Iraqi Kurd PM Barzani's office lashes out at graft exposé with affair claim

Iraqi Kurd PM Barzani's office lashes out at graft exposé with affair claim
The Iraqi Kurdish prime minister's office dismissed an American journalist's investigation into his alleged theft of public funds as 'baseless' and accused him of having an affair with a Kurdish woman activist.
3 min read
10 December, 2021
Masrour Barzani became prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2019 [Getty]

The official response to an American journalist's investigation into the alleged theft of public funds by Iraqi Kurdistan's prime minister has sparked furore online.

Political magazine The American Prospect published the investigation by Zack Kopplin, a journalist working for the US-based Government Accountability Project on Tuesday. The investigation found that Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and his family owned a number of properties through shell companies - including an $18.3 million CVS pharmacy in South Beach, Miami.

The release of the investigation comes as people are leaving Iraqi Kurdistan in droves, making the at times life-threatening journey to Europe and elsewhere as they struggle to earn enough money to survive at home. Students and other protesters have hit the streets of Iraqi Kurdistan's biggest cities in recent weeks, calling for small stipends that help students make ends meet to be reinstated. 

The government says it is contending with billions of dollars in debt, making big public spending difficult. Since taking the prime minister's office in 2019, Barzani has championed a government anti-corruption reform program, but critics say the plan is superficial and fails to tackle widespread corruption and theft among high-level officials and Iraqi Kurdistan's ruling class, of which the Barzani family sits atop.

The prime minister's office responded to the investigation on Thursday, calling it baseless. It accused Kopplin of having had an affair with a Kurdish woman activist. Though the statement did not name her, it seemed to refer to Shnyar Anwar, the wife of a Kurdish former Iraqi parliament member Sarkawt Shams, himself an outspoken critic of Iraqi Kurdistan's ruling parties.

Shams dismissed the claim of an affair as "nonsense", and observers said the claim endangered Anwar's life in Kurdistan's patriarchal, conservative society.

"For what it’s worth (and it’s stupid I even have to say this), I’ve never met her. Barzani is just a pig," Kopplin said following release of the statement. "A corrupt pig."

The Government Accountability Project hit back at the PM office's statement, calling it "libel".

"Rather than addressing the serious allegations, Masrour Barzani accused our investigator of being motivated by having an affair with a Kurdish anti-corruption activist. Our investigator has never met this activist," their statement read.

"This is a sexist and libelous attempt to distract from the Prime Minister’s corruption. It is also a dangerous abuse of power, coming from the office of the Prime Minister."

Barzani, who on Thursday attended the burial ceremony for 41 Yazidis killed by the Islamic State in 2014, has yet to respond to the statement.

A 2019 investigation by another American journalist found that members of the Barzani family had purchased $47 million worth of real estate in Beverly Hills, California.

Kopplin vowed to dig deeper into the Barzani family's wealth.

"All four properties were caught because Barzani lawyers slipped up, not some systemic leak... What's more likely, these are all the Barzani properties or just the tip of the iceberg?", he said.