For the last seven decades, Naser Tawfiq Barwari has seen a great deal of history pan out in front of his eyes — from the overthrow of the British-backed Hashemite monarchy in 1958 to the Baath regime's reign of terror and, finally, the broken system that Iraq's Kurds inherited from the Baathists in 1992.
Known among the locals in Dahuk as Naser Beg — in this lush corner of Iraqi Kurdistan near the Turkish border where the tribes still wield enormous political and military power — he is not happy with the status quo in the Kurdistan Region and has high hopes among his Barwari tribesmen to be elected to Iraq's parliament as one of the representatives of the people of Dahuk. But Naser Beg has taken a gamble and broken ranks with the Kurdish elites, as he is listed as the No. 1 candidate on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Al-Nasr list in Dahuk. “I believe in Abadi, and I think he is a constitutional person,” Naser Beg told Al-Monitor.
Such statements are unheard of in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the ethnic divide of Arab versus Kurd plays an important role in Kurdish elections and those who side with Arabs are often labeled as "jash," a derogatory term meaning "mule."
But this is not the first time Naser Beg has broken ranks with the Kurdish nationalist movement. He was a Kurdish tribal "mustashar" — or adviser — with the Baath regime from the late 1960s until 1983, commanding a regiment of his tribesmen allied with the Iraqi army against Kurdish peshmerga forces. “I want to go to Baghdad to defend the Kurds,” Naser Beg told Al-Monitor. When asked about his time with the regime, he replied, “I defended the Kurds when I was a mustashar. I defended the imprisoned Kurdish civilians and the peshmerga. That is all I did.” He said that he fell afoul of the Baath regime and fled in 1983, handing over his arms and regiment to Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Massoud Barzani.
Like Naser Beg, at least two other tribal chiefs who were advisers during Saddam Hussein's reign are running on the Kurdish lists of the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Dahuk. When Al-Monitor visited Dahuk, the first thing that people mentioned was their disillusionment with Kurdish politics. “Even the advisers of Saddam are on the [Kurdish] lists,” one Dahuk local told Al-Monitor. The same sentiment was repeated among others in the city, although all individuals asked that their names not be mentioned, as these former advisers are still powerful.
Ironically, the parties in Iraq's Kurdistan Region have repeatedly used the Iraqi army’s past atrocities — including the genocide of the 1980s committed against the Kurds — as a useful tool to mobilize the Kurdish masses. The Kurdish tribes have been used by various regimes in Iraq, including the British in the first half of the 20th century, to fight against the nationalist Kurds. Saddam followed in the footsteps of the British, and as his army fought the Iranians in the 1980s, he allowed the Kurdish conscripts to join Kurdish “National Defense” regiments commanded mostly by Kurdish tribal leaders to fight the peshmerga forces in the north of the country. These Kurdish regiments played a crucial role throughout the 1980s in implementing the Baathist policies, which resulted in the Anfal genocide — in eight stages in 1988 — in which over 180,000 people were exterminated, according to Kurdish estimates.
"Our warriors took part widely in the first and second stages of Anfal out of love for Kak [Mr.] Saddam Hussein, may Allah protect him. … Our regiment is proud of participating bravely in defeating enemies," one of the Kurdish tribal commanders of Saddam's army was quoted as saying in a state-funded Hawkari newspaper in April 1988, at the height of the Anfal genocide.
During the uprising of 1991, the two main Kurdish parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the KDP — offered amnesty to the Kurdish tribal mercenaries to avoid bloodshed and in return for their support for the uprising. But in a society scarred by decades of war and genocide with no attempts at truth and reconciliation, the wounds of the past are searing just under the surface. Thousands of survivors of the genocide suddenly found themselves living side by side with Saddam's collaborators who had a hand in the genocide. There were calls by the public to prosecute these tribal chiefs. But instead, the KDP and the PUK — hungry for votes in the new Iraq — pampered these tribal leaders with money, business opportunities and political power.
"This is like a dogfight,” said a PUK peshmerga commander in Dahuk, who says he regrets the fact that his own party has nominated a Kurdish tribal leader who fought alongside the Iraqi army against the Kurds. “It does not matter if you were clean or jash; whoever gets more votes wins.”
At no time in their history have the Kurdish political elite been so distrusted by average Kurds, who voice their complaints about rampant corruption and mismanagement of the economy.
Like many other issues, the Kurds have struggled to find a way of dealing with the legacy of Saddam's Anfal genocide. The KRG commemorated the 30th anniversary of the 1988 Anfal genocide in April, stating, “Honoring the memory of the victims of the Anfal campaign is a tribute to the sacrifices that these people have made. … [This will] help to eliminate the psychological … implications of this campaign.”
Bayar Taher Doski, a tribal chief who was an ally of Saddam in the 1980s and is now running as a candidate on the KDP list said that he is going to Baghdad to ask for the rights of Kurds according to the Iraqi Constitution. “The key to resolve the financial crisis in Kurdistan is to resolve the political tension with Baghdad.” When asked about his relations with the previous regime, the candidate said he had to go and the phone was disconnected.
While there is no evidence that these individuals had a hand in crimes committed against Kurdish civilians in the 1970s and 1980s, for many survivors of the genocide it would have a deep psychological impact to be represented by men who directly allied themselves with Saddam when these crimes were committed.