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The Houston Chronicle March 21, 2003

Kurds have a big stake in war;

Ethnic group hopes for more self-rule, but fears betrayal

By Dudley Althaus

Aside from Saddam Hussein and his associates, perhaps no one has more riding on the outcome of the war against Baghdad than the 4 million Kurds of northern Iraq.

Iraqi Kurds, members of a 25 million-strong ethnic group that has long and unsuccessfully sought a country of their own, hope an overthrow of Saddam will lead to greater self-rule, if not independence, in the near future.

But the Kurds also face the prospect of heavy combat in their territory, including the possibility of chemical attacks by Iraqi forces. They worry that troops from Turkey, which has harshly suppressed nationalist aspirations of its own 12 million Kurds, could move in and occupy their lands during or after the war.

Many Kurds fear the United States will betray them, as, they say, Washington and other foreign powers have in the past. In the weeks leading up to the war with Iraq, Kurdish leaders complained that U.S. planners eager to lock in the support of Turkey had shunted them aside.

"In times of trouble, you get to know your enemies and your friends," counsels one Kurdish proverb.

"The Kurds have no friends," answers another.

The Kurds are descendants of Aryan peoples who have lived for at least 6,000 years in the rugged mountains where present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria meet, an area the Kurds call Kurdistan.

Islam arrived in the Kurdish homeland during the Arab conquest of the region in the seventh century. Today, most Kurds are Sunni Muslim, the branch of the faith to which most Arabs, but a minority of Iraqis, adhere.

Over subsequent centuries, the Kurds were conquered by a string of invaders and served many masters. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire deported many Kurds to lands as far away as Azerbaijan and present-day Pakistan.

Although promised a homeland by the British and French following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Kurds saw their territory divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey in 1923.

Beginning in the 1930s, armed uprisings aimed at independence flared in Kurdish areas. A Marxist-led rebellion that started in Turkey in 1984 claimed the lives of about 30,000 people, most of them Kurdish civilians. Though the revolt largely fizzled after leader Abdullah Ocalan was jailed in 1999, discontent still simmers across Turkey's Kurdish region.

Turkish officials, who have suppressed use of the Kurdish language and referred to their country's Kurds as "mountain Turks," have warned that they will not permit the creation of a Kurdish nation in northern Iraq. The officials also have said they will not permit Iraqi Kurds to control their territory's large oil reserves for fear the income would fund separatist movements inside Turkey.

Iraqi Kurds, for their part, promise war if Turkish troops take up positions in northern Iraq. Turkish forces have pursued Kurdish guerrillas into northern Iraq several times in the past.

In the lead-up to the present war against Saddam, U.S., Turkish and Kurdish negotiators wrangled over Turkey's demands to send a large force into northern Iraq in a professed effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis among Kurdish refugees. Kurdish leaders unanimously rejected the idea.

"We will oppose any Turkish military intervention," Hoshyar Zebari, a senior official with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two organizations governing Iraq's Kurdish areas, told reporters in late February. "No one should see us as bluffing on this issue. Any intervention under whatever pretext will lead to clashes."

Many Kurds expect to come out on the short end in the aftermath of the Iraqi war.

"Our Kurdish allies in northern Iraq are realizing that, once again, America is about to double-cross them," Peter Galbraith, an expert on the Kurds who teaches at the National Defense University outside Washington, wrote in a recent opinion piece.

Kurds and their supporters say that their suspicions of foreign powers are well founded.

In the mid-1970s, Washington abandoned support for a Kurdish insurgency against the Baghdad government, which led to the bloody defeat of a Kurdish militia.

In the late 1980s, toward the end of Iraq's war with Iran, foreign governments kept largely silent when Saddam used poisonous gas to put down another Kurdish rebellion, killing thousands of civilians.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, critics charge, Washington encouraged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam's regime but failed to deliver promised help.

As a flood of refugees streamed toward the Turkish border in 1991, the United States forced Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kurdish areas. Since then, U.S. and British air power has protected autonomous Kurdish territory.

In 1995, amid fighting between the two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, the United States abandoned schemes to support an uprising of Kurds in conjunction with a planned military coup against Saddam.

With little international support for their immediate independence, Kurdish leaders in recent months have publicly dropped demands for both self-rule and control over the oil fields in their territory, which produce as much as 40 percent of Iraq's 2.5 million barrels of oil daily.

Instead, the Kurds announced they would favor a federal system in which Kurds would continue to enjoy some autonomy and oil revenues would be controlled by the central government in Baghdad. But in meetings earlier this year, U.S. officials told the Kurds that the political landscape of a post-Saddam Iraq would be decided by a parliament in which the Kurds would be a minority.

"It looks like deja vu all over again," said Carole O'Leary, a political scientist at American University in Washington, who stands among the most vocal U.S. advocates of the Kurdish cause. "Are we going to act against the very people (President) Bush uses as a reason to get rid of Saddam?"

Today, Kurdish nationalism in Iraq is embodied by two dominant political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The two organizations cooperated in setting up the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. In 1994, however, they started fighting an on-again, off-again war, which has been suspended since last summer.

Each of the two Kurdish groups controls its own territory within the autonomous area. But they also operate a joint government, which includes a democratically elected parliament.

The Kurdish areas have received funding from both Baghdad and the United Nations under the "oil for food" program that allows Iraq to sell oil to pay for social programs. The region has also been an important transit point for oil and petroleum products smuggled out of Iraq to Turkey.

GRAPHIC: Photo: 1. Kurds celebrate their traditional new year holiday Thursday near Erbil in northern Iraq. Despite the festive occasion, tensions are high in the area as residents fear attacks by Iraq as well as occupation by Turkish forces; Map; 2. Locations of Kurdish Inhabited areas, KDP concentration and PUK concentration; 1. Associated Press, 2. Associated Press, Sources: GlobalSecurity.org; CIA


Copyright 2003, The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company