Never have the gardens of Sarchinar and the slopes of Mount Azmar welcomed so many Kurdish families fleeing the heat of Suleimaniya than during the exceptionally long Indian summer of 2002. Squatting on the ground or sitting around tables, grilling shish-kebabs on improvised barbecues or unpacking home-cooked dishes, women dressed in colorful robes mix with men in traditional attire, listening to the last cassette of the Kurdish crooner Omar Dizai, drinking yogurt mixed with water, tea, beer or raki, while children run around nearby. The crowd revels late into the night, seemingly without a care in the world. “For once,” says Azad, an engineer, “we Kurds are on the right side of the fence.”

The Kurds delight in watching George W. Bush reaffirm daily his determination to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Rumors of war and surgical strikes are met with aplomb, if not with pleasure: for the first time, Kurdistan will not be the battlefield, but rather Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s garrisons and palaces.

But behind this apparent nonchalance lies deep anxiety, which Kurdish leaders try to cloak in a deliberately optimistic official line. Is it to reassure public opinion, or to avoid irritating the US by expressing their doubts about the Bush administration’s push for “regime change”? One requires much obstinacy to draw out the spokesmens’ second thoughts.

Washington’s Reassurances

Meeting in mid-September with leaders of five smaller parties allied with his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Jalal Talabani spoke reassuringly about his visit to Washington with a delegation of Iraqi opposition groups. The opposition groups saw everyone except Bush, he says — Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. All pledged to set up a democratic government in Iraq. “We are not going to send our boys to fight in Iraq to replace Saddam Hussein with another dictator,” Cheney reportedly told the delegation.

Masoud Barzani, chairman of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), did not make the journey to Washington. The official explanation: he didn’t want to fly in a Turkish helicopter to the American air base at Incirlik, in southern Turkey, where an American plane was waiting to take him to Washington. More likely, Barzani was loath to be placed on an equal footing with opposition figures, like Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress or Sharif Ali of the Constitutional Monarchist Party, whom he considers to be mere ciphers. “This meeting in Washington was a show,” says an adviser. “The US wanted to show that there is an Iraqi opposition. But who are Ahmed Chalabi and Sharif Ali? Have they 100 and 10 followers, respectively? Jalal Talabani went to Washington, but he got nothing. This is why Masoud Barzani did not go.”

Whatever the reasons for his absence, Barzani, who was betrayed by the US in 1975 and 1991, sent Hoshyar Zibari, his diplomatic adviser, to represent him. But he claims he is satisfied by the results of the Washington talks. “This time,” he told journalists in his office at Sari Rash, “everything is public. When the American vice president comes and publicly meets us and the Iraqi opposition, gives statements, makes commitments, makes pledges…if this is not serious, I do not know what is serious.”

“Free Kurdistan”

In fact, Talabani acknowledges: “The American leaders did not tell us when and how they will change the regime: they are still discussing a number of options.” During a long interview at his headquarters in Qala Tchualan, Talabani enjoyed reminding us that he is “an ex-Marxist, and as such I always look at the two sides of a problem — the negative and the positive ones. We live under the threat of the Iraqi regime, but the positive side is that we are protected by the Americans.”

For the four million Kurds who live in a “Free Kurdistan,” de facto independent from Baghdad and ruled by the two Kurdish administrations in Erbil and Suleimaniya, the US and British warplanes based in Incirlik are vital. Without this air cover, Iraqi troops, with their tanks and helicopters, could roll over Kurdistan and push back in a few hours the peshmergas (Kurdish fighters) to the Turkish and Iranian borders — repeating the tragic exodus of 1991.

Kurds know they are the easiest target for Saddam Hussein’s retaliation in the event of war. The scenario which haunts them is the bombardment of cities with shells or missiles carrying chemical or biological payloads. Since Hussein has at best a limited supply of such munitions, they wonder, will he follow “strategic” considerations, and attack Kuwait and Israel first? Or, motivated by a “tactical” desire to take revenge, will he strike at the Kurds? Will he do it before the Kurds commit themselves actively on the side of the US, within the framework of a preemptive strike, or after?

During an early September debate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Barham Salih, former PUK representative in Washington, claimed that Powell’s letter telling the Kurds that the US would “respond in sure and strong manner” to any Iraqi attack “is too non-committal to reassure the Kurds. The Kurds do not want to wait until thousands of people have been killed before Washington responds.” Hoshyar Zibari says that he asked for “new rules of engagement” from the Americans: he asked the Americans to “move from eventual response to automatic immediate response, and from response to dissuasion.” Zibari admits he did not get a public statement more precise than “we will respond.” “If the Americans are serious,” one of Barzani’s military advisers explains, they will deliver four million gas masks, position Patriot missiles and deploy ground-to-air missiles and anti-tank missiles manned by US commandos.

The ordinary Kurdish man in the street has more basic preoccupations. “Do not forget,” says a Kurdish chief, “that Free Kurdistan is like a huge refugee camp. People depend on their ration of food distributed within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 986 (Oil for Food). The main worry of the people is: ‘If the US attacks Saddam Hussein, what happens to our ration? How and by whom will it be distributed?'” It is a worry shared by some KDP leaders. “We are in need of an emergency humanitarian plan,” says one. “People are going to be hungry.” The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, aware of the looming danger, is already planning how to deal with tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in neighboring countries.

Dialogue with Baghdad

Kurdish leaders are convinced that Hussein is a champion in the game of survival. He is quite capable, they believe, of launching a political initiative to divide the Kurds and distance them from Washington. For instance, he might agree to negotiate over the federal statute that the Kurds are trying to persuade the Iraqi opposition, and Washington, to accept.

Remarks a KDP leader: “It would be a way for Saddam Hussein to test our position. Are we neutral? If we refuse dialogue, Saddam Hussein can cut deliveries of fuel to the Kurdish region, creating havoc and paralysis in three days.” Free Kurdistan maintains astonishing “technical” relations with the central government, depending totally on Baghdad for its supply of gasoline and fuel, and partially for its supply of electric power. Four hours after Talabani made fiery statements welcoming the arrival of US troops in Kurdistan, Baghdad cut the fuel supply. Supply resumed 24 hours later, but it was enough to send a quiver of fear through Kurdistan. “So we should answer that we are not against dialogue,” concludes the KDP official, “but that we must consult our friends and allies.”

Aware of the dangers of a provocative attitude, Talabani now mostly sticks to cautious statements, repeating that “we are not going to be a Trojan horse.” But he also says that “you cannot liberate your country sitting comfortably in a chair. Let us be ready to pay a price.” Talabani does not conceal his irritation at France’s position in the Security Council debates over a new resolution on weapons inspections, which in October multiplied the obstacles to Bush’s war drive.

Secret Scenarios

Even with the assistance of other Iraqi opposition forces, the Kurds know they cannot do anything against Saddam Hussein’s regime. This irrefutable fact explains why much of the Iraqi opposition applauds the US desire to remove the Ba’thist dictator. Hamid Majid Musa, secretary general of the Communist Party, opposes the war, but he admits “that there is no way to get rid of Saddam Hussein without the Americans.” The Islamist Da’wa party also recognizes that all efforts to overthrow Hussein have failed up to now, but will only accept US intervention within the framework of a UN resolution. Qadir Aziz, secretary general of the small Toilers party, summarizes the general feeling: “We will be happy if it is the imperialists who remove Saddam Hussein. We would be just as happy if it was done by the Russians, or the French.”

If a massive US operation involving more than 250,000 soldiers excludes any role for the Kurds, who call such an operation an “invasion,” either a mid-size operation or a coup would offer the Kurds some role. What will be the peshmergas’ target — oil-rich Kirkuk or Mosul, the second capital of Iraq? Within KDP and PUK circles, some leaders have another, more explosive, idea. “We have an agenda for all possibilities,” claims Kosrat Rasul, former PUK prime minister in Suleimaniya, whose military qualifications are acknowledged by all. “We want a share in Baghdad. If we have air cover, and artillery support, we can even take control of Baghdad. Geography is in our favor: Kalar and Kifri (two towns controlled by the PUK) are only an hour and a half to two hours from Baghdad.”

Barzani’s military adviser says: “If we want federalism, we must be strong in the central government in Baghdad. If we do not go to Baghdad, the Shia will come, or the military will take over. So we must have a force of at least 10,000 men in Baghdad. Garrisoned in one of Baghdad’s three big military bases, this Kurdish division will be a guarantee, protecting the government and democracy against an eventual putsch by some Iraqi general, as has happened so often in Iraqi history.”

Some Kurdish officials claim that the Kurds should limit their action to Kurdish territory, and first of all to Kirkuk. “We have to take the land which belongs to us,” says a Kurdish chief. “If we take Kirkuk, the Americans will listen to us. If not, we will be forgotten.” A raid on Kirkuk is not out of range for the Kurds, who captured the oil center with some 5,000 peshmergas during the 1991 uprising.

For the Kurds, Kirkuk is a symbol. Barzani’s father, hero of the Kurdish resistance during the 1960s and 1970s, said Kirkuk was the “heart of Kurdistan. Kirkuk is Kurdish, even if there is not one Kurd left there.” The elder Barzani went so far as to say that “I will never give up Kirkuk, because if I did it, people would spit on my grave.”

Today the draft federal constitution approved by the KDP and PUK proclaims that Kirkuk is the capital of Kurdistan — wording which provoked the ire of the Turks, in particular the right-wing nationalist defense minister, Sabahattin Cakmaoglu.

Turkish Sensitivities

Having reluctantly accepted a Kurdish region enjoying a special status on their southeastern border, the Turks absolutely refuse that this region could control the oil resources of Kirkuk, which would practically ensure its independence. Cakmaoglu has threatened to send Turkish troops to Kirkuk if the Kurds tried to seize the town.

Barzani answered by “inspiring” an editorial of the Kurdish newspaper Brayati vowing that Kurdistan would be a “graveyard” for Turkish troops. With the air base, Turkey holds a sort of veto over US war plans, and can virtually strangle Barzani’s government by halting the customs traffic at the border, the KDP’s main source of income. But Barzani does not calm down. “We are not ready to be under the protectorate or guardianship of any regional power,” he said during an interview at his office at Sari Rash. His margin of maneuver is very limited: we could see the airport of Bamarneh, in Badinan, near Dohuk, transformed into a base of the Turkish army. A dozen tanks and other armored vehicles are aligned on the tarmac.

Wishing to deal tactfully with Turkish sensitivities, some KDP leaders wonder if they should not accept a compromise on Kirkuk. “When one owns gold, you do not risk it without thinking twice,” says a member of the KDP’s political bureau. “We should not mention the word Kirkuk,” he concludes. “Let’s make it another subject of the Iraqi federation, and let us share the revenues.” This advice will probably not be heard, for the question of Kirkuk is not only a question of principle for Kurdish leaders. Following the Arabization campaigns of the last 25 years, upwards of 100,000 Kurds have been expelled from Kirkuk into precarious refuge in Erbil and Suleimaniya. For them, to proclaim that Kirkuk is Kurdish, even if not one Kurd remains there, is not a simple slogan.

The Day After

While the identity of Iraq’s Hamid Karzai is anyone’s guess, the Kurds do have a plan for the day after Saddam Hussein’s regime. “The interim government will play a very important role, and I hope one of the Kurdish leaders will be the first man in Iraq,” says Nour Shirwan, a member of the PUK political bureau known for speaking his mind. “This government will have to preach reconciliation and prepare elections.” Officially, all the PUK and KDP leaders speak of “tolerance” and “reconciliation.” Shirwan does not believe there is a risk of civil war, but he does not exclude “personal revenge, because they are responsible for the killing of at least a quarter million people. We will know the exact number after the killing of Saddam Hussein.”

Hamid Majid Musa of the Communist Party mentions the risk of a “bloodbath” when the central government falls. “There will be an explosion in Baghdad. Nobody will be able to control it,” agrees a KDP military chief. “I cannot live anymore in Baghdad. I would be surrounded by so many people who are accomplices in Saddam Hussein’s crimes,” states Abd al-Razzaq Mirza, a minister in the PUK government. He adds: “How can people forget what happened?” “I can tell you that in Tikrit and in a number of places marked by Saddam Hussein’s power, not even the foundations of the houses will remain,” claims the leader of a large Kurdish tribe.

What should be done with the Ba’th party, the army and the various intelligence services? “We established lists of the responsible people who must be sent to court,” recalls Mirza, who worked for the London-based Indict, which aims to prosecute the Iraqi regime for war crimes, before becoming a minister in Suleimaniya. “We made two lists. List A includes a dozen names of Iraqi leaders directly linked to Saddam Hussein: his sons, his half-brothers and top officials in his inner circle. List B includes two dozen names. But we cannot transform Iraq into a slaughterhouse. We should pardon the majority of the people, except those who committed crimes against humanity.” As for generals like Nazir al-Khazraji, former chief of staff, now a refugee in Denmark, and Wafiq al-Samarra’i, former chief of military intelligence, who proclaim their innocence and stand as candidates for the leadership of the opposition, Mirza says: “We have the feeling that they are not telling the whole truth, but at the same time we want more officers to desert. We will see later.” This somewhat opportunist attitude is not always well-received by the victims of these former collaborators of Saddam Hussein.

A Kurdish intellectual from Suleimaniya is skeptical about the prospective “purges.” “Even if the main leaders are arrested and tried, the Ba’th will continue to rule the country,” he claims with some bitterness, “because they are the people who have expertise. Already, here in Kurdistan, many former Ba’thists have key positions, even people who were involved in the Anfal campaign (a series of army assaults in 1987-1988 which left 180,000 Kurdish victims).”

The Iraq of Tomorrow

The main issue, for the Kurds, however, is their status in the future Iraq. For once unanimous, the Kurdish political parties conceive only one solution: federalism. “Now we are independent, and we are asking for reunification. Federation is the only solution,” claims the PUK’s Salih. Anxious not “to be left behind by the train,” as Barzani puts it, the KDP put a draft constitution for Iraq and for the Kurdish region on the table in mid-September. Written by Kurdish constitutional law experts, this 15-page document lays down very clearly the relations foreseen between the Kurdish region and the central government.

Item one of the text, “General Principles of Federalism for Iraq,” declares that: “Iraq is a federal state with a republican, democratic, parliamentarian and multi-party system called the Federal Republic of Iraq.” The envisioned republic will consist of two regions. The Arab region embraces central and southern Iraq along with the provinces of Mosul and Nineveh in the north, but excluding some districts. The Iraqi Kurdistan region includes the provinces of Kirkuk, Suleimaniya and Erbil, within the administrative boundaries in place prior to 1968, and the province of Dohuk and the sub-district of Zimar in the province of Nineveh, the districts of Khanakin and Mandili in the province of Diyala, and the district of Badra in the province of al-Wasit. “The geographic boundaries of the region shall be delineated in the Federal Constitution,” concludes this section of the draft.

The federal republic will have a president, a judicial authority and a legislative body composed of two chambers. The National Federal Assembly will be elected on a proportional basis, and an Assembly of the Regions will be made up of members drawn in equal numbers from the two regional assemblies. On the council of ministers, a prime minister and a number of ministers will represent the two regions in proportion to the total population of the Federal Republic of Iraq. Each of the two regions will have its own legislative assembly, regional president, council of ministers and court system.

Four aspects of the Kurdish draft constitution are eye-catching. Item 14 says that, “On the occasion of the election of the president of the Federal Republic of Iraq from one of the regions, then the prime minister of the Federal Republic of Iraq shall be from the other region.” In other words, if the president of the federal republic is an Arab, the prime minister automatically will be a Kurd. After declining for decades to play a political role in Baghdad, the Kurds have finally understood that they should exert power in the capital if they are to have it in their region.

Item seven of this text specifies that the members of the government will be selected proportionally to the respective importance of the Arab and Kurdish populations in the federal republic. “Clearly,” comments a KDP leader, “it means that the Kurds shall have at least one of the three most powerful ministries — defense, interior or finance. Item five of the draft constitution states explicitly that “Kirkuk shall be the capital of the Kurdistan region,” an article which provoked vituperative reactions from Turkey. Lastly, Item 75 says that: “The structure of the entity and the political system of the Federal Republic of Iraq cannot be changed without the consent of the Kurdistan Regional Assembly. Action contrary to this shall afford the people of the Kurdistan Region the right to self-determination.” Translated, this article means that in case of conflict between the central power and the regional administration, the Kurds will proclaim their independence.

Submitted to the PUK after the agreement of Sari Rash was reached between Barzani and Talabani on September 8-9, this draft was slightly modified, in a more parliamentarian way. It was then supposed to be submitted to the Kurdish parliament in Erbil, and to the other political parties of the Iraqi opposition. Some of them have already approved it. But the real problems will begin when the draft constitution is submitted to the Iraqi people, either to the parliament which will be elected after Saddam Hussein’s fall, or directly to the population in a referendum. Until recently, most Kurdish leaders did not consider this eventuality. They were planning to have the draft constitution approved by a congress of the Iraqi opposition meeting somewhere in Europe, or by Washington. They become rather disconcerted when one argues that a draft constitution must be validated by a popular vote.

Federalism Comes First

Some Kurdish officials think that a federal constitution would be ratified by the Iraqi people, 60 percent of whom are Shia who have suffered for decades under Sunni-dominated central governments. One official underlined that the Shia will compose about 75 percent of the population of the envisioned Arab region. “If federalism is implemented, the Shia will have the power in their region. So we must play the Shia card.”

But most Kurdish leaders are convinced that the majority of the Arab population of Iraq, yielding to nationalist feelings, would reject a federal constitution. “The Iraqi Arabs are far too chauvinistic,” says one. “We cannot take our proposal to an Iraqi assembly. It would be killed off,” asserts Hoshyar Zibari. From among the ranks of the PUK, Nour Shirwan categorically states: “I will never put the federal issue on a referendum. I will not discuss it with the Arabs! The Shias support us, until now. But if they seize power, I do not know.”

“How could the Arabs reject a draft of a constitution which was approved by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress in 1992, by the opposition conference in the US this year, and which is supported by the US?,” wonders Kosrat Rasul. “If the new system is democratic, they will give their rights to the Kurdish people. We are two nations, we each have our land. We don’t ask for Arab land, but we were here before the Arab people. We have provinces that are bigger than some Gulf states. If federalism is bad, then let the Gulf states become a republic!”

Rasul acknowledges that if a democratically elected Iraqi parliament rejects the Kurdish project of a federal constitution, the Kurds’ options are limited. “If we have a regime which has the support of the US, we cannot say that we shall fight against it. If America supports us, we will ask for more than a federal system.” Aware of all these hazards, Roj Shawess, speaker of the KDP’s parliament, concludes that the Kurds cannot leave in the hands of the Iraqi people the responsibility of moving to a democratic government and to federalism. “It is a condition on our side. It should be approved before there is a transition regime, with international guarantees.” For the Kurds, federalism comes first. But the coming days are very uncertain.

How to cite this article:

Chris Kutschera "The Kurds’ Secret Scenarios," Middle East Report 225 (Winter 2002).

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