded ISIS operatives, making their way unmolested from Qayara, south of Mosul, where they control the refinery, towards the Syrian border and to Turkey, bound for Gaziantep. “They don’t fly their flags when they are doing this”, one commentator observed.

At the same time, the US forces seem to stand back. When ISIS’s men are moving the petrol convoys, for example, there are no attacks. The rules of war no longer seem to apply.

There are also locations they appear not to wish for the peshmerga to attack despite the targets being within easy reach. They direct the peshmergas to stop their operation when the enemy is in range. The international forces will use their helicopters to assist when peshmerga are wounded as also to move them to the battlefield quickly but the peshmerga have no access to the satellite imaging used by the Allies and no right to question the directives given to them. Despite the limitations the peshmerga have executed significant attacks against ISIS targets and killed several ISIS leaders in recent months. But they are not in control of the battle itself.

Secret deals cut with ISIS

South of Tel Afar between Sinjar and Mosul lies an old airport once used by Saddam’s forces. In the afternoon of 22 October 2015 sources say a secret meeting was held with the headman of ISIS – the acting Wali of Mosul, Ayoub Ahmed Muslah, at al-Shura, along with two US officials, five Kurdish officials, and a Saudi businessman. US aircraft – two drones, a Blackhawk helicopter and a Chinook helicopter were seen by witnesses and assumed to have been protecting the meeting. These ‘negotiations’ took place without any fighting. Insiders assume the meeting was about oil.

This meeting ostensibly coincided with another event. Sirwan Barzani, Massoud Barzani’s nephew, is a millionaire businessman and managing director of Korek Telecom, a mobile phone company reported to be worth around 2 billion dollars.

“He could have supported the Peshmerga …through his giant companies, but everyone knows Sirwan Barzani has become a billionaire by using KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] institutions,” said Kamal Chomani, a well-known local critic of the KRG.” 8

Some four months ago it was claimed that he had disappeared in the Sultan Abdullah area around Mosul. He was not heard of for around a month. Then he reappeared and claimed he had been captured by the Islamic State group but had escaped.

“We knew from our informants he had made a secret deal with ISIS near Qayara” said one peshmerga who wished not to be named for reasons of security.

After his brief absence from view, the KDP set up a special force for Sirwan Barzani and appointed him its leader. The Black Tiger base, on the frontline between Kurdish forces and the area controlled by ISIS was named after his nickname, the Black Tiger. Sirwan Barzani states that he possesses the necessary background having been a peshmerga with the KDP for more than 12 years and that he had also “received an education in the military academy in Zakho, and established the Barzani brigade in 1994…”9

The Ministry of Peshmerga claimed on Kurdistan TV that they had staged an operation near Makhmur and had managed to liberate 64 prisoners from ISIS at that same time that the secret meeting had taken place with the Wali of Mosul, ISIS’s leader raising doubts as to the veracity of the media report.

Many sources claimed to have seen Chinooks going to that same area outside Mosul, passing weapons to ISIS and Humvees arriving by land to supply them with canons. It is said by the people on the ground that some five to six months ago US forces passed ISIS smaller arms around the village of Rambusi by parachute drops. There were no peshmerga there at the time, as the US well knew and not until the peshmerga retook Sinjar over a month ago.

The PKK also had forces there and took unilateral action on the basis that civilians had been left unprotected. However, when the peshmerga attacked Sinjar, the ISIS forces had just melted away and they saw none at all. The PKK forces called the peshmerga when they got inside Sinjar city that in turn asked the International air forces to hold off bombing. They replied that they’d refrain if they saw the Kurdish flag hoisted as a signal. After just ten minutes the peshmerga took Sinjar back. ISIS had retreated during the night to areas they hold around Rambusi and Ba’aj.

ISIS uses these same locations and hostages have been detained there including the Yezidi women and girls kidnapped from Sinjar, raped by ISIS militants and abused as sex slaves. Details were also officially reported on the Syrian state’s media website10.

Mass disillusion, loss of faith and the economic downturn

One long-serving peshmerga in the fight against ISIS, Sarkawt (nom de guerre), claimed that ISIS has turned numerous ordinary Muslims against Islam. He himself felt such huge repugnance that he was no longer able to call himself a Muslim. He had stopped praying and going to the mosque altogether. He emphasised that many others felt the same. Not only had they lost faith in religion but they had also lost faith in the Kurdish officials governing the country and believed them to be looting Kurdistan at the expense of the Kurdish people. These Kurds no longer know what their future holds and what tomorrow might bring. 11

“There are many different Kurdish forces now and they don’t coordinate with one another,” he complained. “Kurds have no idea who is going to attack next, whether Iran, Turkey or Daesh. Meanwhile, the Kurdish people are getting poorer. Numerous Kurdish families are still living in conditions like those after the 1991 uprising, forced to use generators for electricity and wondering when and if their wages will come in.”

Internal reckonings

Alan, a Kurdish agricultural engineer, argued darkly, “If you open your mouth to complain, someone might stage an accident to silence you and everyone will just say, ‘Oh what a shame, he died!’

“Several weeks ago we lost three KDP officials that had begun speaking out. One was shot with a silencer near Makhmur, another was shot while he was driving near Erbil but it was claimed his car just ran into a wall, and a third man was killed in suspicious circumstances near Sulaimaniyah.”

A senior peshmerga commander, who asked to remain anonymous, claims that “Around six months ago a number of Iranian officials met with Massoud Barzani and asked him to open a route for their forces to enter Syria through the territory under the KDP’s control so they could better support Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah. “If you do, we’ll protect you,” they promised. However, when this news reached the ears of US forces running missions in Iraq, US officials warned “If you cut any deal with Iran we’ll give ISIS the green light to reach Zakho and cut the border between Dohuk and Syria!

“When Iran heard this, they turned up the pressure on Nawshirwan Mustafa, Gorran’s leader, to argue that Massoud Barzani’s term of presidency should expire because Iran wanted him removed in order to replace him with someone that would help them implement their strategies.

Perhaps, in retaliation, President Massoud Barzani expelled the Minister of Peshmerga, a Gorran member as well as preventing Dr Yousef Mohamed, the Gorran official responsible for the Kurdish Parliament, from entering Erbil, effectively disabling the parliament but claiming it was because Gorran was inciting violence against the KDP.

Glaring socio-economic inequalities in ‘free’ Kurdistan

Many Iraqi Kurds will tell you Kurdistan’s wealth and resources are going to the highest bidders and that foreign forces control its defence strategies and the oil traffic, imposing constraints and ensuring that their orders are carried out.

And then there is the talk of the missing $4 billion from the budget and the private wealth of the key players…12

“While Massoud Barzani’s personal wealth is estimated to be in the range of $2 billion, the exact amount of the family’s involvement is unknown due to Kurdistan’s murky legal environment and a web of offshore cross-ownership entities.” 13

In 2010, Rozhnama newspaper accused the Barzanis of “benefiting from illegal oil smuggling … Official and unofficial oil revenues streaming into governmental and party coffers compound a growing resentment over widespread corruption and mismanagement. Signs of extreme poverty compete with these images of imported luxury goods.” 14 According to one source, “Hozan Fareed, who runs a luxury watch shop in Erbil’s fashionable Family Mall, said he had clients who would pay $150,000 for a watch.”15

The socio-economic divide is as visible and startling – from the Kurdish tycoons with their huge new houses flashing their Rolexes in speeding high-end cars, to Kurdish women in raggedy clothes whose small children sell trinkets and “chewing gum to passersby in order to retain what remains of their dignity.”16

Of course, the business of statehood is not the same as mounting rebellions against central government.  Back in the old days, the peshmerga fought wearing traditional shal u shapik costume and hand-woven klash shoes, the better to grip the slippery mountain slopes. The battles they fought then were inspired by Kurdish songs with heroic messages. Today’s Kurdish autocracy has replaced the Ba’athist elite of Saddam Hussein and its tyranny but the old songs have not been updated.

The century-old dream of a country the Kurds could call ‘free’ Kurdistan that millions once dreamed of is not the divided homeland that now surrounds them.

Many Iraqi Kurds are asking one another “just what has replaced Saddam Hussein and till when will this endure?”

9 Op. Cit.

Sheri Laizer, a Middle East and North African expert specialist and well known commentator on the Kurdish issue.