Yet another foreign democratic experiment that U.S. leaders once lauded seems to be something less than advertised. Followers of George W. Bush and Barack Obama disagreed about the wisdom of the decision to launch the Iraq war, but they agreed on two points. One was that post-Saddam Iraq is a legitimate member of the global community of democracies. The other is that Iraqi Kurdistan is an island of exceptional stability in that country and a democratic model for the whole region. Events during the past few months, though, cast grave doubts on both assumptions.
The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is increasingly corrupt and autocratic. Aside from periodic elections with competing parties, the new Iraq is beginning to resemble the old Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Maliki’s bureaucrats routinely harass both foreign and domestic media outlets that dare to expose his administration’s abuses.
Disturbing evidence of such repression has been building for at least the past two years, but matters escalated dramatically in February with the regime’s shocking brutality. As with many other countries in the Middle East, demonstrations broke out in Iraq demanding, among other things, an end to the Maliki government’s rampant corruption. Those demonstrations culminated with a “Day of Rage.” Although the demonstrations even on that day were mostly peaceful, security forces killed at least twenty-nine participants.
They also rounded up dozens of journalists, writers, photographers, and intellectuals who had been involved in organizing the rallies. The Aldiyar Television station, which had telecast footage of the demonstrations, reported that security forces arrested seven employees, including a director and an anchorman, and closed the studio.
One of the many other journalists arrested in Baghdad was Hadi al-Mahdi, who told Washington Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen what happened after soldiers detained him and several colleagues while they were sitting at an outdoor cafe. The soldiers loaded al-Mahdi and the others into Humvees and drove them to a side street, where they beat them severely. Then they took them to a former defense ministry building that now houses a unit of the army’s increasingly feared intelligence unit. Mahdi was taken to a room alone, where he was beaten again with clubs, boots and fists. Not satisfied with such garden-variety brutality, they took his shoes off, wet his feet, and administered electric shocks.
This is the new Iraqi democracy for which the United States has spent more than $800 billion and sacrificed some 4,500 American lives. It is an Iraq in which regime opponents are arrested and tortured, in which more than a third of the terrorized Christian community has fled, and in which religious zealots are forcing more and more women back under the veil.
Despite a very effective public relations campaign in the United States and other Western countries, matters are not much better in Iraqi Kurdistan. The self-governing region is increasingly little more than a corrupt economic and political partnership between the two dominant parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Those two parties were once bitter rivals, but they now work together to share the spoils and suppress any new factions that threaten their political duopoly.
The KDP-PUK propaganda apparatus works overtime to retain U.S. sponsorship. “Kurdistan is the only place in Iraq that the United States can be proud of,” states Airy Hirseen, a KDP leader.
But the government’s treatment of peaceful demonstrators this spring ought to temper Washington’s sense of pride and satisfaction about its democratic client. Day after day in February and March, thousands of people turned out in the central square in the regional capital, Sulaimaniya, demanding an end to joint rule by the PUK and KDP and calling for new elections. In April, the government’s security forces cracked down, opening fire on the demonstrators, killing at least ten people and wounding dozens more. The subsequent dragnet took hundreds of regime opponents, mainly students and journalists, into custody. They languished in jail for days or weeks, telling tales of torture when they were finally released. New York Times correspondents Tim Arango and Michael S. Schmidt concluded that while the Kurdistan demonstrations were inspired by the idealistic upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, they “ended up more like those in Bahrain and Oman, crushed by an authoritarian government.”
Kurdish officials certainly sound like spokesmen for such autocratic regimes. A KDP leader blamed a triad of troublemakers—terrorists, foreign agents, and Islamic militants—for the demonstrations. That allegation could not even pass the laugh test, given that most of the demonstrators were pro-Western, highly educated, secular professionals.
The graphic failure of the governments in Baghdad and Sulaimaniya to live up to the expectations and portrayals of their American sponsors is not surprising. Too many U.S. officials and opinion leaders tend to see foreign political factions through the prism of America’s own values and hopes. Yet such societies reflect very different histories and cultures, which are typically not conducive to democracy and individual liberty.