As 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.
On 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.
To 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.
No 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.
But 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 countries.
Most 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 parliamentary-style government.
Their “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.
The 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).
The 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.
Unlike 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.
It 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.
The 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 relations.
Legacy of Mistrust
But 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.
Currently 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 short time.
But 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.”
At 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.
Since 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 debates.
It 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.