Kurdish Minister - Rich Star, or Pawn?
Like the larger-than-life hero of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of the roaring 20s, Iraqi Kurdistan's mysterious Minister of Finance, Sarkis Aghajan, has star power.
He is reputed to be one of the richest men in Iraq. And yet, like the fictional Jay Gatsby, no one knows anything about the sources of his wealth, his early career, or his family origin.
"We have no official biography of Mr. Aghajan as far as I know," a senior U.S. official in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, told Newsmax. "How did he make his money - if indeed, he is personally wealthy? I haven't a clue."
Call him the Great Gatsby of Iraqi Kurdistan.
No one knows of any business experience or expertise that would explain Mr. Aghajan being given responsibility for Kurdistan's financial portfolio. What little is known of his family background suggests modest landholdings in northern Iraq and in Iran, but no vast family fortune that would explain his profligate spending.
And yet, according to confidants — including a U.S. consultant who began his career in northern Iraq as an evangelical missionary in the early 1990s — Mr. Aghajan has quietly disbursed tens of millions of dollars of his own money to help Iraq's embattled Christian population.
"Sarkis has been like a saint to Iraqi Christians," the consultant said. "He has housed 20,000 families who moved here from Baghdad at his own expense. He's built schools for them, and he did it all alone."
Set aside for the moment the exaggerations of a self-confessed recipient of Mr. Aghajan's favors. (Kurdish officials told Newsmax that 2,000 displaced Christian families have moved into the region, not 20,000).
The efforts by the consultant to sway reporters and other visitors, and by Mr. Aghajan himself through Ishtar TV — a well-funded satellite channel that Mr. Aghajan established to recount his good deeds to the world — amount to a very conscious attempt at myth-building.
Ishtar TV regularly broadcasts "celebrations" of Mr. Aghajan by "grateful" Iraqi Christians. Some sing his praises after moving into tiny prefab houses in reconstructed Christian villages in Kurdistan. Others parade about with huge photos of Mr. Aghajan at New Year's celebrations in Paris, Ã? la Saddam Hussein.
"By providing housing and aid to displaced Christians, Sarkis wants to send a message to people who align with the KDP [Kurdish Democratic Party] that he can deliver," Dr. John Eibner, CEO of Christian Solidarity International, told Newsmax during a recent aid mission to northern Iraq.
"He is being positioned by the KDP to become the 'agha' of the Christians in Kurdistan and the Nineveh Plain," Dr. Eibner added, referring to a common term that blends the affection peasants might have for a benevolent landowner with the ruthlessness of a political overlord.
Mr. Aghajan would appear to owe his ascendancy within the KDP power structure to his personal relationship to Nichervan Barzani, the Kurdish prime minister.
His supporters say that as young men, the two were forced to flee Kurdistan with their families in 1975, after the United States withdrew support for the Barzani clan in its struggle for independence from Saddam, and grew up together on the Aghajan family estate in Iran.
Powerful, or Used?
"Some say Sarkis is using the Kurds to achieve the rights of the Christians. If that's true, I'll be the first to applaud," said William Warda, vice-president of the Hammurabi Human Rights organization, and an Assyrian nationalist. "But I don't think he's so powerful. I think the Kurds are using him,"
The KDP's political designs are transparent, says Salahuddin Bahauddin, secretary general of the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union.
"Sarkis is being used against the Assyrian nationalist movement, which is seeking to get the Nineveh Plain region recognized as a self-governing province of Iraq, reporting directly to Baghdad," Mr. Bahauddin told Newsmax in an interview.
The Kurdish government is seeking to make Sarkis the "president of a Christian triangle" attached to the Kurdish region, the former member of the Iraqi Governing Council said.
"His role is to decorate the Kurdish Regional Government, to counter accusations of persecution against Christians by the KDP. He should be called the Minister of window-dressing," Mr. Bahauddin added.
At first glance, the image-building would appear to be a success. Wherever one travels in Christian areas in northern Iraq, Mr. Aghajan's name is on everyone's lips.
Within the Kurdish Regional Government area itself, he claims to have rebuilt 80 Christian villages destroyed by Saddam Hussein and made them available for refugees fleeing religious persecution in Baghdad and Mosul.
In Ainkawa, the Christian suburb of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, his supporters claim that he has handed out building lots, permits, and construction materials gratis to Christian refugees.
Not So Generous to Everyone
In more than a half dozen locations I visited in the Nineveh Plain, Mr. Sarkis has built tenements to house Christian refugees — at least those who profess to support his political party, the KDP. But he is quick to cut the salaries of local officials and aid payments to refugees who express hostility to his political designs.
In a trademark program, he has financed the building of lavish new churches and Christian cemeteries throughout the region, in an effort to win the support of church leaders for his political goal of integrating the Assyrian Christians into Kurdistan.
Some of the new churches have cost millions of dollars, according to local priests and government officials, And yet, for all of the spending, no one has a clue where the money originates.
Kurdish officials told Newsmax that Mr. Aghajan had been put in charge of funds provided by the Kurdish Regional Government to aid Christians fleeing persecution.
To dole out the aid, Mr. Aghajan has established a vast network of Christian aid committees, most of which operate through local churches, to provide welfare subsidies and other assistance to the refugees.
But recipients of the aid interviewed in several refugee complexes said that welfare payments from Mr. Aghajan's committees had been cut off last July, and that they were now required to pay rent at his housing projects.
Show Me the Money
"What benefits have we had from Sarkis Aghajan until now?" complained Jamal Dinha, mayor of Bartela, a prominent Christian town in the Nineveh Plain. "I'd like to see where this money he says he is spending is going. He says he is building churches — but most of the money disappears in corruption."
Mayor Dinha is a member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), a nationalist party that is seeking administrative autonomy for the Nineveh plain under the Iraqi national constitution.
Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, awarding Mr. Sarkis Aghajan with a medal - one of the three he received from three Assyrian patriarchs. "We have asked Sarkis to build schools, not churches," he added. "Here in our town, Sarkis bought land for a cemetery. We say that he pays more attention to the dead than to the living."
Mr. Aghajan is credited by his supporters with convincing KDP leaders to allow Christian Evangelical churches to preach the gospel to Muslims.
Since 1992, when the first Evangelicals came to Kurdistan, some 1000 Muslim-background believers have been baptized into the Christian faith, according to Pastor Aram Daoud, who works with the Christian affairs division of the Kurdish ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs.
And yet, despite Mr. Aghajan's patronage, evangelical churches continue to receive threats.
"We baptized thirteen new believers on February 1 of this year," Pastor Daoud said. "The very next day, we received a death threat — a fatwa — posted on the door of our church."
Pastor Daoud's supervisor at the ministry, Khaled Jamal Alber, was quick to interject. "In Kurdistan, there is freedom of religion. No one stops us from practicing our [Christian] faith. The threats come not from the government, but from individuals."
"Sarkis has done more for Christians than any man I have known in the world, and I have been in 50+ countries," an American supporter of the Kurdish finance minister said.
"He is very quiet and does not seek recognition or remuneration. He has received just about every award given to Christians from every major denomination in the world including the Knighthood of the Order of St. George from the Pope. The next step after that is canonization!"
And yet, Mr. Aghajan's critics say that he is using the church to build a system of patronage on behalf of the KDP, with the goal of convincing Christians in the Nineveh plain to join the Kurdish region.
"Personally, he is a good man, a kind man," said Father Sabri al Maqdessy, a Chaldean priest in Ainkawa. "He's trying his best to do some kind of projects for the Christians. But they are using us for propaganda for themselves."
He pointed to the huge cross at Erbil international airport as an example. "That is the first thing Westerners see at the airport. It's a symbol for them. A lot of the [Kurdish government] politicians were educated in the West. They know the strength of that message, to see a cross in a Muslim country. They think it will send a message that they treat the Christians better.
"They do treat us better — while they take everything we have," he added. "In another ten years, we will have nothing. Christians will not own a centimeter of property. They will take it all."
Kurdish Islamic Union leader Salahuddin Bahauddin said that Mr. Aghajan and his masters in the Kurdish Democratic Party of president Massood Barzani were offered the Christians of the Nineveh plain a diabolical choice: enjoy the freedom to practice their faith as citizens of Kurdistan, but renounce their ethnic aspirations as Assyrians to an autonomous province under central government authority.
"We see Christians in the Kurdish parties, but they have been forced to give up their ethnic identity," Mr. Bahauddin told Newsmax. "We believe they should be able to keep it."
The political system established by the KDP is "autocratic and dictatorial," he added. "It's a one-party state, an adaptation of the Baath Party system of Saddam Hussein. If someone is close to the Party, he is welcome; if not, he's an outcast, even if he is a family member."
A former Iraqi aid worker in Hamdaniya, a district capital in the Nineveh Plain just outside of Mosul, told Newsmax that he had seen documents showing that Mr. Aghajan was spending U.S. aid money to help the refugees, all the while he pretended the money was his own.
"We know that this money comes from the United States," the former aid worker said. " The United States didn't want to pay the money to the central government in Baghdad. They preferred to pay it here. Since the minister of Finance is Christian they thought it would be spent in a good way to all the Christians. "
Instead, he claimed, nearly 90% of the money has disappeared into the pockets of Mr. Aghajan's cronies, with scarcely 10% reaching its intended recipients.
The aid worker insisted that Newsmax withhold his identity, for fear of reprisals from Kurdish officials.
A U.S. official in Erbil acknowledged that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent approximately $31 million in the Nineveh Plain, but complained that the Kurdish regional government "lacked a transparent budget process" and had provided little or no accounting for how its funds were spent.
"Sarkis Aghajan is using this aid money for the political benefit of the KDP," said critic William Warda. "He should be telling them it's coming from the USA or from the evangelical church. But they don't say that. They say this is the KRG, and that they are doing this and that. They are cheating our people."
Newsmax made extensive efforts to contact Mr. Aghajan for comment on this article, starting with an official request for an interview through the Kurdish Regional Government office in Washington, DC.
Inquiries through the KRG in Erbil were politely rebuffed, as were efforts undertaken by a former Iraqi government minister, who personally asked Kurdish prime minister Barzani to arrange the interview.
Sources in Erbil identified a private office allegedly used by Mr. Aghajan to run his mysterious aid network. An aid at that office, who identified himself only by his first name, Gewargis, explained why efforts to contact Mr. Aghajan through his Ministry of Finance office had been unsuccessful.
"If you call those numbers, you will always get the same answer," he said. "Out of order, or turned off."
Gewargis had no explanation for why Mr. Aghajan kept four large floor safes in his personal office, which was filled with stacks of Christian books Gewargis said were being distributed by Mr. Aghajan's committees.
At the Ministry of Finance, an aid to Mr. Sarkis said he was "too busy" to receive foreign visitors. However, just minutes before Newsmax and former Iraqi government minister of Migration Pascale Warda arrived at the ministry, a team of Dutch parliamentarians were leaving after an appointment. They had come with offers of European Union aid for displaced Christians.
The criticisms of Mr. Aghajan by Christian refugees and others stemmed from a "classic gift horse in the mouth mentality," an American supporter of Mr. Aghajan told Newsmax.
"Give them a house — they want a better one. They complain about the lack of electricity, etc., etc. The answer for Christians in Kurdistan is not to complain about a man or the government but for the international Christian community to help fill the gaps. They have not."
Despite their positive comments, even Mr. Aghajan's supporters insisted that they not be identified by name because of ongoing business relationships with the Kurdish government.
Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the
Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).