Kurds Offer a Model -- but Also a Challenge for Postwar Iraq
Newhouse News Service
1 May 2003
by John Hassell*
WASHINGTON / If the Bush administration is seeking a model for postwar Iraq --
one that is secular, pluralistic and rooted in democratic institutions -- it
could do much worse than the fledgling society that Iraq's 3.6 million Kurds
have cobbled together in the country's rugged north over the past dozen years.
At the same time, regional experts say, there is no single minority group in
Iraq's complex ethnic quilt with more potential to create instability in the
region if the new government that emerges in Baghdad does not recognize the
autonomy and social progress Kurds have achieved.
The anti-American Shiite protests in southern Iraq last week showed how
fractious the country's body politic can be, analysts say. But the Kurdish
situation underscores how quickly trouble could affect Iraq's neighbors --
namely, Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of which are home to Kurds.
"The Kurdish issue is going to be the next big problem in the Middle East,"
predicted Henri Barkey, a former member of the U.S. Department of State's policy
planning staff and an expert on Kurdish politics and history at Lehigh
University in Bethlehem, Pa. "The more they taste freedom, the more conscious
they become, and the more they will demand."
Described often as the largest stateless nation in the world, the estimated 25
million Kurds who inhabit the swath of land between the Mediterranean and
Caspian seas have maintained a distinct culture and language for more than a
millennium, despite numerous efforts -- most notably by the Turks -- to
suppress their ethnic identity.
The Kurds' failure to achieve statehood through their long history is partly a
matter of geography; spread out in small villages across an unforgiving
landscape, they have never developed a political center. They also have been
divided by great powers: by the Ottomans and Persians for almost 500 years, and
by the Allied victors after World War I.
During Saddam Hussein's reign, the Kurds of Iraq suffered mightily.
According to Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group, the Iraqi
government systematically destroyed 4,000 to 5,000 Kurdish villages from 1977 to
1987. Then, in a series of attacks in
the late 1980s, Saddam's forces slaughtered more than 100,000 Kurds.
After the Kurds mistakenly believed the U.S. military would support an
insurrection at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, they were brutally
suppressed yet again. The Kurds' first real glimpse of autonomy came later that
year, when U.S. and British warplanes began enforcing a no-fly zone in northern
In an area roughly the size of Switzerland, the Kurds have created the building
blocks of civil society in short order, including democratic institutions with
opposition parties, dozens of lively newspapers and satellite TV stations, and
unfettered access to the Internet and international telephone lines.
Politically, the Kurdish territory has been split into two regions, one
controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani, the other
by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani. After fighting a
four-year civil war during the 1990s, the two parties are still not on the best
So far, despite their differences, the Kurds have proven the best of allies for
the United States, fighting beside U.S. soldiers to oust Saddam's Republican
Guard troops from northern Iraq, and staging a celebratory rally last week for
Jay Garner, the retired general who leads the U.S. effort to rebuild postwar
"What the Kurds have accomplished in 12 years is extraordinary, and they don't
want to lose it," said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the
Council on Foreign Relations. "That accounts for their extremely good behavior
so far. They are relying on the Americans to preserve the gains they have made."
Already, though, tensions have become apparent. In the days since the U.S.-led
war drew to a close, Kurds have pushed into areas previously controlled by Iraqi
authorities. South of Mosul and Kirkuk, Kurdish fighters have evicted thousands
of Arabs from villages the Kurds claim as their own.
These events have been watched closely by Turkish authorities, who reached a
cease-fire with Kurds in southeastern Turkey in 1999, after a 15-year struggle
that left 37,000 people dead. The Turks fear an independent Kurdish state
in northern Iraq -- or even quasi-autonomy in a federalized Iraqi state -- could
once again spark rebellion.
The existence of vast oil reserves in Kurdish areas adds urgency to Turkey's
concerns. Turkey believes it has a historical claim to the legendary oil fields
in the Mosul and Kirkuk provinces, which Turks ruled during the Ottoman era.
Iraqi Kurds believe they should have control of these areas, along with their
Turkish authorities also worry about the possible persecution of northern Iraq's
1 million ethnic Turkmen, who live primarily in the cities of Mosul, Kirkuk and
Erbil. Largely middle class, Iraqi Turkmen have exercised broad influence over
the cultural and political life of those cities -- influence that some Kurds
have had reason to resent.
"If these cities are going to be integrated into a Kurdish region, Turkey will
want to see how that plays out," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish
research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The Turks
are very concerned about the welfare of Turkish-speaking communities in their
Another concern in Ankara is the continued presence of 4,000 to 5,000 Turkish
Kurds, guerrillas known as the PKK, in northern Iraq. Although relations between
the Turkish government and the Kurds of southeastern Turkey are better than they
have been for decades, the existence of these armed fighters is viewed as
an ever-present threat.
The problem for Turkish leaders is that the government's recent decision to
deny the United States permission to base ground troops in Turkey has severely
reduced Ankara's sway over the Bush administration's plans. Had Turkey
cooperated, Turkish troops would likely have joined the action in northern Iraq.
"The way things have turned out, Turkey has been left almost completely out of
the development of northern Iraq, despite historically close ties with
Washington," said Sabri Sayari, director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at
Georgetown University. "They have literally been left on the other side of the
This has not gone down well with Turkey's military, which exerts powerful
influence over national affairs. According to Time magazine, U.S. units in
northern Iraq caught a Turkish special forces team last week as it infiltrated
the country on a mission to stir up ethnic Turkmen and provide a pretext
for sending troops into the region.
Col. Bill Mayville, commander of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, told
the magazine that the soldiers "did not come here with a pure heart." Rather, he
said, "their objective is to create an environment that can be used by Turkey to
send a large peacekeeping force into Kirkuk."
In the meantime, said Barkey of Lehigh University, the Kurds of northern Iraq
will work hard to preserve whatever independence they can under the federal
system of government envisioned by planners in the Bush administration. "They
have worked very hard, and suffered a lot, to get where they are," Barkey said.
"The danger is, if there are setbacks, they could bolt."
*John Hassell is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.