Peter Galbraith on Iraqi Kurdistan
Date: Wed, 05 Feb 2003 21:44:00 -0500
From: Jeff Weintraub
This article (part of a series on the question "After Saddam, What?") appeared in the Boston Globe (12/15/2002), so maybe you've seen it already. If not, I recommend it. This is a compact, intelligent, and illuminating account of the Iraqi Kurdish "problem"--past and present. We'll all be hearing more about this soon.
The author, Peter Galbraith (the son of John Kenneth Galbraith) is one of the few (minor) heroes of this whole miserable business. In the late 1980s, when he was a staff person for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, working for Sen. Claiborne Pell of New Jersey, he brought back reports of the ongoing "Anfal" campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan, including the large-scale use of poison gas against Kurdish civilians. The information that he and some other staffers brought back helped lead to Senate passage of the Prevention of Genocide Act (1988), which called for sanctions against Iraq until it stopped murdering Kurdish civilians--and which, as far as I know, was the only serious official condemnation of this atrocity by any governmental body in any country. (There may have been others, but if so I don't know of any.) The Reagan administration was able to block the passage of this bill by the House, but its passage by the Senate was enough to attract a certain amount of international
attention, and it was denounced by the Arab League.
(And around that time, the Iraqi regime stopped using poison gas in Kurdistan. Coincidence? Well, just possibly there was a connection.)
In 1991, after the Kurds had captured tons of files from Iraqi secret police and Ba'ath party offices in northern Iraq, Galbraith was one of the people who arranged to have these files taken out of the country (in the face of obstructionism by the Bush I administration) to the US. Like some other mass-murdering regimes one could mention, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime tends to keep extensive records of its atrocities (including videos of tortures and rapes, and that sort of thing). So these files provided documentation for the reports about the mass murders in Iraqi Kurdistan compiled by Human Rights Watch and others.
But maybe you know all this already. A lot of this was also discussed in a remarkably good New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg in the fall of 2002, "The Great Terror." If you didn't see that, then I recommend it, too. (And the Anfal is also one of the topics discussed in Kanan Makiya's brilliant, powerful, and moving book, Cruelty and Silence ... which, if you've never read it, I absolutely recommend.)
Yours in struggle,
P.S. By the way, I referred to the "Anfal" campaign assuming you would know what that meant, but in case I'm wrong ... this was the official Iraqi government title for the 1987-1988 operation in Iraqi Kurdistan inthe course of which more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians were systematically murdered--many of them gassed, but most of them killed by more "conventional" means. (The figure of 100,000 killed is probably a lower limit, since they may not have captured all the relevant Iraqi government files.) Did I ever mention to you the terrific book by two Guardian-type left-wing British journalists, Andrew & Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein? One of the many (grimly) interesting vignettes in that book concerns the Iraqi general in charge of conducting the Anfal campaign, Ali Hassan Al-Majid--nicknamed "Chemical Ali" in Iraq. (I've also seen this incident reported elsewhere, but the Cockburns' account is the best, and they speak with exceptional authority on these matters. Incidentally, I know that at least one of them, Andrew Cockburn, has explicitly opposed the coming war in print, so they're not exactly propagandists for the Bush family.) After the creation of a "safe haven" in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, Chemical Ali was meeting with some Kurdish officials in Baghdad, who said they wanted to locate the remains of victims of the Anfal campaign. One of them mentioned a figure of about 180,000 dead civilians. "Chemical" Ali exploded, saying that this was a ridiculous exaggeration--it couldn't have been much more than 100,000! Well, that's all right, then, I guess.
After Saddam, What?
The Wild Card in a Post-Saddam
They've been gassed by Saddam Hussein and betrayed by the
By Peter W. Galbraith
Most important, the Kurds possess considerable military assets. The army that I watched training in July in Zawita is under the command of Masood Barzani, the leader of one of two Kurdish political parties that divide the north into almost equal-sized mini-states. Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party can field 65,000 disciplined, albeit lightly armed, troops. Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, commands a roughly comparable force from his base in Sulamanyeh, a city close to the Iranian border. By contrast, Afghanistan's Northern Alliance - to whom the Kurdish militia is often compared - had only 5,000 troops at the start of last year's campaign to oust the Taliban.
Kurdistan is home to nearly 4 million people, virtually none of whom wants to be Iraqi. For President George W. Bush, who speaks of a democratic and unified
Kurdish dreams are
In September of 1980, Hussein launched a surprise invasion of
In 1987, Hussein turned his chemical weapons on the Kurds, who the year before had embarked on one of their periodic rebellions against rule from
A few months later, I encountered the survivors of what proved to be the final gas attacks on the Kurds. On
By the time we arrived in early September, some refugees were sheltered in Turkish-run tent cities while others remained in the open in desolate high mountain valleys fringed with patches of snow. They seemed numb as they described how helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft flew over their homes, dropping "quiet" bombs. Smoke smelling of "burnt almonds" or "rotten onions" wafted across the landscape. People dropped dead. Those brave enough to venture close to the corpses noticed "blue lips" and sometimes small amounts of blood. Because these were not the first such attacks, the survivors knew better than to touch the corpses; nerve agents can kill on contact. Men fled, leaving the bodies of their wives and young children to scavenging animals.
Before we left for
Kurdish leaders knew all about the legislation. For the first time, it seemed the
The Kurds were to be disappointed. The Reagan administration, which had been providing
Secretary of State George Shultz denounced
While past error is no indication of future action, the Kurds have not forgotten that Secretary of State Colin Powell was then the national security adviser who orchestrated Ronald Reagan's decision to give Hussein a pass for gassing the Kurds. Dick Cheney, then a prominent Republican congressman and now vice president and the Bush administration's leading
In the event of a new war with
American troops would arrive in the region vaccinated for smallpox and anthrax and equipped with protective clothing for chemical weapons. The Kurds have no such protection. Dr. Ali Said, dean of the
In August of this year, Kurdish leaders met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and spoke to Cheney on a video hookup at his secure location. They emphasized that 3.8 million people live in Kurdish-controlled territory and asked the
I did not first go to
In the 1980s, many Americans considered the Iran-Iraq war little more than a far-off affair between two despicable regimes, but strategists worried about the consequences should either side achieve a decisive victory. The Reagan administration wanted neither a triumphant
The Kurds were a key factor in the conflict. An ancient people who speak an Indo-European language most akin to Persian, the Kurds never accepted being part of Iraq, an artificial state formed by the merger of three disparate Ottoman provinces as part of the World War I peace settlement. At various intervals in the 20th century, the Kurds took advantage of perceived weakness in
Kurdish grievances in an Arab-dominated
In 1986, the Kurdish leaders capitalized on a series of Iraqi setbacks in the war with
In 1987, I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to assess how the Kurdish insurgency was affecting
There was nothing there. Villages and towns that showed on our map had disappeared. In a few places, we saw bulldozers parked near damaged houses. Other villages had already been reduced to rubble. In the effort to eradicate a millennia-old Kurdish presence, Iraqi forces had flattened cemeteries, burned orchards, and filled in wells. By 1990, Hussein's forces had obliterated more than 4,000 villages, depopulating rural Iraqi Kurdistan.
Some of the villagers were relocated to sprawling new settlements, called "victory cities" but bearing many resemblances to concentration camps. There, populations subsisted on meager Iraqi rations, were mostly unemployed, and remained under the watchful eye of the Iraqi security services.
These turned out to be the lucky Kurds. During the March 1991 rebellion that followed the Gulf War, the Kurds took over the local headquarters of the Iraqi secret police, the Baath Party, and the army. These yielded a trove of documents that the Kurds carted away to the mountains.
Jalal Talabani told me of the documents when I was in northern Iraq during the 1991 uprising. On a subsequent trip, he agreed to send them out of Iraq, and I arranged for 14 tons to be flown to Washington, where they entered the files of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Kurdish files contained copies of orders for a large-scale operation code-named al-anfal (the reference is to a Koranic verse interpreted by some as allowing Muslim warriors to plunder and ravage the infidel). The orders made large parts of Kurdistan free-fire zones, where any human present should be killed.
The documents record how these orders were carried out. In examining them, I was struck by the contrast between the banality of the records and the evil of the acts described.
In one tattered yellow folder, I found the interrogations of four shepherds who had been caught grazing their sheep in a forbidden area of Kurdistan. This was followed by a message instructing the secret police to carry out paragraph five of the Baath Party circular telegram for the north. Next came four death certificates and then receipts from family members as they claimed the bodies. In another case, a ledger book with a floral cover was used to record executions. The first entry listed 24 men, 34 women, and 54 children who were dispatched after surrendering to a special military unit.
The Iraqi security forces videotaped their executions and torture sessions. Initially, I supposed that this reflected a sadistic enjoyment, but after talking to Kurds and Arabs, I came to see it differently. Saddam Hussein has created a bureaucracy of killing. The executioners wanted to record their achievements to show the head office how well they were doing their jobs.
The Kurds have no friends but the mountains," goes an ancient Kurdish saying. In the past, the Iraqi Kurds have accepted help from Iran, Turkey, and Syria in their struggle with Baghdad. But they have never been under any illusions about the motives of these regional powers, all of which have large Kurdish populations and all of which oppose Kurdish nationalism.
The one country the Kurds have trusted is the United States - all too often to their sorrow. It is one reason why the Kurds now seek concrete commitments of US protection in the event of war and American support for their aspirations after it is over.
Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations, is a household name in Kurdistan, remembered not as a global strategist but as the architect of a cynical double-cross of a Kurdish insurgency. In the early 1970s, the shah of Iran pushed the Kurds to break off autonomy talks with Hussein and resume a rebellion that had begun in 1961. At the shah's behest, Kissinger agreed to a CIA-run program of covert assistance to the Kurdish guerrillas, or peshmerga (literally, "those who face death"). While the Kurds didn't trust the shah, they were reassured by the American involvement, and in 1974 resumed their rebellion.
A year later, Hussein traded a boundary settlement sought by Iran for an end to Iranian (and US) support for the Kurds. The rebellion promptly collapsed, and tens of thousands of Kurds fled to Iran. (Some came to the United States, where they formed a potent lobby on Kurdish issues.) A US House committee recorded Kissinger's cavalier reaction to the ensuing suffering: "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."
Sixteen years later, on February 15, 1991, President George H. W. Bush, then in the midst of the Gulf War, used a pep rally at the Raytheon plant in Andover, Massachusetts, to urge the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Hussein to step aside. The Kurds assumed he really meant it, and a few days after the Gulf War ended, they staged an uprising that took over the entire north of Iraq.
When I visited Kurdistan shortly thereafter, I found a people euphoric at their freedom, despite their peril from the Iraqi military. One night, I sat with Jalal Talabani as he spoke to the leading citizens of Dihok, a pleasant city of 350,000 snuggled into a valley not far from where Iraq joins Turkey and Syria. The men debated how to establish a Kurdish administration, rights for non-Kurdish minorities, and justice for those who had collaborated with Hussein's killing machine.
Later that night in Dihok, Talabani pressed me on the likelihood of American intervention to protect the Kurdish rebels. In a conversation punctuated by the explosion of incoming Iraqi artillery on a defenseless city, I could provide little hope.
Concerned that the rebellion's success might lead to the breakup of Iraq into a Kurdish state in the north and Shiite state in the south, which could destabilize the region, President Bush and his key advisers had already decided to leave the Kurds to their fate.
Apparently, it made no difference that this was a rebellion the president had called for, or that the Iraqis were crushing it with military helicopters that General Norman Schwarzkopf, the US commander, had with much swagger ("You fly, you die") promised to destroy.
The Kurds, who understood Hussein's regime better than George Bush, fled the cities before the Republican Guards moved in. As Talabani and I drove out of Dihok the morning it fell, we passed tens of thousands of refugees. It was Easter Sunday; I still remember the anguish in the voice of one young man who stuck his head into my commandeered Iraqi Army land cruiser, said, "George Bush is the devil," and quickly disappeared.
The Turkish president, Turgut Ozal, himself of part-Kurdish origin, refused to let the Kurds into
By not intervening in support of the rebellion he had called for, George H. W. Bush placed a higher priority on the unity of
The countryside also looks different. Villages destroyed by Hussein in the 1980s have been rebuilt. Pine seedlings, planted by the Kurds with UN funding, are beginning to transform barren hillsides. In the 1980s, the depopulation of the countryside made
I was struck by the number of villages built around the Catholic and Orthodox churches of
In 1998, Madeleine Albright, then the secretary of state, brokered a peace accord between the two Kurdish parties, and cooperation between them has gradually increased. On
Barham Salih, the PUK prime minister, emphasizes how his government has built four times as many schools in the last 10 years as successive Iraqi regimes had built in the previous 70. Nerchivan Barzani, Masood's nephew and the KDP prime minister, points to the major public works projects undertaken by his government. These include an elegant reconstruction of the building housing the Kurdistan Assembly and the conversion of the vast Iraqi military complex in
Both governments have opened new medical schools, doubling the number of doctors in
Both prime ministers point to the robust Kurdish media to buttress their claim to have created one of the freest societies in the region. Both the KDP and the PUK run satellite television networks, and there are numerous local television and radio stations. The print media are diverse, with publications ranging from Islamist to communist. While Iraqi television can be seen in large parts of
With a school system that teaches in Kurdish and the rise of Kurdish media, Arabic is disappearing in the north. Even more pronounced is the disappearance of an Iraqi identity. After 11 years of freedom, the younger generation has no real memory of being Iraqi; for the older generation it is only a bad memory.
Pentagon planners are as concerned about the consequences of rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime as they are about prolonged resistance. More than 80 percent of
Except in the north, where stable opposition governments already exist, there is no clear alternative to Hussein. In the mid-1990s,
Barzani and Talabani are determined to settle Kurdistan's status before the regime changes. While Chalabi secured agreement in principle within the Iraqi National Congress as far back as 1992 for a Kurdish self-governing unit within a federal Iraq, Arabs and Kurds never agreed how much power would be allowed to the Kurdistan Regional Government. With the Iraqi National Congress in limbo, the Kurds intend to settle the issue of how power is divided between Baghdad and Kurdistan on their terms. Not surprisingly, they plan to give away virtually none of the independence they now enjoy.
In July, I had long conversations with both Barzani and Talabani about federalism. They see federalism as a "bottom up" system, in which Kurds and Arabs establish their own regional governments and then delegate limited powers to a central government. Because Arabs seem unwilling to agree to this concept, the two leaders have decided to make it a legal reality in Kurdistan by writing their own constitution.
Under the draft constitution prepared by Barzani's KDP and accepted in principle by Talabani, there will be a single Kurdistan Regional Government with its own elected assembly and president. The Kurdistan Regional Government would write its own laws, control the budget for the region, raise taxes, have its own police, run the region's schools and universities, and own the natural resources of the area. Most controversial, the Kurds intend to retain their militias as a Kurdistan self-defense force, a bit of insurance in case George Bush's dream of a democratic Iraq proves a chimera.
The Kurdish draft constitution would leave only a few powers to a central government in Baghdad. It would control foreign affairs, collect customs duties, and issue a currency. This is not much on which to build a common state of Kurds and Arabs. The Kurds do propose that they receive a proportionate share of Iraq's vast oil wealth, and the promise of cold cash may do the most to preserve a loose union with Iraq's Arabs.
The real question is how long Iraq can survive when such a sizable part of its population has (an entirely justified) antipathy to its existence. The Kurdish leaders insist they do not seek independence, but their actions and words say otherwise. In Sulamanyeh, I listened as the PUK prime minister, Barham Salih, insisted to a British television interviewer that he was not only a Kurd but also an Iraqi. "As long as I am condemned to live within these borders," he said, "I will be a loyal Iraqi."
Over the long term, holding
Saddam Hussein still controls
The Kurdish attachment to
Leaked Pentagon war plans indicate that the
Every day I say a prayer for Saddam Hussein's long life," a Kurdish shopkeeper told me, "and when he dies, I pray he is tortured for all eternity." Like many Kurds, the man lost family to Hussein's executioners in the 1980s. But he expressed a widespread anxiety about how war, and what follows, may affect
But the Kurds worry not just about their enemy, Hussein, but also about their friend, the
The Kurds count on the
From George H. W. Bush's son, they hope for better. They regard Bush as a man with a strong (and often articulated) sense of good and evil. They hope he will grasp the justice of their cause.
George W. Bush says he wants a democratic and unified
A just peace, for the Kurds, is one in which they continue to govern their own land.
Peter W. Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, is now a professor of national-security studies at the