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An Ancient Group’s Struggle Provides Clues To the Future of the Middle East

by Kevin McKiernan

Jul 1, 2006 | Foreign Policy


Editor’s note: A new book, The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland, by Kevin McKiernan, recently caught our eye. It’s at once a history of the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state and a contemporary account of the Kurdish role in the war in Iraq. As the book makes clear, the underreported story of this misunderstood people will play a vital role in the future stability (or chaos) in the Middle East. The question of Kurdish self-determination will shape not only U.S. relations with Iraq, but with regional powers Turkey and Iran as well.

We asked Kevin McKiernan to give our readers a briefing on the past, present and future of the Kurds. His career as a journalist and filmmaker has taken him to some of the world’s most troubled regions, from Nicaragua to West Africa, and he has covered the Iraq War as a producer for ABC News in both Kurdish and Arab areas.

U.S.-Kurdish affairs have a habit of being conducted in the shadows, away from public scrutiny. Just weeks after 9/11, with the world’s attention on U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan, the long-abused and often ignored Iraqi Kurds received a surprise invitation to visit the Pentagon, where they were treated to a top-level briefing by Donald Rumsfeld himself. The Secretary of Defense commiserated with Kurdish leaders about Saddam Hussein’s deadly chemical attacks in 1988 and then quietly tipped them off to U.S. plans to go to war in Iraq, an enterprise for which the atrocities thirteen years earlier would become a key justification.

Rumsfeld’s briefing represented the first Cabinet-level meeting in the U.S. for the Kurds, an ancient but stateless people of more than 25 million whose numbers spill over the borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and parts of the former Soviet Union. Representatives of both Iraqi Kurdish factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), were present for the confidential meeting. At the time, the Kurds of Iraq had been fighting a succession of Baghdad governments since 1963. Northern Iraq had been a no-fly-zone for ten years, since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, when the U.S.-led forces established a safe refuge for the Kurds above the 36th Parallel and the KDP and PUK were permitted to open small offices in Washington, D.C.

While the Iraqi Kurds constitute less than 20 percent of the Kurdish population (Turkey is home to 50 percent), their opposition to Saddam Hussein gave them favored status in Washington over other independence-minded—but non-Iraqi—Kurds. The D.C. addresses, however, did not give the Kurds a place on Embassy Row, and not until the 9/11 attacks would they be offered meaningful political power.

By 2001, the threat to the Kurds from the Iraqi regime had been contained, although not eliminated, and U.S. war planners recognized that the Kurdish enclave represented the only territory in Iraq not under Baghdad’s control. Rumsfeld and his generals knew that if U.S. troops could be deployed from Turkey, they could enter Iraq easily through Kurdistan, and a northern front could sweep south to meet troops advancing from Kuwait. If deployment from Turkey was not an option, Kurdish militias could play the role the Northern Alliance had taken in Afghan-istan by spearheading an invasion alongside U.S. soldiers.

HISTORY OF BETRAYAL—The Kurds had repeatedly been used as pawns in the past, and some of their leaders were wary. Shortly after the secret Pentagon meeting, Massoud Barzani, the current president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the governing force in the now-unified and increasingly autonomous zone of northern Iraq, told me that without assurances of U.S. resolve to advance the Kurdish cause, the Kurds would refuse to be America’s “custom revolutionaries.” Barzani, who was born in 1946 during the short-lived Mahabad Republic in Iran, the only independent Kurdish state in history, had seen the Kurds betrayed by Western interests more than once.
In 1974, as a favor to the Shah of Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly bankrolled a Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi state. Unfortunately for the Kurds, the scheme was an elaborate ploy by Kissinger to help the Shah win access from Iraq to the Shatt al-Arab seaway. As soon as the Kurdish peshmerga (“those who face death”) began to win victories against Iraqi troops, Kissinger brokered a deal between the Shah and Saddam Hussein that gave the Shah the land and navigation concessions he wanted. In return, the Shah, the Kurds’ principal patron, canceled sanctuary for Kurdish rebels in Iran, and the U.S. cut off the secret flow of arms. Trapped and abandoned, the Kurds suffered thousands of casualties and 200,000 Kurds became refugees. An official report in 1976 by the House Select Committee on Intelligence lamented the fate of the refugees, calling their betrayal “a cynical enterprise.” Kissinger dismissed these concerns with his infamous quip: “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

In 1983 the Reagan Administration, concerned that Iran would win the war with Iraq in which it had been engaged for three years, dispatched special presidential envoy Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to negotiate the restoration of U.S.-Iraqi diplomatic relations. Rumsfeld’s talks with Saddam Hussein were successful, but the new alliance opened the floodgates for billions of dollars in U.S. assistance and loan guarantees, some of which Saddam used to suppress the Kurds. Within five years, 4,000 Kurdish villages had been razed and more than 100,000 Kurds were dead or missing. After 5,000 Kurdish civilians were killed in a 1988 gas attack, trade sanctions against Iraq were proposed in the U.S. Senate, but the White House blocked the measure. U.S. aid to the Iraqi dictator continued unabated until August 1, 1990, the day Kuwait was invaded by Iraq.

In 1991, George H.W. Bush publicly exhorted the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. When they did rise up, however, the U.S. stood to the side as tens of thousands of Shiites were slaughtered and 1.5 million Kurds were driven to the mountains of Iran and Turkey. Countless Kurds died before heart-wrenching TV images of the refugees reached the West, prompting the establishment of the no-fly-zone in northern Iraq. In 1996, midway through the Clinton Administration, the CIA recruited Kurds in another attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but the plot was botched. Hundreds of Kurds were executed and 5,000 additional refugees were forced to flee the country.

GAS MASK GAMBIT—In February 2002, I learned that Rumsfeld had tipped off the Kurds to war plans; it was still more than a year before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. That month, I began scouting abandoned Iraqi airfields in the Kurdish region to look for likely landing spots for U.S. troops and supplies. I found one near the village of Harir: a long military runway that Saddam Hussein’s air force had used for refueling during the Iran-Iraq War.

Sure enough, according to local witnesses, foreigners speaking English had been seen examining the landing strip a month earlier. Dr. Abdullah Saeed, the director of public health for the Kurdistan Democratic Party in northern Iraq, told me that several Americans whom he assumed were CIA agents—”cousins,” as the Kurds call them—had visited him about the same time and had promised that the Kurds would soon be supplied with antitoxins for nerve gas, face masks, and other protective gear. That was welcome news, Dr. Saeed said, because there were almost four million Kurds in the north, and unlike the Israelis and Kuwaitis, they had no such safety equipment. If cornered, Saddam was expected to retaliate with chemical or biological weapons.

In December 2002, I met with Senators Joe Biden (D-DE) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) during their fact-finding trip to northern Iraq for the Foreign Relations Committee. The senators expressed alarm when they learned that the Kurds still had no protection from weapons of mass destruction.

In February 2003, with the U.S. attack now imminent, Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani published an impassioned letter to President Bush complaining that they had not received “any of the protective equipment promised by your officials. . . .” After the appeal was made public, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of Jalal Talabani, the current president of Iraq, told me that she had filmed victims of Hussein’s earlier gas attacks in 1987-88, but that Western news stations had refused to broadcast the story. Regrettably, she said, “No one was interested at that time in my videos.”

In the late spring of 2003, President Bush proclaimed “mission accomplished,” and I came home after seven months in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime was gone, and the Kurds were no longer a probable target for weapons of mass destruction. As I removed my unused gas mask from my belt, I began to wonder: Had the administration really decided to roll the dice with millions of Kurdish lives? Past betrayals of the Kurds notwithstanding, that degree of callousness struck me as doubtful. It was more likely that the Pentagon had simply concluded that the Kurds had no need for WMD protection; that the war had been launched with the knowledge that Saddam had nothing left in his arsenal.

AN ISLAND OF PEACE—Today, the landlocked Kurds have moved from the shadows to the world stage. They hold key posts in the besieged Baghdad government and U.S. pilots ferry their leaders in and out of the Green Zone in Apache helicopters. Two hundred miles to the north, Kurdish society emulates Western ways and looks abroad for other models to follow. People on the street readily admit they envy the alliances Israel and Kuwait enjoy with the U.S.
Outside of Kurdistan, Iraq is awash in sectarian warfare. Government officials in Baghdad report that across the lower two-thirds of the country as many as 100,000 families have fled their homes, that 25,000 people have been kidnapped this year, and that the murder rate has passed 1,000 a month. By contrast, the three provinces under Kurdish control are largely peaceful, continuing the experiment in self-government they began in 1991. Kurdish roads are protected by 24-hour checkpoints manned by disciplined fighters. Not a single American soldier has been killed in the region.

The Kurds are not responsible for the chaos at their borders, but the images of severed heads and suicide bombings in the rest of Iraq have made Kurdish secession look like a reasonable, if not inevitable, development. While neither Turkey nor Iran would tolerate a Kurdish declaration of independence, most Kurds believe they now have a homeland in all but name. Kurdish leaders in Baghdad talk publicly of being “Iraqis first,” but most Kurds see such pronouncements as a fiction for outside consumption.

What lies ahead now is a fight to bring the multi-ethnic, oil-rich city of Kirkuk (“our Jerusalem”) under Kurdish control, a development the Kurds predict will occur through census and referendum in 2007. Kurdish regional president Barzani has publicly warned that he is willing go to war to win Kirkuk. Turkey, for its part, has threatened to flood northern Iraq with troops if Barzani goes ahead.

Meanwhile, Kurdish—not Iraqi—flags fly on public buildings and hints of quasi sovereignty are everywhere: visitors entering northern Iraq now have their passports stamped “Iraqi Kurdistan,” and a law has been passed by the Kurdistan Parliament forbidding Iraqi troops from entering the region without a special vote of Kurdish lawmakers. Arabic is no longer spoken in the three Kurdish provinces, and the Kurds recently signed a contract with a Norwegian company—without consulting Baghdad—to drill for oil near the Turkish border. Kurds have their own cell phone company called Kurdistell, and they watch a widening selection of dubbed movies on KurdSat and other Kurdish stations. There are now direct flights from Europe to Kurdistan, with no need for risky connections in Baghdad; and luxury hotels are being built to accommodate tourists. Foreign investors took note a few weeks ago when the Kurdish prime minister dubbed his region “the commercial gateway to Iraq” and announced that “Kurdistan [is] open for business!”

THE IRAN SQUEEZE PLAY—The immediate fate of the Kurds may depend on the looming crisis with Iran. Iraqi Kurds worry they will be sacrificed in the new American effort to better relations with Turkey, which was given the cold shoulder after its March 2003 refusal to provide a land corridor to attack Iraq. The Bush Administration needs Turkey to pressure Iran, which is why U.S. generals have been busy consulting their Turkish counterparts since February of this year. Since then, Turkey has moved more than 100,000 troops to its border with Iran. In late May, Turkey held joint Army, Navy and Air Force exercises with U.S. forces, which Administration officials said were aimed at demonstrating a determination to stop missile and nuclear technology from reaching Iran and other countries.

Turkey has the greatest number of Kurds in the world—some 15 million—and their restive numbers are eyeing the freedoms of fellow Kurds in Iraq. Back in 1999, many Turks hoped that the fifteen years of attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had finally ended. But PKK splinter groups reopened the hostilities in 2004, claiming that their five-year, unilateral ceasefire had failed to produce meaningful reforms. Today, PKK fighters are mounting attacks deep inside Turkey, but it is the presence of rebel units in Iraqi Kurdistan, 80 miles from the Turkish border, that has given Turkey its latest bargaining chip with the United States.

In the last three months, Turkey has amassed some 250,000 troops near its border with Iraq—twice the number of soldiers the U.S. has in Iraq. Ankara wants the Bush Administration to approve a major cross-border operation against the PKK, but Iraqi Kurds fear U.S. approval would allow the Turks to occupy, at least temporarily, a large swath of Iraqi Kurdistan. They maintain that the underlying purpose of intervention would be to send the Kurds a message about the control of oil-rich Kirkuk.

In late April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Ankara to confer with Turkish leaders about a joint U.S.-Turkey agreement called the Common Strategic Vision. The central focus of the agreement is the issue of how Turkey is to respond to the re-ignited Kurdish rebellion, a byproduct of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Rice wanted action on Iran. Turkey wanted action on the Kurds, and local Turkish newspapers heralded Rice’s visit with leaked stories of U.S. satellites monitoring the PKK for the Turkish army.

Rice spent only sixteen hours in Turkey. It was striking that the Turkish general staff chose her abbreviated stopover to mount the largest military crackdown in history in Turkey’s Kurdish region and—more significantly—that Turkish soldiers were ordered to make a limited cross-border foray into Iraq while she was still in the capital. It was unlikely the timing was accidental. With new prospects of increased U.S. military aid to Turkey through the Common Strategic Vision, there seems little doubt that the U.S. countenanced the incursions into both Kurdish areas in advance.

There is a Kurdish proverb that says, “Someone who has been bitten by a snake will always be afraid of a rope.” Will the Kurds be betrayed again? Maybe, but for now they’re America’s best—and perhaps only—friend in Iraq.

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