Wednesday, August 01, 2001

David Hirst on Iraqi Kurdistan (August 2001)

An informative and guardedly optimistic piece on developments in Iraqi Kurdistan. David Hirst, the author, is one of the more intelligent and well informed journalists covering the Middle East (he generally writes for the Guardian). Unlike, say, Jeffrey Goldberg, Hirst's perspective is impeccably pro-Arab, anti-"imperialist," anti-Israel, and (generally) hostile to American policy. So the convergence in what the two writers have to say is significant; and it accords with a number of other things I've read on the subject.

Jeff Weintraub


The Guardian (London)
1, 2001

SECTION: Guardian Foreign Pages, Pg. 13
LENGTH: 1706 words

HEADLINE: Liberated and safe, but not yet free: The Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq is proving to be the Gulf war's most enduring and successful legacy
BYLINE: David Hirst in Sulaymaniyah

The Kurds have a national flag. The red, green and white tricolour with a sun at its centre is the emblem of a people who, numbering about 40m, are the Middle East's fourth-biggest ethnic group. Their mountainous heartlands describe a great arc through some of the richest and most strategic regions of the four states - Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria - among which they are divided.

In 1920 the Treaty of Sevres recognised the Kurdish right to statehood. But the rise of the Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, by which Turkey renounced sovereignty over Mesopotamia, put paid to their dreams: they have been rising in revolt after bloody, uncoordinated, unavailing revolt ever since.

In 1946 the flag flew in the small but short-lived "Mahabad Republic" before it was suppressed by the Shah of Iran. Nowhere has it flown officially since, not even here in "liberated" Iraqi Kurdistan. It is 10 years since the Iraqi Kurds, or a large segment of them, acquired a sort of self-mastery. It was the fruit of a long struggle and great suffering and, typical of the Kurdish experience, it was great upheavals beyond their control that finally brought their self-ruling enclave into being: Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait; the great Kurdish and Shi'ite uprisings; the panic flight of an entire people; and the creation of the western-protected "safe haven", subsequently expanded, which persists to this day.

This juridical no man's land was to have been a strictly provisional affair, pending a final settlement of the whole Iraqi question. But of all the unfinished business of the Gulf war, "liberated" Kurdistan looks like being its most important legacy: the longer it endures, the harder it is to undo.

The Kurds dare not fly their flag, but in this swath of territory the size of Switzerland a community which, at 3.6m, outnumbers many UN member states is surreptitiously acquiring the attributes - functional, political, cultural and economic - of independence.

It adds up to the greatest success in the annals of pan-Kurdish struggle. Yet it remains a deeply vulnerable one. Iraqi Kurds are a people in waiting, suspended as never before between ultimate triumph and renewed calamity. For they know that, just as their curious entity came into being by a geopolitical accident, another could just as easily extinguish it.

The ultimate triumph would be formal, internationally recognised independence. "That goes with the self-determination which is the natural right of all peoples," said Nerchivan Barzani, one of the Kurdistan regional government's (KRG) two prime ministers. "Ask any Kurd if he wants a state." They virtually all do.

Saedi Barzingi, president of Irbil University, said: "It's time to correct the injustices of the post world war one settlement. We are not Arabs, Turks or Iranians. Why shouldn't we have the same rights as a string of Gulf tribes who declared themselves states?"

"Liberated" Iraq Kurdistan is self-consciously pan-Kurdish in its ultimate aspirations. "We could be a model for all other areas of Kurdistan," said Barham Salih, the KRG's other prime minister, contrasting its moderate, gradualist, democratic approach to self-determination with the all-or-nothing violence of Abdullah Ocalan and his Kurdistan Workers' party's (PKK) failed bid to win independence for the Kurds in Turkey.

No Kurdish party holds independence as its official aim. "In spite of our right to our own state, we don't raise this slogan," said Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP). "We only seek federation within a democratic Iraq."

What one official called "the lousy hand dealt us by history and geography" dictates this caution. For the Kurds have no access to the sea, nor to any neighbouring state without a potentially secessionist Kurdish minority of its own.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq remains an ever-present, if wholly unpredictable, menace. Having lost his northern provinces, he does not hide his ambition to re-establish his gruesome tyranny over them.

Day of reckoning

Every day new families trickle into Kani Sheitan refugee camp, victims of a slow-motion campaign to Arabise the oil-rich Kurdish regions still under President Saddam's territory. Officials of the governing party, the Ba'ath, mocked them with the choice: "Become Arabs, and join the fight for Palestine - or get out."

Barham Salih said: "A regiment of tanks is only half an hour away; they could sweep into Kurdistan at any time."

Nor will any regional powers connive at the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in another's territory. The most they will tolerate is the perpetuation of the status quo until the day of reckoning, when President Saddam's removal opens the way for the new Iraqi order.

All the Kurds can do in the meantime is to be as strongly placed as possible when the day comes.

They are steadily forging a distinct Kurdish polity. Irbil, the "capital", has been renamed Hawler, and everywhere Kurdish signs have replaced those in Arabic. They are kurdicising school curricula.

They have developed a reasonably efficient administration, with an elected parliament and municipal councils. They have internal freedoms unimaginable in Baghdad: there are 50-odd newspapers and unlimited access to satellite television; in the remotest villages, dishes sprout from every other mud-and-wattle rooftop.

They have NGOs and human rights groups and, whatever their politics, their discourse is infused with a real concern for those ideals - democracy, pluralism, tolerance - whose absence they suffered so grievously.

Two of the region's three universities have been established since 1991. They are resettling the 4,500 villages destroyed by President Saddam, replacing lost livestock, and recultivating the fertile, well-watered soil that remains the backbone of their economy.

In Sulaymaniyah a new oil refinery is testimony to the self-reliance of Kurdish technicians: they built it entirely from the cannabilised parts of soft-drinks, sugar, and cement factories and pipes left behind by the army.

From Iraqi minefields they made explosive devices to open up a well in the Taktak oilfield, turning Kurdistan into the world's latest oil producer.

There are two great threats to all this. One is the deep-seated rivalry between the two main parties - Massoud Barzani's KDP and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The government is actually composed of two geographically separate administrations, the KDP's centred on Irbil, the PUK's on Sulaymaniyah.

They share the same general orientation, and collaborate harmoniously in many ways. But on the day of reckoning a divided Kurdistan could be a fatally weakened one.

The other threat is the machinations of the regional powers, Turkey above all. Turkey is the most congenitally hostile to the notion of a Kurdish identity, more even than President Saddam. It is the main reason the Kurds fly no flag: they took it down in the one official place it did fly, flanking a portrait in parliament of the late Mustafa Barzani, the hero of the Kurdish struggle, when a Turkish delegation visited.

"For the Turks we are more dangerous than Saddam," a leading KDP executive said. "They have a paranoid suspicion that our self-government is a conspiracy to which the west is a party; they hate anything that smacks of Kurdish progress. The more progress we make the more they must sabotage it. And they will use any means to do so, such as the exploitation of our Turcoman minority.

"In effect they are saying that if we Kurds are to have an entity of our own, this community of 10,000 people should have an equivalent one. They sponsor the Turcoman Front, a puppet body with no following; Turkish officers control it and train its militia.

Puppet body

"We have given the Turcomans their own schools, radio and language teaching.We offered them seats in parliament, but the Turks told them to refuse. On his last visit to Ankara, Massoud Barzani told them: 'Why don't you give your Kurds what we give our Turcomans?'"

But what really alarms the Kurds is the "second passage". Under this scheme, already agreed in principle between Iraq and Turkey, the two countries will establish a new crossing point in the north-western tip of "liberated" Kurdistan where Iraq, Syria and Turkey meet, bypassing the lucrative business that comes their way from the internationally tolerated "smuggling" of Iraqi oil.

The Iraqi army would reoccupy a narrow strip of territory. It could only do so with Turkish connivance. "It would be a strategic blow, a noose around our neck," a KDP leader said. "And we would fight it by any means. Fortunately, the US has made known its disapproval to the Turks."

Western protection remains the linchpin of the Kurds' security and wellbeing. So long as it holds they hope for a win-win situation: building a quasi-independent polity on the one hand, and on the other taking comfort from the knowledge that the longer they have to build the better off they will be when the reckoning comes.

It creates a contradiction in the Kurdish soul: they fear no one like Saddam Hussein, yet they are in no hurry to expedite the day of reckoning, or turn Kurdistan into the indispensable platform for a US-backed insurrection to unseat him. Ever mindful of past US betrayals, they would demand cast-iron guarantees of the outcome, and their own place in the post-Saddam order.

Though the official aim is federation, it is, Massoud Barzani said, the "content" of federation that counts. "We shall never give up our Kurdish characteristics, or allow the return of a totalitarian system. A generation is growing up that knows nothing of it."

In fact, the longer self-rule persists, the harder it will be to imagine the return of Arab rule. So at the back of every mind is the hope that not just federation, but independence, internationally endorsed, may really come to pass.

"After all," said Falih Bakr, a Barzani confidant, "who really foresaw the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of communism before it actually happened?"

Next: Emigration, a Kurdish national obsession