Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 2, Number 28 August 18 - 24, 2002 Quezon City, Philippines
US and the Kurds of Iraq: A Bitter History
the winds of war steadily gather strength in the West, the Iraqi Kurds walk a
tightrope between US interests and Iraqi government threats. Recognizing that it
has little control over US decision-making, the Kurdish leadership is struggling
to strike a delicate balance between a US-led "regime change" and the
preservation of hard-won gains in two self-rule enclaves in northern Iraq.
August 9, representatives of both Kurdish factions are reluctantly participating
in a meeting in Washington, hosted by the State and Defense Departments, to
discuss a post-Saddam Iraq with other Iraqi opposition figures nominally under
the umbrella of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Because the State and Defense
Departments have long disagreed over policy toward the Iraqi opposition, their
joint sponsorship of the meeting has been taken as another sign that the Bush
administration is determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime.
some degree, the interests of the Bush administration and Iraqi Kurds intersect.
The Sunni Muslim Kurds have long seen the US as a possible ally in their tough
neighborhood, where Turkey, Iran and Iraq continually seek to keep the Kurds
weak and divided. The major Kurdish parties have largely shed their Soviet-era
socialist rhetoric, and now speak the language of individual rights, democracy
and a pro-Western orientation.
one has suffered more at the hands of the Ba'th regime in Baghdad than the
Kurds, an ethnic minority of five million people who constitute nearly 20
percent of Iraq's population. The Kurds have endured more than 30 years of war
and oppression that culminated in the late 1980s with the genocidal Anfal
campaign and the chemical bombing of Halabja near the border with Iran.
they have not yet committed to supporting US efforts to topple the Iraqi
government. At the heart of Kurdish hesitation to join the US in any
"regime change" is fear. They fear the US will be unable or unwilling
to install a democratic government that will protect Kurdish rights. If they
declare their support for a US operation too soon, they fear a preemptive strike
from Baghdad. If the US again moves militarily against Iraq but does not succeed
in removing Saddam, the Kurds fear retaliation. The fate of Halabja and the
numerous chemical attacks during the Anfal campaign are still horrifyingly fresh
in their minds. Kurds realize that, politically, they are a far easier target
for any weapons of mass destruction the Iraqi
government may have than US troops, Israel or other neighboring
of the Kurds in Iraq have been basking in the sunshine of unofficial autonomy in
three northern governorates since the post-Gulf war uprisings and the subsequent
establishment of the safe haven under US and British protection. In October 1991
Saddam Hussein withdrew the central government administration from the north.
The Kurds immediately held elections and organized a regional
"democratic experience," as they call it, was hampered by a
fratricidal war in 1994-1997 between the two major Kurdish parties, the
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Since a 1997 Washington-brokered agreement, the two parties have governed
peacefully but separately in two regions that jointly cover an area roughly the
size of Switzerland. The PUK is based in Sulaimaniyah and governs an area that
runs along the Iranian border. The KDP is based in Erbil and shares borders with
Turkey in the west and Iran in the north.
impending war and new security threats have brought the two sides closer
together. While they have long coordinated on health and educational policy,
they now coordinate their responses to Iraqi and US government overtures. They
have also formed a "joint operations center" to deal with an
increasing threat from Ansar al-Islam -- a newly formed, hard-line Islamist
group that calls for a violent jihad against the Kurdish adminstrations.
Recently the PUK and KDP announced that they have agreed to reinstate a joint
parliament (though they have done this before).
peace of the past five years, coupled with revenues from the UN oil-for-food
program which allows Iraq to sell oil to buy humanitarian goods, has afforded
unprecedented freedom and prosperity to the Kurds,
as well as the Turkoman and Assyrian Christian minorities who live in the
northern governorates. The oil-for-food program is administered by the UN in the
Kurdish north, in conjunction with the Kurdish governments. (Thirteen percent of
oil-for-food revenue is given to the three northern governorates before money
for war reparations and administrative costs is taken out, meaning that the
Kurdish-controlled areas get more revenue per capita than the rest of the
country.) In the rest of Iraq, it is administered by the Iraqi government. In
the Kurdish region, the Iraqi dinar is exchanged at 16 for the US dollar; in
Baghdad-controlled areas, a dollar fetches 1,600 dinars.
the rest of Iraq, in the Kurdish region there is near total freedom of the
speech, assembly and association. Scores of political parties espousing
ideologies ranging from communist to Islamist operate freely and publish
hundreds of newspapers and journals. Satellite television reception is
completely unfettered, as is Internet access. Both technologies are fully
embraced by the Kurdish people who see them as tools to alleviate their social,
political and physical isolation by hostile neighbors. Turkoman and Assyrians
are free to organize political parties and cultural centers, and to use, study
and publish in their languages. Kurds say that their commitment to pluralism and
equality stems from their own history of oppression and a realization that only
in a truly democratic Iraq do they stand a chance of having their cultural and
political rights recognized and protected.
is the potential loss of their current relative freedom and autonomy, in
addition to the threat of retaliation, that leaves Kurds hesitant to hitch their
wagon to a half-baked US adventure. Kurdish leaders are adamant that they do not support Bush's recently leaked plans for
covert action, and indeed, say they will refuse to assist in any US military
action unless there are guarantees of real change when the dust settles.
"We are not interested in changing one dictator for another," says one
politician, echoing others. In what has become something of a mantra, Kurdish
leaders state that any participation in military action against the central
government must result in a federal, democratic, pluralistic Iraq.
KDP has drafted a constitution for Iraq proposing a "Federal Republic of
Iraq," consisting of an Arab and a Kurdish region. It is now being
circulated for discussion among other Kurdish and Iraqi opposition groups. The
draft document proposes that each region would have its own constitution and a
freely elected president and parliament. The federal government would have the
power to declare war and make peace, decide foreign and economic policies,
control the oil wealth and issue federal legislation. Each region could set
taxation rates, provide its own internal security and establish international
it is the position of Kurdish territory -- as a launching pad for a southward
offensive -- and Kurdish fighters that make the Kurds worth courting in the eyes
of the Bush administration. The 60,000-plus Kurdish volunteers currently under
arms carry only light weapons, but with proper weaponry and US air cover, they
would be formidable. Morale is high, the commanders say, fueled by memories of
the Anfal campaign and other oppression from the Iraqi regime. Kurds and
Turkoman recently forced out of Iraqi government-controlled areas by the ongoing
"Arabization" campaign are likely to be stalwart supporters of an
offensive led by the PUK and KDP.
the Kurdish fighters are drawn from two groups: young recruits aged 17-25 who
are organized like a regular army, and the older peshmerga (guerilla fighters)
who have years of experience fighting the central government. The peshmerga,
whom Kurdish leaders say are the most reliable, constitute the bulk of the army.
Commanders project that they could increase the size of the army to 200,000 in a
they remain wary of the seriousness of the war rhetoric emanating from
Washington. The Kurds want US and international guarantees that, if they join
the war, they will not be left to face the regime's wrath as they have so many
times before. In 1975, a US-backed covert operation orchestrated by Iran against
Iraq suddenly collapsed when Iran and Iraq reached an agreement. Thousands of
Kurdish fighters were killed by the Iraqi government when Iran closed the
border. Despite desperate Kurdish pleas, the US refused to intercede, prompting
Henry Kissinger's famously callous quote that "covert action should not be
mistaken for missionary work."
the end of the 1990-1991 Gulf war, the Kurds, like the Shia in the south, heeded
the call of the first Bush administration and rose against the Ba'th government
only to be cut down by the Republican Guards, supported by helicopter gunships,
when the US sat on the sidelines. Fearing chemical attacks, 1.5 million fled to
the borders of Turkey and Iran. In 1995, the US backed out at the last minute
from a planned "rolling coup" organized by the CIA through the INC.
The coup attempt ended in a complete fiasco.
then, the Kurdish leadership has been leery of any association with the INC, the
"silk-suited," London-based coterie which has little if any social
base inside Iraq. A recent attempt to create a Group of Four, which included the
Supreme Command for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which represents the
Shia in the south, the Iraqi National Accord, an effectively harmless group of
former Iraqi military men, and the two Kurdish parties, was widely seen by the
Kurds as step in the right direction. This step has apparently been reversed by
the August 9 Iraqi opposition meetings in Washington, in which the INC has
assumed a prominent role. According to a report in the Washington Post on August
2, the Defense Department has taken over funding the INC, which grappled with
continual accusations of misuse of US monies while under the auspices of the
State Department. Defense Department officials and advisers to Vice President
Dick Cheney have long championed the INC in internal Bush administration
remains to be seen whether the bitter legacy of US-Kurdish relations Can be
overcome by a substantive US engagement based on a clear vision of a democratic
future, and not merely the exchange of one dictator for
another more friendly to US interests.
Zanger teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo and is former
assistant editor of Middle East Report. She was in Iraqi Kurdistan in June.)
(When quoting from this PIN, please cite MERIP Press Information Note 104, "The US and the Kurds of Iraq: A Bitter History," by Maggy Zanger, August 9, 2002. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)