Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who Killed Zardasht Osman?

By NAMO ABDULLA - The New York Times

ERBIL, Iraq — Recently, Iraq’s Kurdish authorities accused an Islamic militant group of responsibility for the abduction and murder of a campaigning journalist, Zardasht Osman.

Mr. Osman was a young freelance journalist who leveled harsh criticisms at the leadership of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, writing about allegations of nepotism and corruption.

Sardasht Osman, a journalist murdered early in May.

In a televised confession, a man identified by the Kurdish security forces as Hisham Mahmoud Ismaeel, said to be a member of the radical Sunni group Ansar al-Islam, said last week that he was the driver of the mini-bus in which Mr. Osman was kidnapped outside his college here in Erbil on May 4.

Mr. Ismaeel accused Mr. Osman of having ties with Ansar al-Islam, and said that he was taken to Mosul and killed because he had not kept a promise to do — unspecified — work for the radical group. But he was not specific about the nature of the alleged ties that Mr. Osman had with the militants.

The announcement was the preliminary result of a secret inquiry set up by the region’s president, Massoud Barzani, about four months ago. But it has failed to convince many people, who believe rather that Mr. Osman was a secular journalist who was killed for the scathing Web posts that he had written against the Kurdish authorities.

Public skepticism about the official version increased after Ansar al-Islam itself denied that it was behind Mr. Osman’s murder.

“If we kill or kidnap someone, we will announce it ourselves. We don’t need anybody to lie for us,” the group said in a statement that was published in Kurdish newspapers. “We consider the kidnappings and killings we may carry out a prayer for which we shall get rewarded by God.”

Ansar al-Islam is a Kurdish offshoot of Al-Qaeda. It has been defunct since the outbreak of the 2003 war, when the United States bombed its bases in the Hawraman region near Sulaimaniya. Its leader, Mullah Krekar, now lives in Norway.

Mr. Osman’s family said they were “shocked” by the findings, describing them as nothing but a “scenario” set up by Mr. Barzani’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to defame the character of Mr. Osman. He was particularly critical of Mr. Barzani.

“The truth is that Zardasht was a journalist and that he was assassinated because of his journalistic work and criticism of the injustice of Kurdish society,” said Mr. Osman’s brother, Bakir Osman. He insisted that his brother was secular, not a religious fanatic.

However Nerwan Azhee, a spokesman for the Kurdish security forces in Erbil, dismissed criticism of the investigation.

“They are all illegitimate and baseless accusations,” said Mr. Azhee, who said that Mr. Osman himself was not suspected of being a terrorist. “We have hard evidence to prove that he was killed by Ansar al-Islam.” He added, “We are going to publish more detailed evidence about Mr. Osman’s link to the group.”

Independent and opposition newspapers have started a campaign raising questions about the inquiry. While his killing is the most serious incident so far, Kurdish journalists have long complained of harassment, intimidation, assaults and arrests by the Kurdish authorities. In 2009, 357 such cases were recorded by the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate.

The findings seem to have actually fueled rather than soothed the anger of the people, who staged demonstrations.

Kamal Rauf, editor in chief of Hawlati, the first independent newspaper in the Kurdish region, says the committee that carried out the investigation was not impartial.

“I cannot say the findings are untrue. This needs a backup,” said Mr. Rauf. “But they are not persuasive.”

Even those who believe in the results of the investigation fear that the abduction of a writer during rush hour in Erbil indicates a resurgence of Ansar al-Islam in what has until now been the safest region of Iraq.

As the United States prepares for next year’s full withdrawal after it has reduced the size of its troops to an almost 50,000, one questions remains to be posed: Is Kurdistan, which has portrayed itself as democratic secular, secure, going to survive?