Iraq and the Kurds

Kurdistan - November 2004

Being fed by local Kurdish warlords !

Iraq is not the geographical center of the  Arab world but it is the center in terms of what goes to  the heart of the Arab world.  In the past both Syria and Egypt have claimed this role but today both are undergoing massive internal changes which has diminished their influence.The interplay of the many moving parts of  Iraq have much to do with the future of the region. But in order to get to the bottom lines I must first  regionally address one of the main players in this drama, the Kurds.

First one must identify the players.  As  they have been through the centuries, the Kurds are divided and used by outsiders for their own interests. In Iraq they remain divided between the fiefdoms controlled by the Barzani or Talabani clans…… clans that have constituted the leadership of Kurdistan for many decades,  and nowadays are  portrayed  in a more modern façade, the   Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of the Barzanis, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan(PUK) of the Talabanis.   Despite their recent history of animosity and warfare, under strong U.S. pressure, they have merged into one Kurdish entity,  The Kurdish Regional Government(KRG), an autonomous region but  nominally part of Iraq, trying to  balance power between the two rival clans.

We now see the Bazanis making deals with their ancient enemy, the Turkish government, apparently selling out their brothers across the border in Turkey which has a  very large Kurdish minority ,  many of whom harbor self-determinist aspirations,  as radically represented by the terrorists/ freedom fighters, the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party). They have been waging war against the Central government ofTurkey for decades.  The visit of the current KRG premier, Necharvan Barzani to Ankara is only one piece of evidence of the budding relatioship between the Islamic government of Turkey and the Barzani faction of Kurdistan.

After the Iraqi onslaught against the Kurds following the first Gulf war (1991) many Kurds fled to Turkey, having no place else to go as the Iranian government,  whether under the Shah or the Islamists had both conducted murderous campaigns against the Kurds. Both Syria and Iran made it clear that more Kurds were and are  not welcome there. During the period of the Shah,  both the Iranians of the Shah and the Iraqis under Saddam used each others’ Kurds against one another. The Shah delivered arms and money to the Iraqi Kurds  to undermine the Iraqi government. At stake was the Shatt-il Arab, the water  passage way  from the Gulf to Iranian ports, such as Khoramshar, used for importing and exporting,  especially oil.  Ships going to Iranian ports had to pay a traffic fee and use Iraqi pilot boats. Obviously this was considered an affront to Iranian sensitivities. During the British occupation of Iraq, the British had forced a bizarre agreement on the hapless Iranians, giving the entire passageway to the Iraqis. Generally under international law the diving line is the middle of the river. This, of course, was not acceptable to the later Iranian governments. And so, under pressure from the Kurdish insurrection, Saddam in the Algiers Agreement in 1975,  agreed to bring the border to the middle of the waterway, in return the Iranians pulled the carpet out from under the Kurds. This was not the first time the Kurds had experienced this. The Barzanis had developed a tight relationship with the Soviet government and were accepting arms and money from them in the 1960’s. Once the Russians established the Treaty of Friendship with the Iraqis in  1972, the Russians, in their normal method of doing business, were still supplying arms to the Kurds while bombing Iraqi targets with their air force in support of the Iraqi government.

Of course rapid turnarounds in friendships and alliances are normal for the Middle East and not a new tactic for the Barzanis. Despite the genocidal Iraqi campaign, known as the Anfal campaign, of the Iraqi army against the Kurds in 1991,  the Barzanis allied themselves with the Iraqi butcher, Saddam,  in 1996 to help him destroy the Kurdish enclave under the Talabanis. Many Kurds who were suspected of being US agents or sympathizers were murdered. Hundreds more escaped and later ended up in Guam before finding homes in theUS.

It should also be mentioned that the Kurds feel  the US has betrayed them twice, the first time  by not fulfilling President Wilson’s plan of self-determination, as enshrined in his 14 Points, and secondly by not protecting them after the first Gulf war when President Bush called for uprisings against the Saddam government. Apparently expecting US military support, the Shi’a and Kurds revolted. The uprising was put down with merciless efficiency, by an Iraqi army hurt but not destroyed in the first Gulf war.

Despite their sad history much of the blame lies with the Kurds themselves.  Through history, they willingly join forces with their former enemies to fight rival clans or tribes…and often profit from regional political conflict.

The sad spectacle of the Armenian genocide by the Turks involved deep complicity of the Kurds who attacked the unarmed Armenian refugees. The Armenian hordes  being brutally expelled from their historic homeland in Turkey, were defenseless against plundering Kurdish bands that raped, and abducted thousands of Armenian women. In recent times, during the sanctions period against Iraq, the Kurds helped evade the sanctions by facilitating oil shipments through Kurdistan into Turkey. As a result Kurdistan enjoyed a booming economy while the rest of Iraq suffered. Today there is a thriving trade between Turkeyand the Kurds for goods flowing into Iraq and  Iran. As the Barzani clan controls most of that part of the Turkish border, profit rather than Kurdish aspirations in Turkey seem to have priority.

The Prime Minister ofTurkey, Recip Tayyib Erdogan, the great white hope for a democratic Islamic government, apparently believed that by emphasizing the common Sunni Islamic faith of Turks and Kurds, that the nationalist urge of the Kurds would diminish. It has not. A revived PKK, once believed to have been emasculated when their leader, Ocalan was captured (with American help),   continues to operate and harass the Turkish army. Areas of southeastern Turkey are a virtual no man’s land after dark. Some rights, once denied them, have been grudgingly given by the Turkish government but most significant is the fact that the Turkish government does not even recognize the Kurds as a distinct cultural or linguistic people. etc.   Overall history tells us that  small concessions often tend to whet the appetite not diminish it. With a rapidly expanding Kurdish population and a proportionally decreasing Turkish population, the question is…will the Turkish borders remain as they are today? After all, as a Foreign Service officer in  Turkey explained to me the borders of Turkey basically delineate where the fighting after WWI ended. They make very little ethnic or cultural sense.

In Iran the Kurds, like many other non-Arab or non Shi’a  Muslims in Iran, such as the Arabs of Khuzestan, thought that when the Khomeini government replaced the Shah that a new era in intra-Muslim relations was beginning, and that the revolutionary government would be more sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations. They were wrong. Dead wrong. Khomeini sent his revolutionary guards in a brutal campaign of surpression against Kurdish rebels. There were mass executions and since then the Kurds of Iran have been relatively quiet

In Syria, the Kurds are part of a combination of minorities that understands that they hang together or they surely will separately. This amalgamation of factions includes the Christians, the Druze, and the Kurds, and of course,the Alawis, Assad’s people. Hence in Syria today, these factions have shied away from joining in the revolt against Assad. Like many minorities in theMiddle East, they always attempt to avoid Sunni Arab Muslim domination. While no one except his fellow Alawis have much love for Bashir Assad, the alternative of Sunni Arab  Muslim fundamentalist domination is seen as far worse.

In my next blog entry I will cover the situation in Syria in the nexus of Iraq.

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About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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