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Is Kurdistan the Next Autocracy? Petro-Dollars Lead to Corruption in Northern Iraq

Kurdistan's leader Massoud Barzani has presided over a crackdown on journalists and dissent.

President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government Masoud Barzani.
Photo Credit: Helene C. Stikkel/Wikimedia Commons


A haze hangs low over the city of Erbil. Automotive exhaust and dry sand envelop the area, forming an opaque mixture that sunshine struggles to penetrate. The capital of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Autonomous Region, Erbil operates as a de-facto independent state, with its own legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Its soldiers wear their uniforms with pride, sporting a tricolor symbol of their country sewn on to them.  Meanwhile, Erbil has total control of its external and internal regional borders, just as any sovereign state would. 

As a result, Erbil is separate from Iraq, and from that country’s contentious and often deadly politics in Baghdad. “Separation is a necessary step, as our representatives have only 90 seats in Iraq’s parliament (out of 700 plus). Thus we have absolutely no voice in what is going on,” said Abdullah, who owns a travel agency in downtown Erbil. “They often say we will give you money for this and this, but we want you to do this and that,” he added. “We, the Kurds, find this unacceptable, as so many people have died so things will not be the same as before anymore.”   

The sentiment Abdullah expresses prevails among Kurds who are now, for the first time in history, living in a state they can call their own. As the newest petro-state, Kurdistan has enjoyed an unprecedented level of political and economic stability since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. And for the first time ever, the Iraqi Kurds’ economic fortunes are on an upward trend, especially in comparison with their co-patriots in neighboring countries, as a sea of oil revenue has lifted most economic boats.

Yet not all is well in Kurdistan, due in part to the dominant presence of one ruling family. Descended from a political dynasty that has built a power base over centuries of fighting, regional president Massoud Barzani has blossomed into an authoritarian ruler not unlike many whose regimes are now crumbling from the internal pressures of the Arab Spring.

Organized Corruption

Throughout Erbil, portraits of Barzani adorn the walls of offices and shops.  That is not to say that Barzani’s cult of personality is as force-fed as Saddam Hussein’s often was in Iraq. The Barzani clan has tremendous popularity in the area of its political base in northern Iraq, and people feel a genuine reverence for Massoud, whose father led uprisings against Hussein in the 1960s and ‘70s.

However, the cracks in the family’s image are accentuated by political dissent, and the official story of the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party’s (KDP) road to power has often been challenged. “The people were the ones who first fought in the city and defeated Hussein’s troops in 1991’s revolution,” said Adar, who runs a small hotel downtown. “The Peshmerga [militia] came down two days later from the mountains after it was all over and claimed the power. This is the truth that many people in Erbil are afraid to speak of,” he said.

The fear to speak out is real, as KDP has both limited tolerance for criticism and a long memory. In December 2005, Kamal Qadir, an Austrian scholar, was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison for a series of articles criticizing the Barzanis’ hold on the economy and power. He was released a year later after prolonged action to free him by Amnesty International and the Austrian government. 

However, Kurdish journalists Soran Mama Hama and Sardasht Osman were not so lucky; they were gunned down for writing about corruption by the political class and local governments. Demands for thorough and transparent investigations were met by Kurdish authorities maneuvering to blame others for the deaths; to this day both cases remain unsolved. Even a brief expression of criticism toward the Barzanis, such as one anonymous caller’s comments on a television call-in program, resulted in a bombing of the studio the very next day. As usual, the perpetrators were never found.

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