By Michael Rubin:
On July 25, 2009, more than two million Kurds went to the polls and, fed up with corruption, nepotism, and the ruling families’ abuse of power, delivered the establishment parties a stunning rebuke. The Gorran list, led by Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani’s former deputy Nawshirwan Mustafa, won a stunning victory in Sulaymani and would have made greater inroads into Erbil and Duhok had it not been for Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) fraud.
Whereas the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had long described itself as a democracy because it had held multiparty elections in 1992, subsequent power sharing and then the division of the region into fiefdoms meant that Kurdistan always lacked true political opposition. Neither PUK nor KDP could accept the responsibility of opposition because both saw power linked to wealth and the ability to dispense the patronage and refused to accept second place. The two major parties co-opted many of the smaller, nominal opposition parties, while the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) remained too isolated.
In the wake of the 2009 election, there was great optimism that Gorran really could bring change. Gorran members spoke of their power to subpoena ruling officials to answer questions in parliament and defend their actions. The parliament did use its prerogative to question Interior Minister Karim Sinjari in the wake of last year’s KDP shooting of civilian protestors in Sulaymani, but parliamentary speaker Kamal Kirkuki wielded his power to prevent any serious interrogation. Kirkuki has also worked to undercut the opposition’s investigation into the KRG budget. Meanwhile, the parliament’s integrity commission remains paralyzed in the wake of government disinterest and parliamentary resignations.
While Regional President Masud Barzani may remain hostile to fiscal transparency, and neither he nor Sinjari are willing to accept accountability for KDP death squads and attacks on civilians, many Kurdish officials—Barzani included—openly cloak themselves in Kurdish nationalism.
Herein lay a real opportunity, then, for the Kurdish parliament to prove its worth. Visiting Ankara on December 17, 2011, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta endorsed fully Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). “Just as Turkey has shared in our determination to deny al-Qaida and its militant allies safe haven in Afghanistan, I’d also like to express the strong solidarity of the United States with Turkey in the fight against the terrorist PKK,” he declared.
Less than two weeks later, a Turkish airstrike utilizing American equipment killed 35 Kurdish civilians, a massacre for which, like that of this past August, Turkey has refused both formal apology and compensation. The massacre came a month and a half after the U.S. Congress approved the sale of AH-1 Super Cobra attack helicopters to Turkey for Turkish counterterrorism operations.
By U.S. law, prior to any military sale to a foreign power, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency notifies Congress, which then has 15 days to object to the sale. If no senator opposes the sale, then it is approved. While Prime Minister Barham Salih was in Washington, DC, during this window and, indeed, was meeting both with senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee as well as Vice President Joseph Biden, those with whom he met deny he raised Kurdish objections to the sales of weaponry to Turkey. This is especially disappointing given that the Turkish government had not determined the cause for its August error that resulted in the deaths of seven Iraqi Kurds, including young children. When Americans or Israelis conduct a counter-terror attack that results in civilian casualties, there are extensive reviews to prevent their reoccurrence. To this day, the Turks have presented no evidence that they acknowledge let alone investigate their errors. This alone should have been reason for Barham to ask his carefully cultivated American friends to oppose or delay the weapons sale. That the Turks made no secret of their intent to use such weapons against Kurds underscores the tragedy of KRG silence.
The Kurdish opposition can prove its self-worth if they utilize their parliamentary minority to compel Barham to answer questions regarding KRG passivity in the face of the Turkish arms sale. While the Super Cobra helicopters were not the tools with which the Turks perpetrated the attack on the Kurdish civilian column, the arms sale delay would have put the Turks on notice and led them to act less cavalierly.
The prime minister should not be the only subject of parliamentary inquiry. The Kurds have spent millions of dollars cultivating a “Kurdish Caucus” in the U.S. Congress and also flying retired but well-connected generals to Kurdistan. Parliament might question Kurds involved in the Washington outreach to determine the reason for their silence ahead of the Turkish massacre. Falah Mustafa Bakir, then de facto KRG foreign minister, might also answer questions before parliament about what strategy he undertook to derail the Turkish arms purchase and, if he took no action, why not.
The KDP and PUK might not like their members subject to such questioning. Accountability is never pleasant for those seeking to operate behind a curtain of opacity. Kurds elected their representatives to serve them, however. If Iraqi Kurdish leaders had the power to prevent the Turks from acquiring the tools of massacre but did not, they should be willing to explain why, or be forced to acknowledge they use the rhetoric of Kurdish empowerment insincerely. The death of so many innocent Kurds is a tragedy. If their sacrifices can jumpstart real Kurdish democracy and accountability, then future generations may not suffer such calamity.