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Iraq: In Turkey, Iran, And Syria, Kurdish Minorities Watching With Interest

  • Antoine Blua

Comments from top officials in Turkey, Iran, and Syria -- all neighbors of Iraq with sizeable Kurdish minorities -- appear to indicate a growing rapprochement between the three countries on the issue of a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq. The governments fear a U.S. attack could lead to Iraq's disintegration and the creation of an independent Iraqi Kurdish state that would encourage breakaway aspirations among the Kurdish minorities in their own states. RFE/RL asked two journalists who frequently visit the region how Kurdish communities feel about the potential U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein.

Prague, 23 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey is seen as a key player in any U.S.-led attack on the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whom Washington accuses of developing weapons of mass destruction. Ankara could provide air bases for U.S. warplanes or even troops in the event of a war.

But Turkey -- along with other Iraqi neighbors with sizeable Kurdish minorities -- fears a U.S. attack could spark a chain reaction of Kurdish breakaway movements throughout the region. Ankara says the possible disintegration of Iraq following a U.S. invasion could lead to the creation of an independent Iraqi Kurdish state and that other such states might follow.

As many as 12 million to 15 million Kurds live in southeastern Turkey. There are roughly 5 million to 7 million in Iran, about 4 million in northern Iraq, and 1.5 million in Syria.

The Turkish newspaper "Hurriyet" reported that the Turkish government conveyed its concerns on 21 October to U.S. General Tommy Franks, who would head any U.S. attack on Iraq. Franks was in Ankara for talks on Iraq with Turkish military officials.

The paper says the Turkish government issued a number of warnings, saying it would reject the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq and a federal system in post-Hussein Iraq. Ankara also objects to the use of Kurdish fighters to overthrow Hussein and the proposal to leave the oil-producing cities of Mosul and Kirkuk to Kurdish groups. "Hurriyet" also reported that Ankara has asked for $4 billion from the United States to compensate for lost trade in the event of a war.

To date, however, Iraq's Kurds deny they are seeking independence. Instead, they say they are seeking a federal setup in a post-Hussein Iraq.

RFE/RL spoke to two journalists who frequently visit the region about how the Kurdish communities in the region regard potential U.S. military action against Iraq.

Hiwa Osman is a Kurdish-affairs analyst based in London. He said Baghdad and its neighbors have always feared that a strong Kurdish element in Iraq would encourage Kurds in nearby countries to distance themselves from their respective central powers. "[Neighboring states] see it as a security headache, basically, if the Kurds of Iraq were to get [an independent state]. [Neighboring states] usually view it as a step toward independence, although the Kurds of Iraq have not been asking for independence. And [Iraqi Kurds] have been repeating over and over again that what they are asking for is federalism within the framework of Iraq," Osman said.

Osman said that while many Kurds dream of establishing a Kurdish state, most see this as an impossible goal and do not realistically pursue it.

Northern Iraq has been out of Baghdad's control since the 1991 Gulf War and is held by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In September, KDP and PUK leaders signed a peace agreement, reactivating the unified Kurdish national assembly elected in 1992.

The majority of Iraqi Kurds, Osman noted, support the KDP and PUK and their aim of a post-Hussein federal system. People believe they would be much better off being part of a federal democratic and pluralistic Iraq as opposed to being in a landlocked independent state, he stressed.

Osman noted that the Kurds of the region sympathize with their fellow Kurds in Iraq and would like to see the end of Hussein's repressive rule. "The majority of the Kurds all over the Middle East are very supportive of a strike against Iraq in order to remove Saddam Hussein. They say: 'We are against a strike that would kill innocent [Kurdish] civilians. But at the same time, if there is no other way but war to remove Saddam Hussein, let's do it,'" Osman said.

Michel Verrier is a Berlin-based journalist who contributes to the French monthly "Le Monde Diplomatique." He said that he does not know any significant Kurdish political force in Iraq with plans to establish an independent Kurdish state. He also said Kurdish groups are not necessarily prepared to offer full backing to any form of U.S. military intervention. "The Kurds from Iraq are actually waiting for a precise definition of Washington's plan or goals. Of course, they are not ready to support any project. In recent days, for instance, they have reacted cautiously to the latest proposal from Washington to establish a military government in Baghdad after a military intervention that could last a year or more. The example would be the administration that the United States put in place in Germany or Japan after World War II," Verrier said.

For Iraqi Kurds, Verrier said, any military intervention has to be followed by a democratic process supported by Iraqis themselves, permitting the creation of a transitional government in Baghdad, the organization of elections, and the establishment of a constitution for all of Iraq.

In northern Iraq, Verrier pointed out, the Kurds have implemented important democratic reforms. The population enjoys freedom of speech and an economic situation largely superior to that of the rest of the country. Iraqi Kurds are keen to keep this "bubble of liberty" they have established and to help extend it throughout Iraq.

At the same time, Verrier noted, the Kurdish communities in the region dream of a democratic Iraq that would strengthen Kurdish demands in neighboring countries. "There is a convergence between the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. They do not propose the complete transformation of the region's borders to establish an independent Kurdish state that would unite the Kurds from different countries. First, [they want] more democracy and the recognition of their rights in the frame of the countries in which they are living today. Second, [they want] to participate fully in political life in the framework of the central state," Verrier said.

Osman said the Turkish government does not recognize the Kurds as an ethnic group but classifies them as "mountainous Turks." As a result, Turkey's Kurds have been deprived of all their cultural, linguistic, and historical rights, such as studying their language or broadcasting in Kurdish. "There has been a complete suppression of any Kurdish demands or any Kurdish rights in terms of them wanting to live as normal citizens of the Turkish Republic. At the same time, the Kurdish regions of Turkey are suffering very severe economic hardships. They have been neglected by the authorities," Osman said.

The decades-long state of emergency in force in Turkey's Kurdish region was lifted this June, three years after the end of the Kurdistan Workers Party's guerrilla activities.

In August, the Turkish parliament adopted measures to bring Turkey's laws in line with the standards of the European Union, including guaranteeing the right to teach what the law calls "languages and accents spoken by Turkish citizens," a reference to Kurdish, which remains a taboo word. But some have complained that the strict guidelines of the new language-freedom laws make them practically meaningless.

Iran's Kurds already enjoy some of the rights Turkey's Kurds are denied. At the end of May for instance, the Kurdish Cultural Center in Tehran organized the country's first scientific conference on the teaching of the Kurdish language.

But Osman pointed out that Iranian Kurds are also being treated as second-class citizens, despite a recent wave of reforms by President Mohammad Khatami. The Kurds in Iran are now pushing for a greater role in the central organs of power.

A group of Kurdish parliamentarians currently represent the Kurdish community in Tehran. Elected on an independent ticket, however, they are not free to form a pro-Kurdish party.

Osman said: "They have a block of Kurdish [legislators] in the parliament [who] have been expressing Kurdish concerns to the [Iranian] parliament. But to this day, there hasn't been any substantive change in the Iranian policy on its Kurdish population. Even historically, people are still suffering from the trauma of the way that they have been treated over the years by the central government in Tehran."

In Syria, Osman said, there is no systematic persecution of Kurds but a large number of them have been deprived of their citizenship because they are seen as foreigners who have immigrated from Turkey. As in Iran, he added, the activities of the Kurdish members of parliament and political parties are quite restrained.