Most mornings this August, Wedad Hussein Ali, a 28-year-old Kurdish journalist with a trim beard and a penchant for spiking his hair, would get up early to drive his big brother, Sardar, to work. The trip from Kora, their leafy, ancient village in Iraqi Kurdistan’s mountains, to Dohuk, the nearest big town, took 30 minutes.
On Aug. 13, they reached Sardar’s construction site at 9:15 a.m. He got out of the car as usual. Ali drove on.
Minutes later, two unmarked cars cut off Ali. Three men got out. One pointed a gun to the journalist’s head. The others tied his wrists and placed a hood over his head. As witnesses watched, the men loudly announced that they had official business with Ali. They placed him in one of their cars and drove away.
A few hours later, a police officer called Ali’s family to say his body was at a local morgue. It had been transferred there after police in a neighboring village found it dumped by the side of a road, the police contact said. Ali had been cut, beaten and bruised, showing signs, one doctor said, of having been hit by a long object like a bat or a baton. To the family, it looked like he had suffered third-degree burns and beatings with electric cables. His eyes appeared to have been torn out with knives.
There were plenty of groups that could have killed Ali. The vicious Islamic State group maintains sleeper cells across Iraq, including in Kurdistan; Dohuk is just an hour’s drive from Mosul, the chief ISIS hub in the country. Iran-backed Shiite militias have tortured and terrorized thousands of their fellow Iraqis over the past decade, focusing their attention on people who follow the rival Sunni branch of Islam — which most Kurds do. And Iraqi Kurdistan has long hosted an internationally condemned Kurdish movement called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has issued harsh punishments, including executions, to Kurds who refuse to collaborate with it.
But Ali’s family doesn’t blame ISIS, Shiite militias or the PKK for his murder. They believe Iraqi Kurdistan’s U.S.-friendly leaders were responsible for his death.
Nine weeks after Ali’s murder, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, held a triumphant press conference. The day before, 4,000 Iraqi Kurdish fighters had begun moving toward Mosul. Scores of American advisers boosted their ranks, and American B-1 and F-15 jets provided air support.
The Kurds’ advance was sold as a key sign that the U.S. had rallied its partners in Iraq and prepared them to push ISIS out of the country for good. Brett McGurk, the top American managing the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, wished the Kurds and others “Godspeed” on Twitter. “We are proud to stand with you,” he added.
Since the U.S. and Kurdistan first began major cooperation against ISIS in August 2014, Barzani, an iconic former militia man who has been close to winning Time’s Person of the Year award, has pushed the region ever closer to autocracy.
But the Obama administration and President-elect Donald Trump have largely ignored warning signs — including Ali’s death — that point to a dark future for Kurdistan.
Parliament has not functioned since last October, because Barzani banned its speaker, an opposition politician, from entering the capital. Thousands of refugees who have sought sanctuary in the region have seen their freedoms restricted. Kurdish authorities have meted out particularly harsh treatment to Sunni Arabs, mimicking the Iraqi policies that provoked Sunni dissatisfaction and enabled the initial rise of ISIS. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have demolished the homes of Sunni Arabs in areas recaptured from ISIS. Kurdistan has subjected many of the Yazidis, the minority group whose genocide prompted U.S. action against ISIS, to painful shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine because of their affinity for the anti-Barzani PKK ― only strengthening the militant Kurdish group’s appeal.
And journalists are still dying. In December, another reporter who had criticized Barzani’s rule turned up dead.
“We have always said we can be different, in terms of protecting human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech. This was our strength. In fact, this is what we were selling: ‘The Other Iraq,’” Kamal Chomani, a widely published Kurdish freelance journalist, told The Huffington Post. “This narrative has just collapsed.”
The Iraqi Kurdish leadership “has cited the Islamic State threat as a reason to shirk any real legal accountability, and it seems the White House and State Department are willing to let them get away with it,” Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute expert on the Kurds, wrote in an email. “This is wrong-headed. After all, a free press doesn’t hurt the fight against the Islamic State at all.”
This is more than a moral loss. Building a free, open and just society is essential to preventing chaos that groups like ISIS exploit, said Daniel Serwer, a former State Department official who is now a peace-building expert with Johns Hopkins University and the Middle East Institute. Rule of law, he said, is not a “luxury.”
Barzani’s actions suggest he disagrees.
A Neutered Parliament
Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have been the dominant forces in Iraqi Kurdish politics for decades. But in 2009, frustrated PUK members formed the Gorran (Change) movement.
The new party built a voter base and soon grew into the second-largest party in Parliament. But because Gorran split the PUK vote, Barzani benefited — until it began to challenge his plan to grant himself a second extension of his term in office.
“The resulting deadlock has exposed divisions within the political elite and illustrated the extent to which political and personal interests are driving decisionmaking at the expense of pluralism and rule of law,” analysts Christine McCaffray van den Toorn and Raad Alkadiri wrote in a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace blog post last September.
The controversy ended in the KDP violently ejecting Gorran from the government and banning the speaker of Parliament, a Gorran leader, from the Kurdish capital. The speaker is now a vocal, well-known critic of Barzani’s rule. Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi leader whose policies enabled ISIS’s rise, is now courting Gorran and the PUK to try to weaken U.S.-friendly forces in Iraq, according to Bilal Wahab at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. These maneuvers and Barzani’s heavy-handedness endanger Kurdish solidarity ― and citizens’ faith in a united, stable Kurdistan.
“Unity will be much easier to achieve if Barzani assures his rivals that he will not be president for life,” Wahab wrote.
The leader’s critics are not sure he’s willing to do that.
Refugees In The Crosshairs
Since the summer of 2014, the PKK movement ― listed as a terror group by the U.S., Europe and Turkey ― has rapidly gained support in Iraqi Kurdistan, becoming a stronger competitor to Barzani’s KDP.
Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s leader, is a Turkish Kurd who has had little to do with Iraqi Kurdish politics. His movement has traditionally seen the region as a temporary base rather than a home. The PKK chief made his name among the millions-strong Kurdish community by focusing on the plight of Kurds within Turkey. Many Kurds see Ocalan and Barzani’s father, Mullah Mustafa, as equally heroic ― both underdog fighters running an insurgency against cruel central governments.
But the PKK retains that outsider status. Ocalan is now in jail, and PKK cadres are targeted every day in Turkey.
Barzani, meanwhile, has become the establishment. And that means he is on the hook for what Kurds come to see as establishment failure or duplicity.
“In the West, people tend to see all peshmerga as the same but, among Kurds, many recognize that it’s been the PKK’s fighters who have lived up to the hagiography,” said Rubin, the American Enterprise Institute expert. “The problem with one-party states ― and that’s exactly what Barzani aspires to ― is that they don’t like comparison to competitors.”
When ISIS targeted the Yazidis, a religious minority community that is ethnically Kurdish, in August 2014, Iraqi Kurdish forces melted away, leaving Yazidi civilians to protect their community themselves or flee. Only the PKK’s fighters ― those based in Iraqi Kurdistan and their allies among pro-PKK groups in Syria and Iran ― stood up to defend the community, identified by ISIS as genocide-worthy infidels and potential sex slaves.
Iraqi Kurdish officials now acknowledge they made a mistake by not defending the Yazidis and argue that their troops were unprepared. But tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees, and the many Kurds who were horrified by their treatment, are still angry. There is a “very strong feeling on the side of the Yazidi community that they were abandoned” by the Iraqi Kurdish forces, Belkis Wille, a Kurdistan-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, told HuffPost.
That disillusionment has allowed the PKK to recruit hundreds of Yazidi fighters into its ranks ― and Human Rights Watch believes Barzani’s KDP is subjecting the Yazidi community to collective punishment in response. Anti-PKK pressure now extends even to refugee camps, Wille said. Iraqi Kurdish authorities have expelled Yazidis who joined the PKK from emergency shelters, according to her data, and sent them back to areas that may not even have running water.
The competition is not ending anytime soon ― which suggests the crackdown won’t either. Many non-Yazidi Kurds are increasingly fascinated with the PKK because its offshoot in Syria has delivered some of the most striking victories in the Kurds’ war on ISIS.
This is a problem for both Barzani and his friend next door, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan is running his own brutal campaign against people suspected of having PKK links. It’s politically difficult for Barzani to actively aid Erdogan’s war on the PKK, Turkey expert Nick Danforth told HuffPost. But he stands to benefit from Erdogan’s efforts against their shared enemy.
Persecution Of Journalists
Trying to cover the political parties’ abuses and excesses has never been easy in Iraqi Kurdistan. The region was torn apart in a civil war in the 1990s and the ties between the government and the U.S. in the post-Saddam Hussein era has allowed leaders to further solidify their personal power. But with players now fighting over a much richer Kurdistan and internal discord brewing, the cost of attempting honest public-interest coverage has grown.
“When we are writing, it’s like risking your life,” said Chomani, the reporter who’s written on the issue. “When there’s conflict between the political parties, the first people who are targeted are the journalists … like when journalists are covering public demonstrations: Sometimes the security forces cannot target the protesters [because the party militias may get involved] but they can target journalists.”
At least three journalists in Kurdistan appear to have been the victims of targeted killings since 2003. In 2008, gunmen in a BMW shot 23-year-old Mama Hama after he published stories bashing local authorities in a PUK-controlled area. Zardasht Osman, a critic of the Barzani family, was tortured and then found with bullet holes in his head in 2010. He was also 23. Kawa Garmyane, 32, was shot outside his home on Dec. 5, 2013, following a year and a half of threats from the PUK. Ali and Shukri Zaynadin, the reporter killed in December after KDP threats, are the latest to join this group.
Garmyane’s was the only one of the cases that eventually went to court. But his family believes the true perpetrator of the attack ― who they allege was a top general in the PUK ― got off.
The U.S. Turns A Blind Eye
Kurds will be a big part of the celebration and back-patting that will follow the likely success of the Mosul offensive. Yet there’s little sign U.S. leaders are thinking about what’s next for Kurdistan.
Experts agree that no battlefield victory will be conclusive. Success against ISIS means not only taking back the territory it seized but also ensuring it cannot develop another armed insurgency in the years to come, something ISIS leaders have been describing as their plan. To avoid that fate, all of Iraq ― Kurdistan included ― needs to address the problems that made the fundamentalists look appealing to potential recruits.
Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has warned that the real battle comes after Mosul, and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marine veteran on the House Armed Services Committee, has been trying to bring more attention to political solutions for over a year.
“Some will say that meddling in foreign politics often makes things worse, and I’ll be the first to say that it’s hard to do well,” Moulton wrote in The Washington Post over the summer. But “the alternative to robust political mentoring in Iraq is sending young Americans back again and again,” he argued. “Fixing Iraqi politics is difficult, but I’d much prefer having a heavy, long-term diplomatic presence than losing more lives refighting battles we already won.”
Many in the West are increasingly sympathetic to the idea of Kurdistan gaining independence from Iraq as a kind of reward for its role in the ISIS campaign, said Serwer, the former State Department official. He believes this would be a shortsighted move that would cement Barzani’s power, distract from the conversation about reform and spark fury within Iraq.
The State Department declined to respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. Iraqi Kurdish authorities also declined — although one leadership source suggested that Ali’s death might have been the work of the PKK. Kurdish officials have repeatedly denied allegations from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that they have mistreated Yazidis or Arabs.
Foreign governments supporting the Kurds are broadly opposed to pressuring them over rights issues for as long as the ISIS fight continues, Wille said. Although U.S. officials have brought up some human rights concerns, including the Kurds’ discrimination against Sunni Arab refugees, in high-level meetings, most are brushed aside, she told HuffPost.
“In effect,” Rubin said, “the silence of many U.S. officials interacting now with Barzani is being paid for with the blood of independent Kurdish journalists and other civil society activists.”
Justice For Ali
Four months on from Ali’s death, his family has become used to the kind of life he had to live ― particularly once he started working for a news outlet critical of Barzani and close to the PKK.
They feel constantly watched. They have lost nearly all faith in the authorities. They worry for their lives. And they choose to stay vocal, despite doubts, fear and frequent intimidation.
Speaking of Ali as a “shaheed” or martyr, the family is running a campaign for justice that has drawn attention from the United Nations, top Kurdish politicians, foreign diplomats posted to the region and international human rights groups. Barzani has personally promised that the crime will not go unpunished.
Still, they say their hopes remain slim.
“We ask all of you, the friends of Kurds, and you, the activists of human rights and freedom of speech, especially in the US and Europe, to help us take Wedad’s case to [the] international level,” the family said in its message to HuffPost.
“Law is not superior in Kurdistan.”