On May 4, 23-year-old journalist Sardasht Osman was kidnapped from Salahuddin University in Erbil. Two days later, his body was found in Mosul bearing signs of torture and gunshot wounds. Like his journalist colleagues, Sardasht’s pen was his weapon, and his dream was a better and freer Kurdistan.
Alas, as Sardasht fought for Kurdistan, he met the new jash. The jash have changed over the decades. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the Iraqi government sponsored Kurdish collaborators with Baghdad and the Baath to counter the forces of Kurdish nationalism led at the time by Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and, after 1975, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as well.
The KDP and PUK peshmerga fought successfully for Kurdistan and, until 1975, they were largely successful. In 1975, however, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sacrificed the Kurdish uprising when he brokered a deal between Baghdad and Tehran. Washington stood aside as Saddam’s forces moved back into northern Iraq, terrorizing the Kurdish population. Nevertheless, and through sheer force of will, the peshmerga continued their fight in the mountains triumphing once again in 1991, in the wake of Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait and Operation Provide Comfort.
Alas, Mulla Mustafa Barzani did not live to see the Kurdish triumph, succumbing to cancer in 1979. Mulla Mustafa died with honor. He would not understand how his son and grandson could turn from peshmerga to jash.
Like his elder brother Ubaydullah, Masud would collaborate with the Baath. In 1996, just eight years after the Anfal, Masud struck a deal with Saddam and allowed the Republican Guard to fly the Iraqi flag over the Kurdish parliament.
Perhaps Barzani felt he was doing the right thing. While KDP officials do not like to discuss the events of 1996, when pressed they justify their deal as a necessity given Jalal Talabani’s collaboration with Iranian forces. What ordinary Kurds, however, know is that the civil war was a fight over money, not Kurdish nationalism. Peshmerga are honorable, but the motivations of their leaders are not always.
The peshmerga were men of the mountains who stood up for Kurds. The grand children of Mulla Mustafa and the children of Mam Jalal seek the legacy of the peshmerga, but they are not peshmerga. Climbing in the mountains above Duhok in 2001, peshmerga veterans explained to me the different plants they would eat and showed me the caves in which they would shelter. Masrour, Nechervan, Qubad, and Bafil cannot tell the difference between edible plants and poisonous berries, but they are expert at the differences between suites at the Ritz Carleton and those of the Four Seasons. They may have accompanied their fathers on trips abroad while in exile, but they never put their lives in danger for the Kurdish cause like true peshmerga.
Today, the new generation of peshmerga, those who face death for the sake of a better future, are the journalists. They are young men like Sardasht and Lvin writer Soran Mama Hama. They must face the new jash, men who cloak themselves in Kurdish nationalism but turn their guns on fellow Kurds. Mullah Mustafa would be ashamed of his grandson as should Masud be ashamed of his son.
Iraqi Kurdistan has achieved miracles since 1991. This is a testimony not to the Kurdish leadership, but to the ingenuity and willpower of ordinary Kurds. The peshmerga fought and sacrificed to give Kurds a chance. They overcame jash in Baghdad, but today they need to overcome jash in Erbil and Sar-e Rash.
Kurdistan needs intellectuals. Having angered the Baathist regime with his Kurdish activism, a young Barham Salih famously sat for his exams in prison. Facing equally ruthless rulers, Sardasht was not so lucky. But his sacrifice should not be in vain.
The author, Michael Rubin, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a lecturer in National Security Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in California and Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.