Resolution for Families of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Disappeared

Saturday, 07.18.2015, 14:49

3464 بینراوە

Iraqi Kurdistan might be the toast of town today. With at least four separate lobby firms and a multimillion dollar budget, it continues to promote itself as stable, secure, and democratic; an oasis of sanity in an insane region. The reality is more nuanced.

Kurdistan is stable, but security is based on a devil’s bargain. Iranian influence is as great in Iraqi Kurdistan as it is in Baghdad. Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani has free reign in Kurdistan and is a frequent visitor to both Sulaymani and Erbil. There is no phone call or private conversation with Kurdish officials whose transcript is not read in Tehran within an hour, either because the Iranians eavesdrop or because the Kurds deliver whatever the Iranians ask. The fact that so many American visitors see the Kurds are altruistic toward the United States only enhances Iranian power. Kurds may like Americans, but they also remember Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s betrayal of the Kurdish revolution in 1975 and President Ronald Reagan turning a blind eye toward Saddam’s chemical weapons use in 1988.

The notion that Kurdistan is democratic is risible. The parliament is rubber-stamp; the president has out-served his term; and a personality cult surrounding regional leader Masoud Barzani is enforced with an iron fist. Even if American diplomats have little historical awareness, and Congressmen even shorter memories, Kurds have two major grievances about their leadership they have been unwilling to forget.

The first grievance involves collaboration. Documents seized from Saddam Hussein after his fall shows unequivocally shows that some senior members of both Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had collaborated with and reported to Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service; none have lost their jobs for their betrayal, let alone faced justice. In 1996, Barzani himself invited Saddam’s dreaded Republican Guards into the Kurdish capital Erbil to protect him against Kurdish rivals. Barzani’s willingness to collaborate with Saddam only eight years after Saddam used chemical weapons against Kurds and also had killed 8,000 members of Barzani’s tribe has become a symbol of the cynicism of the Kurdish leadership.

The second grievance involves the status of the disappeared. Kurdish officials often talk about democracy, but what the Kurds actually have is a carefully calibrated power sharing. The problem Kurds have with elections is that the political party leaders will not accept defeat or willing to serve in opposition. They know government institutions are neither strong nor independent enough to allow a mechanism back into power once that is lost. After the 1992 elections, the KDP and PUK split power. Every KDP official was matched with a PUK deputy and vice versa. Suspicion was rife, and war broke out as the PUK accused the KDP of cheating on revenue sharing.

The resulting conflict was bloody. Between 1994 and 1997, KDP and PUK Peshmerga fought each other to a standstill, with the KDP accepting Saddam’s support and the PUK enjoying some Iranian backing. Thousands were killed, but not everyone died on the battlefield. The two sides took approximately 400 prisoners. Some were captured in combat, but security forces loyal to either Barzani or Talabani arrested many others at home.

To this day, neither the KDP nor the PUK will acknowledge what happened to the prisoners and where they are buried. Sadly, not every mass grave in Iraq was filled by Saddam or, later, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).

Recently, lists have circulated about the missing. Approximately, 200 were KDP or PUK members captured by the other side. According to some of their family members, not all were captured in combat; some PUK members had turned themselves in when the KDP captured Erbil and Barzani promised them safety. They expected they would be sent to the PUK as party to a prisoner transfer; they never expected the firing squad. In addition, sixty-seven were Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas captured during fighting between the KDP and PKK. Eleven were members of Islamic parties that the PUK captured, and 50 were civilians arrested by PUK or KDP security forces on terrorism charges. Today, the PUK anti-terrorism force is run by Talabani’s nephew and the KDP corollary is run by Barzani’s son; to suggest that both do not have access to the records of their respective organizations is not credible.

Recently, according to Kurdish journalists, Karim Sinjari, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s Interior Minister, has written to the KRG parliament’s human rights committee reporting that none of the disappeared is alive. He provided no further details. Many Kurds believe that the KDP ordered the execution of its prisoners at Akre Prison, while the PUK put their prisoners to death in the PUK’s secret prison on Azmar mountain which, ironically, was once a facility for Saddam’s secret services.

On May 11, families of the missing protested in front of parliament. Parliamentary speaker Yousif Mohammed met the protestors and promised top form a committee to investigate the issue, and have said it may even be possible to question Karim Sinjari under oath in parliament. They accuse Sinjari of having a direct role in some of their murders and demand to know the whereabouts of their graves.

Western diplomats may want to allow bygones to be bygones, but the issue might not be so easy. Many senior Kurdish officials have American passports, British passports, Swedish passports, and German passports and it is quite possible—indeed, from what I hear, likely—that the victims’ families will seek recourse in U.S. and European courts when those alleged to have complicity have the relevant citizenship. No longer will what happened in Kurdistan stay in Kurdistan. Nor will the State Department be able to prevent some of what may be coming.

Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. He is author of “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter, 2014). He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute AEI. His major research area is the Middle East, with special focus on Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Kurdish society.