Arab Spring crackdown damages Kurdistan's image as regional model
The US has long championed semi-autonomous Kurdistan as a democratic model for the rest of Iraq and the Middle East. But Kurdish leaders have violently shut down dissenters.
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Kurdistan has since witnessed an economic boom. But that wealth has only touched a few – stoking more anger – as past events are used to excuse the lack of political progress.Skip to next paragraph
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"We are still like a baby in the way that we deal with democracy...we have still to learn how to deal with that," says Ari Harsin, a KDP representative.
Lessons have been learned, he says. But the elevated position of Barzani is sacrosanct, and reflected by a 70 percent victory in a 2009 vote.
"Some people in society have a very special role," says Mr. Harsin. "I agree categorically that is not democratic if you see the same faces. But some people are ‘Leader,’ they can bring a peace and a sphere of negotiation. I see Mr. Massoud Barzani as one of those people."
That picture fits the official narrative of Washington, which portrayed the relatively quiet Kurdish north as a regional model. In the eyes of independent newspaper editor Asos Hardi, the Bush administration “needed ... to give the American people the impression there is some hope in Iraq, and we have to keep on until we make all of Iraq like Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Long-cherished freedom proves elusive
But the freedom envisioned by Kurds and trumpeted by the US is proving elusive. One of Hardi’s newspaper staffers left jail recently with broken wrists. Last year, freelance journalist Sardasht Osman received death threats immediately after writing a critical article about Barzani. He was kidnapped in the KDP stronghold of Erbil and later killed.
"You have to remember the ideological root of our parties is totalitarian, because PUK and KDP were Marxist/Leninist [and] are trying to control all the parts of society," says Hardi. "It's true they have changed after 1991 their slogans, they all talk about democracy, human rights. But the mentality is still the same.”
Evidence of that is easy to find. In April toward the end of the protests, according to numerous sources, buses carrying several hundred students and instructors riding to a courthouse protest were diverted by Kurdish security, forced to a remote location, off-loaded and the would-be protesters were beaten.
Hardi's brother Rebin – a prominent Kurdish writer – showed up separately to attend the same courthouse protest, was immediately arrested and severely beaten with electric cables throughout the drive to a local prison.
Photographs show bruises on his head and arm, his thigh bloody and disfigured. Rebin Hardi said it reminded him of the beating he got from Saddam-era Baathists in 1982.
The message was clear: "They are willing to do anything to stay in power," says Rebin Hardi. "The first thing is we should no lose hope. But if things continue like this, we will end up like Libya.”