When Turkey sent 10,000 soldiers into northern Iraq in late December 2000, the event passed almost unnoticed by the international media. For the majority of ordinary Kurds, Turkish incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan have become routine. As on previous occasions, Turkish special troops crossed the border to hunt fighters of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). But this time, Turkish intervention followed a disastrous attempt by an Iraqi Kurdish group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, to root out the PKK from its shelters in the rugged mountainous region bordering both Iran and Turkey. Reports from the region put PUK casualties at several hundred. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials are again talking about northern Iraq as a staging ground for a US-funded effort to topple Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi Kurdistan is divided into two enclaves, one governed by Talabani and the other led by Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) chief Masoud Barzani. Both areas are relatively prosperous compared to the areas of Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s control, which bear the brunt of the US-led economic sanctions. Kurdistan uses the Iraqi currency printed before the Gulf war — now being traded at 19 to the US dollar — which Iraqis call the “Swiss” dinar. In the Government of Iraq areas of the country, the dollar is worth an astronomical 1,800 dinars. Despite their protection from the Iraqi army by the US-enforced no-fly zone, Talabani and Barzani remain vulnerable, surrounded as they are by three countries unfriendly to Kurdish rights. A few years ago, the two warlords portrayed themselves as clever Davids staring down several Goliaths at once. Now they are resigned to the idea that Turkey, Iran and Iraq are playing on their internal divisions, each gaining a greater foothold in Kurdish territory.

Uninvited Guests

After the capture of PKK leader Abdallah Ocalan in 1999, Turkey refused to issue amnesty to PKK fighters, most of whom were willing to renounce armed struggle. Subsequently, 12,000 Kurds from Turkey—PKK men and their families—took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the UN Commissioner for Refugees in Baghdad. The PKK had based fighters inside Iraq since the late 1980s, when the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties, the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani, as well as the Iraqi Communist Party, waged a guerrilla war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Iraqi Kurdish guerillas (the peshmergeh) did not oppose the PKK presence, given the traditional hostility of the Turkish state to the Kurds, and the close relationship between Baghdad and Ankara. Although the PKK declared itself a party for all Kurds, it was widely regarded by Iraqi Kurds as a Kurdish-Turkish party until the mid-1990s, when disappointment with the PUK and KDP induced some young Iraqi Kurds to join the PKK.

Turkish troops have been making regular “visits” to northern Iraq since a quasi-secret 1978 agreement between Turkey and Iraq that allowed each country to chase “saboteurs” across the borders of the other country. Iraq never used that “right,” but Turkey launched its first major operation in 1983, forcing an embarrassed Iraqi regime to admit the existence of the agreement. Since the 1990-1991 Gulf war, Iraq has protested that Turkish soldiers are uninvited guests. Turkey’s most recent intervention—while directed at the PKK—was indirectly invited by the power struggle between Talabani and Barzani.

Tale of Two Cities

For the first time in their long fight for self-determination, the Iraqi Kurds wrested de facto autonomy from Baghdad in 1992. But bloody fights between the PUK and KDP from 1993-1996 laid to rest the nationalist narrative that a unified Kurdistan was being dismembered by non-Kurds. In August 1996 Barzani opted for the unthinkable, calling upon Saddam Hussein’s armed forces to help him oust Talabani from the current KDP capital of Erbil, confining the PUK to the eastern parts of Iraqi Kurdistan which border Iran, with Sulaymaniyya as its capital. In 1998, Talabani attacked KDP territory. After some initial success, he received a serious threat that Turkish armed forces were ready to repeat Iraq’s intervention on behalf of Barzani. Since then, both parties have blamed each other for the stalled normalization talks, which are supposed to lead to elections for president of a reunified Kurdistan. But, for the time being, Talabani and Barzani are comfortable each ruling a statelet with a flag, a cabinet, mass media, and most importantly, an intelligence apparatus.

The two enclaves are not equally strong. Talabani controls an estimated 1.2 million of the roughly 3 million Kurds living in the autonomous region. (There are still parts of Kurdistan under Saddam Hussein’s control.) Iran is his main protector. His “state” raises its main revenues from duties on goods smuggled into and out of Iran and Iraqi-controlled Kurdistan, as well as taxes on the population. Unemployment and poverty are widespread in Talabani’s region, although the economy remains much healthier than that in government-controlled Iraq.

By contrast, Barzani’s region is enjoying the fruits of the burgeoning trade across the Turkish-Iraqi border. At virtually every time of day, hundreds of trucks laden with goods wait to pass from Turkey to Iraq through the Ibrahim al-Khalil crossing. On their way back to Turkey, these trucks are loaded with cheap oil and petroleum products in specially installed tanks. Barzani’s customs service reaps tremendous revenues from the duties both ways. But more important are the booming smuggling networks — many run by influential personalities — linking Turkey, Iraq and Syria through Barzani-controlled areas. Barzani’s nephew and prime minister Nichervan Barzani is known to operate front companies holding a monopoly on the import of several lucrative products. These and other companies control tobacco and alcohol smuggling networks stretching from Europe to Pakistan and India. Trade alliances tying Nichervan to Saddam’s son Uday in Baghdad ensure tidy profits for both.

A major reason for the split between the PUK and KDP in 1993 was the division of customs and smuggling revenues. The big profits have also further deepened the socioeconomic cleavages inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Inhabitants of the depressed, but culturally advanced, Sulaymaniyya mock people in the KDP area as nouveaux riche “Kuwaiti Kurds.” There is scant unemployment in “Kuwaiti” Kurdistan, where Barzani has launched major public works campaigns to bolster the efficient Oil-for-Food program run by the UN in both Kurdish regions.

Barzani the Diplomat

Realizing that he controls a very strategic area, Barzani has cultivated friendly relations with all the powerful regional actors, except Iraq. He has assured the region that the Kurds’ plans for federalism in Iraq are not a step towards full independence. Recently Barzani paid visits to Syria’s new president Bashar al-Asad, King Abdallah of Jordan and King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia. More spectacularly, a high-level KDP delegation spent 15 days in Iran. Reassessing its regional role, Iran has abandoned its strategy of alliance with the PUK against the KDP and has declared that it will stand at equal distance from both. As a good will gesture, Iran replaced the supervisor of relations with the Kurds inside the Revolutionary Guards with a moderate who visited Erbil immediately after his appointment. The bulk of the PKK refugees and fighters reside in the KDP area and the Iraqi-controlled Kurdish area. In part to stay on Turkey’s good side, the KDP has conducted a series of fights with them, and no one knows when a new round of fighting may occur.

In December 2000, Iraqi armed forces were defeated trying to capture the town of Baadhra from the KDP. Hundred of Iraqi officers and soldiers were arrested and later released by the KDP, amidst popular demonstrations denouncing Saddam’s regime. Despite regular clashes with Baghdad, Barzani maintains that US plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein are shortsighted and unrealistic. Barzani declares that any Kurdish involvement in these plans would only lead to more tragedy for the Kurds. When the plans fail, he says, the US would simply apologize for an error in judgment, as Henry Kissinger did in 1975.

Peshmergeh in Range Rovers

In the PUK area, Talabani does not seem able to forge the kind of understandings Barzani has reached with his neighbors, mainly because of bitter competition between Iran and Turkey inside Kurdistan. Talabani visited Turkey less than two months before his December attacks on the PKK, which were probably a desperate attempt to break his unilateral dependence on Iran. The PUK leader aimed to show Ankara that he is a reliable ally against the PKK.

The PUK defeat that prompted the Turkish intervention highlights Talabani’s predicament. Over the past decade, PUK peshmergeh have become an urbanized bureaucracy that enjoys many privileges. Describing PUK morale during the mobilization against the PKK, one ex-fighter known for his heroism during the 1980s said sarcastically: “My Range Rover can’t take me that far into the mountains, and even if I get there, there won’t be satellite dishes, color TVs or video games.” But Iraqi and Iranian intervention also cast a shadow over Talabani’s endeavor to curry favor with Turkey. The Iraqi regime, which hosts thousands of PKK fighters close to Kurdish-controlled areas, rushed many of them to the front in army trucks and personnel carriers. Iran—which also hosts PKK bases—threatened to enter the fight against Talabani if he did not withdraw his troops. Iran is very nervous about any tilt in the balance of power in Kurdistan to Turkey’s advantage.

Talabani’s aborted attempt to gain leverage vis-a-vis the KDP and the regional powers has left him with no option but to court his rival Barzani in hopes of reaching some agreement on KDP-PUK power sharing in a reunified, autonomous Kurdistan within Iraq. In the wake of his military defeat, three of Talabani’s politburo resigned, throwing his position within the PUK into doubt. Barzani, content to watch Talabani get weaker, is in no hurry to negotiate. Pending a denouement, cleavages among the Iraqi Kurds are strengthening Islamist parties, which a decade ago were no more than marginal puppets in the hands of Iran. Recently, the Muslim Brothers—this time with generous Saudi funding—gained almost 20 percent of the seats on some student councils. The Bush administration is probably not serious about helping the Kurds in Iraq, which would require healing the political and economic fissures in their ranks, rather than using Kurdistan for another ill-conceived military adventure targeting Saddam Hussein’s regime.

How to cite this article:

Isam al-Khafaji "Almost Unnoticed," Middle East Report Online, January 24, 2001.

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