Foreign Policy In Focus
Northern Iraq is a region steeped in colonial ghosts, political betrayals, and ethnic tensions, an area that the U.S. invasion now threatens to ignite into a disastrous civil war between its kaleidoscope of tribes, people, and adjoining countries.
Since 1992 and the end of Gulf War I, much of northern Iraq has been a Kurdish autonomous zone. The Kurds—25 million strong and scattered between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran— make up the world’s largest ethnic group without a country, a status that has long grated on them.
Kurdish aspirations to statehood are replete with betrayals, first by the British after World War I, then by the Americans and the Shah of Iran, both who played them as chess pieces in regional competition and the Cold War. The old maxim that the Kurds’ only friends are the mountains is one they have learned through bitter experience.
And now it appears they are about to be double-crossed again, this time by the Bush Administration.
Back in February, according to the Washington Post, the White House cut a deal: if Turkey would allow the U.S. to open a northern front against Iraq, Washington would prevent the Kurds from establishing a permanent autonomous region or federal-style government in postwar- Iraq. The U.S. would also turn a blind eye to a Turkish “incursion” into Iraq, as long as it was restricted to border areas.
The deal has created widespread dismay among the Kurds, who have looked to the U.S. as their protector. While the Kurds have no love for the Iraqis, they are equally as scared of the Turkish military, with good reason. Turkey fought a long and bloody campaign against the Kurds in the mid-1980s, which killed more than 30,000 people and razed 3,000 villages. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million Turkish Kurds were forcibly moved north.
For the past two months, Turkey has massed troops on the Iraq border supposidly to prevent Kurdish refugees from entering Turkey as they did in 1991.
But the “refugee” argument makes little sense, because the Iraqi Kurds are unlikely to flee north today. The Kurdish autonomous region is well organized, with a working parliament, several Kurdish-language TV and radio channels, and universities. Plus, the two major competing organizations—the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—are at peace.
The real target of the Turkish military is not refugees, but Kurdish independence.
Turkey wants to make sure that the Kurds do not take control of the oil centers of Mosul or Kirkuk. The Kurds seized the latter during the 1991 Gulf War, but were driven out. The Turks fear that Kurdish control of the two cities would give them the financial base for a viable Kurdish state.
Another Turkish target is the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress, formally the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK. The PKK gets little press in the U.S. but it is a major player in the region. The civil war subsided after PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan’s, arrest, but it has hardly gone away. The PKK still has 10,000 disciplined military cadres and a strong presence in Northern Iraq. It also raises lots of money from Kurdish exiles living in Europe.
According to what one intelligence source told the Financial Times, “They (the Turks) want to wipe out the PKK.”
Any attempt to do that will not only spark fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military, but may well pull in the PUK and the KDP. Both organizations say they will resist any Turkish incursions, and neither makes any promises about keeping clear of the oil centers at Kirkuk and Mosul.
But if the Kurds go to Kirkuk, it is likely the Turks will too, which raises the possibility that American units sent to take control of the two cities will find themselves facing both Turks and Kurds.
And to make things even more complex, the 15,000 strong Badr Brigade, based in Iran, is also a player. The Brigade is part of the U.S.-backed Iraq National Congress, but also has close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It is composed of mostly Shiite Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Iraqis.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently warned the Iranians to keep the Brigade out of Iraq.
The Turks and the U.S. will try to get the Kurdish genie back in the lamp, but that will not be easy. For 11 years, 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds have governed themselves, strengthening their institutions and creating a model for Kurds in the surrounding countries. It is one thing to block a dream, quite another to dismantle a reality,