The Kurdish dilemma

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

ON the brink of war, the U.S. administration remains convinced that victory will be swift. But there are at least two competing scenarios about how the peace in Iraq is to be secured. Ideologues and officials in the U.S. Department of Defence are convinced that Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile convicted for embezzlement in Jordan, is the man for the job. The U.S. Department of State, which has hands-on experience with the gaggle of malcontents that constitute the Iraqi exile groups, believes that none of them is quite appropriate. Iraq would, in its estimation, need a U.S. military governor over a transition period of undetermined length.

Late February, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S.' "ambassador at large'' for free Iraq, arrived in the northern region of the country for a conclave on the transition. In transit through Turkey, Khalilzad found himself enmeshed in some complicated haggling over the terms that would govern the use of Turkish military bases in the Iraq operations. Various figures were tossed out about the size of the financial package that Turkey had demanded. But much more contentious was the Turkish demand for a key role in northern Iraq, where the Kurdish community is a dominant presence.

As his Iraqi clients including the Kurds awaited Khalilzad, word reached them of a deal that would allow Turkey to bring several of its armed divisions into northern Iraq. The ostensible purpose was to prevent a serious humanitarian disaster and restrain a potentially massive cross-over of refugees into Kurdish territory within Turkey. It was also reported that the Turkish army would disarm the guerrilla fighters of the two main groups operating in northern Iraq the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The reaction was instantaneous. According to Wendell Steavenson, an American journalist who was present at the venue, Sami Abdul Rahman, Deputy Prime Minister of the KDP, denounced the deal as a "betrayal''. He fumed: "The Americans should ask our consent; we are a partner. We are opposed to the freedom of our people being part of a price paid to Turkey. Our people will resist it by all means possible. In my lifetime, the Americans have betrayed us twice: in 1975 Kissinger betrayed us to the Shah, in 1991 the Iraqi people were asked to rise up against Saddam and then they said we have given no promises... and dropped us. Now if this goes ahead, it will be a third betrayal in one generation.''

THE historical factors behind these reactions are not hard to find. Vera Saeedpour, founder of the Kurdish Library and Museum in New York and a close observer of the community for many years, puts the matter very succinctly: "One thing is certain, Turkey has for most of this (i.e., the 20th) century, been the world's worst place to be Kurdish''. Among the crimes that Kurds, human rights organisations and political activists have been charged with in recent times, some are as trivial as speaking of a "Kurdish identity'', singing a song in the Kurdish language in small public gatherings in short, any form of free expression advocating the cause of the Kurds is a punishable offence in Turkey. And this variety of harassment is of course, quite distinct from the swathe of death and destruction that the Turkish army has cut through the south-eastern part of the country in its operations against Kurdish insurgents.

The situation of Kurds in Iraq is quite different as Saeedpour documents. Contrary to U.S. claims, "Iraqi Kurds were not subjected to a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing nor threatened with cultural annihilation.'' Iraq is the only country that accords official recognition to the Kurdish language. And Saeedpour confirms that "many of the publications (she holds) in the Kurdish library were published in Baghdad.'' What is more, till the upheavals of the Gulf war and the havoc wrought with the education system, there was a Kurdish University in Sulaimaniya in Iraq.

The bitter internecine warfare between the KDP and the PUK is one of the great untold stories of the years since the Gulf war. The squabbling broke out in 1992, shortly after the U.S.-sponsored elections in northern Iraq to set up a government for the Kurds. In 1995, an armed Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi regime fell in upon itself and the PUK desperately petitioned Iran for military help. Massoud Barzani, leader of the KDP, lost little time calling in Saddam Hussein's forces, quickly tilting the military balance his way.

The event was celebrated all over Iraq as the reunification of the country after the vivisection imposed by the U.S. Trapped by its own impotence, the U.S. fired a volley of cruise missiles from warships sailing in the safety of the Gulf. It then tabled a resolution in the U.N. Security Council denouncing Iraqi atrocities, only to withdraw it under the threat of a Russian veto. And in an abject admission that its policy of "regime change'' in Iraq had been substantively set back, it publicly announced the withdrawal of covert operatives from the northern region.

Barzani, the most powerful tribal chief in the Iraqi Kurdish area, is an integral part of U.S. plans for regime change. But his relations with Baghdad remain an area of uncertainty. In 1995, he was insistent that he did not see Saddam Hussein as an enemy. He was subsequently coaxed and cajoled by the U.S. into rejoining the anti-Baghdad coalition. But the alliance remains fragile, torn by internal conflicts and threatened by the looming presence of the Turkish military across the border.

A central element of the U.S.-brokered truce between the KDP and the PUK is an affirmation that neither will provide any assistance to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which was till the recent capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan, engaged in a fierce insurgency against the Turkish regime. But Turkey is disinclined to make any reciprocal concessions. In 1995, it declared a security cordon about 30 kilometres into Iraqi territory. It has since conducted frequent raids into Iraqi soil to engage and eliminate PKK guerrillas. The KDP, in particular, is known to have played along with the Turkish stratagem in return for military assistance of a token character, which helps it retain an advantage over the PUK.

The Turkish Parliament has rejected the U.S. request for using bases in the country for opening a northern front in Iraq. But the top military brass which retains a high degree of autonomy is known to look at the proposal with greater favour. How this will work out remains to be seen. But if the Kurds are in accordance with U.S. imperial interests, delivered into the overlordship of Turkey, it would not be the first strategic misalliance of their recent tortured history.

Unlike in Turkey, political and cultural reconciliation with the Kurds has always been a strong motif in Iraqi politics. The prospects for reconciliation though, have been consistently thwarted, partly because of factors internal, but in no small measure on account of external machinations. Principal among the external players have been the ubiquitous superpower, Iran under the Shah, and Israel, which always had an interest in keeping the eastern Arab world weak and disunited.

The Iraqi revolution of 1958, which overthrew the Hashemite monarchy, was the first stage in the reconciliation of Arabs and Kurds. The revolutionary charter recognised that the Iraqi people were made up of two nations the Arabs and the Kurds and committed itself to evolving a fair and reasonable system of power-sharing. Stricken by chronic instability and intrigue, the revolutionary regime proved unable to deliver on this promise.

Since then, the Kurdish war of attrition in Iraq has been through several distinct phases. Needless to say, by the mid-1960s, Israel had become one of the Iraqi Kurds' main external props. A first group of Kurds had been trained in sabotage in Israel in the 1950s. And Rafael Eitan, later chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Force and one of those charged with culpability in the 1982 Beirut massacres, made a number of visits to Iraqi Kurdish areas in the 1960s.The Baath Socialists seized power in Baghdad in 1968. In the immediate aftermath, hostilities with the Kurds escalated rapidly. But secret negotiations were under way, which culminated in the historic agreement of March 1970, recognising the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Shah of Iran, by now preening himself as a regional superpower, would not have a united Iraq on his western flank if he could help it. In 1969, he unilaterally abrogated the 1937 agreement demarcating the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between the two countries, massed troops on the border and sandbagged buildings in Teheran, doing everything possible to create a war hysteria. The next year, he actively backed a right-wing attempt to topple the Baath regime. And in November 1971, with the connivance of the West, he seized the Arab islands of Abu Musa and Tunbs, as Britain prepared to withdraw from its last imperial possessions in the Gulf region.

The Shah's machinations gained momentum as the confrontation between the Baath regime and the Western oil companies escalated, culminating in the nationalisation of the Iraqi oil industry in 1972. In May 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon called on the Shah in Teheran. According to a classified U.S. Congressional investigation later leaked to the press the covert assistance programme for the Kurds was finalised at this meeting. Iraqi participation in the Syrian sector of the 1973 Arab-Israel war lent a new urgency to this stratagem. In the spring of 1974, Iran in collusion with the U.S. and Israel, fanned smouldering Kurdish resentments into flames, just when Baghdad was finalising the autonomy package agreed in 1970.

The following events constitute a sordid chapter. Saddam Hussein, then Iraqi Vice-President, flew down to Algiers in 1975 to wrap the Shah of Iran in a fraternal embrace and sign away half the Shatt-al-Arab waterway to Iranian sovereignty. In return, he extracted a promise that Iran would close its borders to the Kurds and stop the flow of arms and aid. The compact was honoured. And the Kurdish resistance in Iraq was liquidated in the space of a few months.

Deposing before the subsequent Congressional inquiry, Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. Secretary of State, was totally unrepentant. "Covert operations are not to be confused with missionary work,'' he said. And the logic of the entire operation was very clear: "Iran was our ally and was keeping Iraq's armed forces occupied on its eastern frontier, far away from Syria.'' This, in turn, was crucial to safeguarding the security of Israel.

The Congressional inquiry was not inclined to take a similarly dispassionate view: "Documents in the Committee's possession clearly show that the President, Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state (the Shah) hoped that our clients (the Kurds) would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally's neighbouring country (Iraq). This policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting''. It was, concluded the inquiry, "a cynical enterprise, even in the context of a clandestine aid operation".

With minor amendments, history now repeats itself in the Iraqi Kurd areas. Now as then, the well-being and security of the Kurds is the last consideration on the agenda of U.S. imperialism. Now, as then, the main concern is the security of Israel and uninterrupted access to the oil wealth of the Gulf. And now, as then, the Kurds are likely to succumb to the blandishments of external powers, rather than grasp their opportunities for reconciliation within the Iraqi state. Should wisdom finally dawn though, it would not be a moment too soon.

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