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Iraq: Crunch Time For Kurds, But New Problems On The Horizon

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq's non-Sunni Arab ethnic and religious groups hope their next leaders will heed their longtime demands for greater political and cultural rights. This is particularly true of the Kurds, who have been fighting for autonomy since the end of World War I. Although the present situation for the Kurds looks auspicious, regional experts warn Iraqi Kurdistan may soon become the source of renewed unrest.

Prague, 30 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the United States works toward restoring a semblance of central authority in Iraq, the country's various ethnic, tribal, social, and religious groups are jockeying for representation in the country's future government.

Shi'a clerics from the south, Sunni Arabs from the central regions, Kurds from the northern mountains, tribal leaders and exiled politicians gathered in Baghdad on 28 April to attend a U.S.-sponsored meeting aimed at discussing possible post-Hussein strategies.

As in Al-Nasiriyah two weeks ago 15 April, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) were represented in Baghdad, but not at the level of party leaders. The two Kurdish groups have been effectively running northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. Barzani and Talabani reportedly viewed both meetings as low-profile forums not authoritative enough to justify their presence.

It is a crucial time for the Kurds, who have been struggling for their cultural and political rights for most of the past century and represent the largest armed force in Iraq.

David McDowall, a British historian of Kurdish nationalism, believes Iraq's 4-6 million Kurds -- who supported the U.S.-led war -- are in the best position since the demise of the Ottoman Empire to achieve their decades-long dream of self-determination.

"The most important thing to bear in mind [when assessing the current situation] is that this is the biggest opportunity the Kurds of Iraq have had since 1918 to actually configure their position in relation to Mesopotamia in the way that they want," McDowall said. "There is no regime at the moment in Baghdad, and when there is one, it will be very weak, and their principle concern will be Turkey."

The Kurds make no secret they would like to see a federal state emerge from the rubble of Saddam Hussein's regime -- a scenario that is likely to gain some support among Iraq's Shi'a Muslim majority. The Shi'a complain they have lived under the thumb of Sunni Arabs since the end of Ottoman rule.

Although U.S. President George W. Bush has reportedly said he envisions a federation made up of Iraq's major ethnic groups, Washington has apparently not committed to any layout for a future government.

Talking to reporters in Baghdad on 22 April upon his return from the north, the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, retired General Jay Garner, even denied Kurdish leaders were considering federalism as an option.

"I spent the last two days with Mr. Talabani and Mr. Barzani, and they never used that term one time," Garner said. "They both talked about a democratic process and that they were going to have a democracy, which was a mosaic of all of Iraq, [which] would include all the ethnic groups, [which] would include the tribes, [which] would include the cultures, [which] would include the religions, [which] would include the professions. [But] they never mentioned federalism one time."

Some commentators have interpreted that statement as an attempt to allay the concerns of northern Iraq's minority groups.

While apparently pouring cold water on the Kurds' demands for recognition of their de facto autonomy, Garner last week praised their 12-year-old rule in the north as a possible model for Iraq. He also reportedly described the northern city of Kirkuk as "Kurdish."

This remark triggered a swift reaction from Ankara, which reminded the U.S. of an alleged earlier promise that Kirkuk would not fall into Kurdish hands. Turkey fears northern Iraq's vast hydrocarbon reserves might sustain Kurdish autonomy and insists Kirkuk and other regional oil-rich cities remain under Baghdad's jurisdiction.

Martin van Bruinessen is an expert on Kurdish affairs who teaches at Utrecht University's Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures in the Netherlands. He says Garner's contradicting remarks reflect the Bush administration's lack of clear vision about Iraq's future and U.S. uneasiness before NATO member Turkey. Ankara fears an economically self-sufficient Kurdish entity in northern Iraq might impact its own Kurdish minority. He said: "I think the U.S., in a sense, is walking on a tightrope. I think it is not so much the other ethnic groups they are worried about as Turkey. Turkey is strongly opposed to any federal settlement in Iraq. [The Turks] have repeatedly threatened with [military] intervention because they feel that their vital interests [would be] threatened if Iraq becomes a federal state. So I guess the Americans are telling Turkey not to worry and, at the same time, they are trying to keep the Kurds happy by -- like Garner did the other day -- telling them that Kirkuk is Kurdish."

Kirkuk surrendered to Kurdish peshmergas almost without a fight shortly after Baghdad fell to coalition forces. The Kurds then started expelling settlers brought into the city in the 1970s under Hussein's forced "Arabization" policy. Intercommunity clashes erupted, leaving at least 20 dead and 200 wounded.

Unrest was also reported in Mosul to the northeast and in Khanaqin near the Iranian border. Like Kirkuk, both oil-rich cities are claimed by Iraqi Kurds. In a bid to ease interethnic tensions, thousands of American soldiers last week moved into Kirkuk and Mosul to disarm Kurdish militiamen.

Ankara is suspected of seeking to foster ethnic unrest in the area in an effort to trigger a peacekeeping intervention under the pretext that northern Iraq's sizable Turkoman minority needs protection from the Kurds. Last week, U.S. soldiers reportedly arrested Turkish soldiers clad in civilian clothes who were escorting a cargo of weapons hidden in an aid convoy meant for Kirkuk.

Ankara denied sending any troops to the area. The incident is symptomatic of tensions that exists in the north and bodes ill, especially if a federal settlement is reached for Iraq.

Like Turkey, both Iran and Syria are concerned at the prospect of northern Iraq officially achieving autonomy for fear that would set an example for their own Kurdish minorities. Regional experts believe all three countries may be tempted to return to a long-time policy of interference in Iraqi Kurdish affairs.

McDowall believes this is especially true of Iran and Syria, which view a U.S. military presence in the region as a threat.

"Before Saddam was removed, the Iraqi regime was viewed by Iran as an unpleasant one that, although it had fought a bloody war [with Tehran in 1980-1988], was not viewed as dangerous simply because at the end it was perfectly clear by the cease-fire signed in July 1988 that Iraq would not dream of attacking Iran again. But now you have a situation where the Americans would like to set up military bases in Iraq and the only conceivable purpose for those bases is to act against Iran or Syria. And so, suddenly, Iran has been given a compelling reason to seek to undermine any pro-Western government that is formed in Baghdad, and I am sure they will do everything they can to sabotage [such a government]."

Turkey, Iran, and Syria have considered the troubled region of Kurdistan as a major lever to protect their own strategic interests in the region. As they have done in the past, all three countries could now be tempted to exploit the mosaic of Iraq's ethnic, religious, and tribal communities to achieve their goals. Utrecht University's van Bruinessen: "The Turks have their proxies, the Iranians have their proxies, and the Syrians have their proxies among Iraqis. The Iranians have the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution [in Iraq], which consists of Iraqi Shi'ites. Turkey has its proxies among one of the Turkoman parties, [the Iraqi Turkoman Front], and [it] may try to use also certain Kurdish tribal chieftains as its representatives. Syria has had for a long time dissident factions of [Iraq's former ruling] Ba'ath Party that listened to it, and it has also had a strong influence on the PUK, the Kurdish party."

But foreign interference is not the only risk facing Iraqi Kurdistan.

The disappearance of the Ba'ath regime -- the greatest threat to the Kurds -- may further weaken already loose intertribal ties and reignite the traditional rivalry between Barzani and Talabani as each of the two leaders tries to pose as the most influential regional leader.

McDowall believes this rivalry may play into the hands of any government in Baghdad, which could be tempted to exploit it to reassert its control over Kurdistan.

"Since the KDP and the PUK are basically rivals, the prospect, I think, is that their rivalry will become -- now that the danger to them from Saddam has ceased to be -- a major feature of Iraqi Kurdistan and, maybe, a major feature over the way a Kurdish federal state relates to Baghdad," McDowall said. "Just imagine, if you are in Baghdad and you are not very strong, you would do everything you can to play off Barzani against Talabani, knowing that they loathe each other."

Since the emergence of the PUK as a splinter group of the KDP in the mid-1970s, both parties have fought intermittent wars that claimed thousands of lives. In their struggle for influence, Barzani and Talabani have relied on political or military support offered alternately by Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara, and Damascus.

In the late-1990s, a U.S.-brokered agreement led to local elections that ended in a dead heat for both parties, which each garnered some 45 percent of the seats in a regional parliament. Experts believe new elections including Kirkuk -- in case the city is included in a federal Kurdistan -- would not affect the political balance of forces and might therefore lead to military confrontation between the two groups.

As van Bruinessen puts it, "The military aspect of the [U.S.-led] war was relatively simple, but the aftermath is where the biggest risks are."

He adds: "There are so many conflicting interests in Iraq -- especially in the Kirkuk, Mosul, and Khanaqin areas -- that I find it hard to imagine a stable situation any time soon."