Now that Washington’s massive diplomatic offensive against Baghdad has succeeded in getting the UN weapons-inspectors back into Iraq, the US government seems to have inched one step closer to its ostensible goal of deposing Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Since its war against Afghanistan ended, the US has been looking for a pretext to wage war against Iraq. When the US does so, the Kurdish region in the north of the country, the only part of Iraq dominated by organized armed groups opposed to Saddam, will be a key staging post for attacks against Baghdad. That explains the US’s eagerness to get the Iraqi Kurdish groups to commit themselves to fight on its side.
Initially, the Kurds’ response was noncommittal, varying from uninterested to downright refusal. In August Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said that the Kurds will not be “blindly participating in any [US-led] attack or in any plan.” This was an echo of the stand taken in March by Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who said that the Kurds “need many answers before we are able to answer” the question of whether or not they would support an American strike against Iraq. However, sensing that Washington is serious in its desire to topple Saddam, Kurdish officials have since indicated, albeit hesitantly, that they would consider letting the Americans use their territory for attacks against Baghdad.
It is easy to see why the Kurds might be wary of Washington’s attempts to coax them into stating a clear position on joining a US-led war against Baghdad. Their caution is partly rooted in the fear of provoking reprisals if Saddam manages to outfox yet another US president, avoid a war and retain power. They are also concerned about what type of government would replace Saddam, and the possible consequences of any change in the status quo on the broad autonomy of their region.
But, more importantly, the reluctance of the Kurds is also rooted in their lingering distrust of America. Although almost all Iraqi Kurds, regardless of political and ideological persuasion, are in favour of a ‘regime change,’ many of them have learned from painful experience to take the role America assigns for them in its overall strategy, and America’s word in general, with a large pinch of salt.
The short history of the self-ruling Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq is instructive in this regard. In 1991, after the Second Gulf War, president George Bush Senior encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow the war-battered regime of Saddam Hussein. There were armed uprisings in several parts of the country, but when Saddam’s forces moved in to crush the rebellion with characteristic savagery, the US and its allies stood by and did nothing. Indeed, the US went as far as to give a discreet green light to Saddam to crush the uprisings. On March 3, 1991, when US general Norman Schwarzkopf accepted the surrender of the Iraqi generals in Safwan, southern Iraq, he informed the defeated generals that they could continue to use their helicopter gunships. These were duly deployed, along with artillery and infantry divisions of the Republican Guards, to crush the rebellion and regain control.
Saddam’s counter-offensive caused a mass exodus from northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of Kurds, fearing that they would be gassed, fled in panic towards the Iranian and Turkish borders. It was embarrassment caused by the sight of thousands of desperate Kurdish civilians, trapped at the Iraqi-Turkish border between Saddam’s advancing troops and Turkish border police trying to prevent them from crossing into Turkey, that prompted Washington to do something. Saddam was served notice to withdraw his forces. British and American troops entered the Kurdish region and allied warplanes began to patrol a self-declared “no-fly” zone. The US and British troops have long since been withdrawn, but the “no-fly” zone is still enforced. As such, the resulting security zone in northern Iraq was born more out of America’s desire to save its face and help Turkey to deal with the Kurdish refugees, than out of a humanitarian desire to ease the Kurds’ suffering.
America’s betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds in 1991 repeated an earlier betrayal in 1975, when the US and the Shah of Iran abruptly abandoned the Kurdish rebels in Iraq after an agreement reached between Saddam Hussein and the Shah to end their dispute over the Shatt al-’Arab waterway. At the time Mustafa Barzani (Massoud’s father, who led an intermittent rebellion against the Iraqi government that lasted from 1964 to 1975) wrote to US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, asking for help and appealing to America’s “moral and political responsibility towards our people.” To Mustafa’s dismay, his pleas for help fell on deaf ears.
What followed was a murderous cycle of persecution and ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the brutal and vengeful Ba’athist regime, culminating in what was probably one of Saddam’s most heinous crimes: the Anfal campaign of 1988, during which Saddam’s forces murdered around 182,000 Kurdish men, women and children. Up to 100,000 others remain unaccounted for. Some 4,000 Kurdish towns, villages and hamlets were razed, and their surviving inhabitants were forcibly relocated to so-called collective towns. The single worst atrocity during this campaign took place on March 16, 1988, when Saddam ordered his fighter jets to drop chemical weapons against the Kurdish inhabitants of Halabja, resulting in the deaths of some 5,000 civilians. When residents of Halabja fled towards the Iranian border, Iraqi bombers targeted them on the road, killing several hundred more.
With such turmoil marking their recent history, little wonder that Iraq’s Kurds are keen to protect their hard-won self-rule. The current Kurdish entity in northern Iraq is dominated by the KDP and the PUK. At the beginning of self-rule, following the failure of autonomy talks with Baghdad in October 1991 and the government’s subsequent withdrawal of its administration, funds and services from the northern governorates of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaymaniyyah, the two parties were united in the Kurdistan Front. But the Front soon fell apart amid disagreements over the division of revenues from smuggling and trade, leading to a protracted civil war (from 1994 to 1998) that left some 3,000 people dead. In 1996, failing to get the US to intervene on his side in the civil war, Barzani asked Saddam to send in his tanks to drive out the PUK. Saddam obliged, sending some 40,000 of his troops on a brief incursion into Irbil, where they managed to squash the PUK forces as well as a CIA-run group based there. The conflict finally came to an end in September 1998, when a ceasefire was announced and the two parties signed an agreement in Washington.
Today the Kurdish self-rule region, with an estimated population of nearly four million and an area equal to that of Switzerland, is divided into two geographically separate administrations: one, centred on Irbil in the east, is run by the KDP; the other, centred on Sulaymaniyyah in the west, is run by the PUK.
There is an almost complete consensus in the Iraqi opposition in favour of a federal system for post-Saddam Iraq. This is intended mainly to take into consideration Kurdish demands for a federal unit for Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet, although proposed as a solution to deal with the political implications of an atomized identity in a country whose society is a mixture of tribal and sectarian groups, federalism could open up a Pandora’s box of tensions in a post-Saddam Iraq. Without an overall sense of collective identity to guarantee the cohesion of society at the national level, disagreements loom over the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and other parts of the country, as well as over the respective borders of federal units for Sunni and Shi’ah Arabs, and other ethnic and religious groups.
The status of the oil-rich city of Karkuk, for instance, could turn out to be an explosive issue. The city is currently in the Baghdad-controlled region. The Kurds are adamant that the city is Kurdish, and insist that the city will be the capital of a future Kurdish entity. They point to efforts by successive Iraqi regimes to change the demographic makeup of the city to “Arabize” it. At the heart of this “Arabization” drive, which has been intensified since Saddam came to power in 1979, is an effort to settle Arabs from other parts of Iraq in the city and its surroundings. Other tactics include pressurizing Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians and other non-Arabs living in the area to change their registered nationality to Arab.
If and when the US-led assault against Baghdad comes, the Kurds will have a historic opportunity to take control of Karkuk. But this will not be the end of the story: it will inevitably raise the ire of other large groups, such as the Turkomans and the Assyrians, with large populations in the area.
But mention of the Kurds’ taking control of Karkuk agitates Turkish leaders across the political spectrum as well. Many of them still feel bitter over Turkey’s loss of Karkuk and Mosul after the dismemberment of the Ottoman state. Moreover, Ankara feels nervous that a Kurdish federal unit in Iraq might provide an example for its own restive Kurdish minority to emulate, thus reigniting a 15-year armed rebellion that the Turkish military has managed to crush only recently.
For much of the twentieth century the Kurds, especially in northern Iraq, Turkey and Iran, had been rising against one government or another in pursuit of statehood. In the past, Iraqi Kurds have made no secret of their desire to achieve independence and then join with Kurds in Iran, Syria and Turkey in a Greater Kurdistan. But over the years they have come to recognize the geopolitical limitations on the achievability and viability of a state of their own, thus toning their main political demand down to autonomy within a federated and democratic Iraq. In the words of Barzani: “We have not asked for the establishment of a Kurdish state. This does not mean that it is not our right to do so, but we know that it is not realistic, and we do not have the power to do so.”
Iraqi Kurdistan is landlocked, and surrounded by neighbouring states with potentially secessionist Kurdish minorities. There is no conceivable scenario in which these neighbours would connive with or agree to the establishment of a Kurdish state. The most they seem to be willing to accept is the continuation of the status quo, until fate or propitious political circumstances intervene and an advantageous ‘regime change’ brings about a new political order in Iraq.
Iraq’s neighbours, especially Turkey, remain unconvinced that, should Saddam fall, the de facto attributes of statehood – political, economic, administrative, cultural and educational – that the Kurdish enclave has acquired since 1991, will not eventually turn into a distinct, de jure Kurdish polity. Turkish officials have already made threatening noises, implying that they may intervene militarily if the Kurds set up their own state – an act that some Turkish officials have described as an “act of war.” In an interview with Turkish NTV in September, former prime minister Bulent Ecevit warned the Kurds “in clear language” that “we will not allow them to play games with Turkey.” Other senior Turkish officials went as far as suggesting the annexation of northern Iraq, where Turkish troops have been present for more than a decade.
Apart from geopolitical circumstances precluding statehood, the future of the Iraqi Kurds remains vulnerable because of an equally unfavourable set of domestic circumstances. Foremost among these is the long-running bad blood between Barzani and Talabani. Aware that a US-led war against Iraq is becoming increasingly imminent, the two parties have now moved to mend fences. The pace of rapprochement gained momentum last summer after their leaders held meetings with US officials in Washington in June. In September and October, Barzani and Talabani held face-to-face meetings before the revival of a Kurdish parliament. The two leaders signed agreements, among other things, to normalise relations, reopen each party’s offices in areas controlled by the other, address the problem of restoring property seized during their internecine conflict, release prisoners, and facilitate the movement of Kurds between the two areas. On October 4 the parliament convened for the first time in six years in the city of Irbil. But in a post-Saddam Iraq, in which the Kurds are expected to exert a powerful political influence, relations between the two factions could again worsen, as the two leaders vie to represent the country’s Kurds.
Factionalism is exacerbated by the lack of a solid sense of community among the Kurds, who are divided along religious, tribal, regional and linguistic lines. For instance, the two main Kurdish dialects spoken in Iraq, Sorani and Kurmanji, are not mutually comprehensible; there are also some dialects closer to Farsi as well. The Kurds’ fragmentation and tendency to feud have made them particularly vulnerable to manipulation by outside powers. In modern history, a host of regional and international powers have used these internal divisions to influence events in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The shadow of history weighs heavily on the possible futures of Iraqi Kurdistan. As Iraq stands poised for a US-led ‘regime change,’ uncertainty continues to shroud the utility of the current leaky western umbrella if Turkey invades or a pro-US Karzai-type figure moves in to control the central government in post-Saddam Iraq. When the day of reckoning comes, the Kurds’ worst nightmare will be to discover yet again that they have “no friends but the mountains”.