A month ago, the President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan appointed his son to head a newly formed Security Council for the region.
The new Iraqi Kurdish Security Council takes responsibility for internal security and for the local military and intelligence services in the region, which has its own government, legislature and economy, independent of the rest of Iraq. And because all of the various security apparatuses in Iraqi Kurdistan are represented on this new body, decisions regarding military matters in the area can be made swiftly – which makes the job of heading it an important one.
So when President Massoud al-Barzani appointed his son, Masrour, to head the Council, local observers quickly pointed out that this seemed to be yet another indication of al-Barzani’s intention to continue to dominate politics in the area, by continuing to appoint family members in high places.
Almost all of the senior posts in the region are already held by members of two Iraqi Kurdish families: the al-Barzanis and the Talabanis. In practical and political terms, power in the state is held by two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which are headed by, respectively, Massoud al-Barzani and Jalal Talabani.
And although, according to local electoral legislation, al-Barzani senior’s term as president is supposed to end in 2012, the political landscape in Iraqi Kurdistan doesn’t seem to have thrown up anyone who can challenge him – outside of his nephew Najirvan Barzani, currently the KDP’s deputy head and Iraqi Kurdistan’s Prime Minister, who many say is being groomed to inherit his uncle’s job.
Al-Barzani’s own son is also taking steps upward. Having headed the KDP’s own security services since 1995, Masrour has been known in security circles for some time. His key position inside the state’s military has now been cemented by this appointment, which also has ministerial level status.
In addition to the positions held by Najirvan and Masrour, many other members of the al-Barzani family – brothers, nephews, cousins – occupy sensitive military, administrative and commercial positions. In fact al-Barzani senior himself inherited his position as head of the KDP when his father, Mustafa, former head of the party, died in 1979.
And all of this is well acknowledged inside Iraqi Kurdistan. When the announcement of Masrour’s appointment to the new Security Council was made, politically-conscious wits wrote sarcastic messages on al-Barzani’s Facebook page asking him to: “quick, prepare another member of his family to head the Iraqi Kurdish parliament”. This is in reference to the fact that two out of the three top jobs in the semi-autonomous region belong to al-Barzanis. This new job atop the Security Council makes three out of four.
However the desire to retain power in loyal family hands is hardly confined to the al-Barzani clan and the KDP. The other major political party in the region, the PUK, headed by Jalal Talabani, is doing similar things. The so-called “green sector” is following in the footsteps of the so-called “yellow sector”.
The coloured sector names were first used during 1990s when the KDP and PUK fought one another in an Iraqi Kurdish civil war which saw what is now Iraqi Kurdistan basically divided in two, with areas around Erbil and Dohuk under KDP control and the Sulaymaniyah area under the PUK’s control. Green (PUK) and yellow (KDP) were the colours of the two party’s separate flags.
And even to this day, although the two parties now rule the state together, those geographic delineations exist with al-Barzani and his opposite number, Talabani, holding most authority in areas they traditionally oversaw.
In Talabani’s territory, around the city of Sulaymaniyah, his wife, businesswoman Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, heads the PUK party’s key branch there. Other Talabani relatives – sons, brothers, uncles, spouses – head other important commercial, administrative and security departments.
And in what many saw as a tit-for-tat response to the appointment of Masrour al-Barzani to the newly formed Security Council, the Iraqi Kurdish cabinet undertook to form another new government authority, with the interesting name of the Department of Coordination and Follow Up.
The department as to be related to the office of the Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister and its tasks would apparently involve coordinating the work of various different government institutions. Additionally the department was to be headed by Talabani’s son, Qubad, who has been working in Washington as Iraqi Kurdistan’s representative to the USA up until recently.
Local writer and political observer, Rayan Mohammed, believes that giving Qubad the post is a response to the job al-Barzani’s son, Masrour, just got. And Mohammed thinks that in this way Talabani is also grooming his son for success at the top of the political food chain.
By appointing their offspring to such prominent positions though, Mohammed believes that the two ruling families of Iraqi Kurdistan are damaging the aspirations of the local electorate for a truly democratic state of their own.
“What Talabani and al-Barzani are doing just confirms that any high ranking positions in Iraqi Kurdistan are now being handed out on a kinship basis, rather than on the basis of a person’s competence and capacity,” he argues. “Distributing senior government positions like this leads to a closed political system; it smacks of some kind of monarchy.”
Mohammed also argues that Talabani and al-Barzani are working with an outdated system, imported from neighbouring Arab countries, that is no longer acceptable to most voters in the region.
Referencing the Arab Spring protests that saw so many non-democratic leaders in the Middle East toppled, Mohammed concludes: “the experiences of these Arab countries prove that there is no longer a place for this kind of inherited authority. And when the people’s anger grows, the father and son figureheads are removed.