Meanwhile, Back in Kurdistan

Erik Schechter, Joseph Nasr, The Jerusalem Post (conservative), Jerusalem, Israel, May 28, 2004

Demonstrators hold pro-Kurdish party flags during a protest in Istanbul on August 31, 2003.   (Photo: Mustafa Ozer/AFP-Getty Images)

Is it a portent of things to come? Beginning last month, more than 2,000 Kurdish refugees descended upon the town of Kalar, along the Iranian border, after being driven out of the Sunni Arab city of Fallujah. One of those uprooted, Fazhil Tawfiq, told the Washington Times in early May that the Fallujans had sworn revenge against their Kurdish neighbors after an Iraqi security force that included individual Kurds helped U.S. Marines fight rebels.

Despite a deeply felt pro-independence sentiment in the north, Kurdish leaders have patiently toed the coalition line on a democratic and federal Iraq. But the fighting by extremist groups in central and southern Iraq, and the passions they have engendered, have made this harmonious vision of the future increasingly farfetched.

Should a Shi'ite ayatollah or Sunni military dictator come to power in Baghdad and try to dominate the pacific north, the Kurdish leadership's current fling with the Iraqi state will end abruptly. And some experts believe that, when the Kurds do finally declare independence, even Turkey, for which the idea of Kurdistan is anathema, will eventually come to grips with this new state.

Since an official census has never been taken, no one knows the definitive population size of the Kurds, but estimates put them at 30-35 million - roughly the same number of Canadians in North America. Except that while the latter occupy the world's fourth largest country, the Kurds have no state of their own.

The descendants of such ancient peoples as the Mitannis and Medes, the Kurds got the short end of the stick during the break up of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Their sprawling mountain homeland was parceled out to Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, none of which has been thrilled with the idea of Kurdish nationalism.

Each country, in its own way, has tried to assimilate and repress this Indo-European people, proving the all-too-true cliché: "The Kurds have no friends but the mountains."

In 1920, the British cobbled together Iraq from the Ottoman governates of Baghdad, Basra, and the Kurdish-populated Musol. Since then, the Iraqi Kurds have launched one rebellion after another against the Arab government in Baghdad; the most famous rebel leader was Mustafa Barzani.

In 1946, Barzani founded the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which, along with its offshoot, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), would become a major political force in northern Iraq.

"Barzani was a very charismatic tribal leader," says Nader Entessar, chairman of the political science and law department at Spring Hill College, "but he was able to project a national image that all Kurds could identify with."

IN 1970, Iraq finally recognized Kurdish cultural and political autonomy but soon hedged on the proposed borders of Kurdistan. When the KDP laid claim to the oilfields in the Kurdish-populated province of Kirkuk, Baghdad reacted with an aggressive campaign of "Arabization."

"About a half a million Kurds were ethnic-cleansed from the region," says Michael Izady, a historian at Pace University.

And the process continued right up until the Gulf War, in 1990.

Encouraged by the coalition victory, the Kurds - joined by the Shi'ites in the south - took up arms against Saddam Hussein, with whom they had a score to settle, only to find themselves abandoned by Washington. Over a million Kurds fled toward Turkey until the UN established the long-standing safe haven in northern Iraq.

On the eve of another war with Saddam, U.S. President George W. Bush declared that the Americans would come as liberators, heralds of a new Iraq: "All the Iraqi people - its rich mix of Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and all others - should enjoy freedom, prosperity, and equality in a united country."

It was a nice thought.

But Iraqis are no longer dancing around a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein. Sure, leftist journalists have long complained that the famous celebration in Firdos Square was a staged photo-op. But last May, most people in Baghdad really did feel grateful to American and British troops for ridding their country of its Ba'athist dictator.

That has changed.

"When the Americans came, they talked about freedom and democracy," an owner of a men's clothing shop in Baghdad told The New York Times in April. "Now, the Americans are pushing their views by force."

A poll conducted the same month by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies found that 88 percent of Iraqis see coalition forces as unwanted occupiers. This failure to win hearts and minds, despite the coalition's best efforts to reopen schools, repair mosques, and revive industry, is more than distressing: It is downright deadly.

Since the official end of the war, more than 900 coalition troops - most of them Americans - have been killed by guerrillas in central and southern Iraq. And, though this hardly compares to Vietnam War casualty rates, which were 10 times as high, the chances of building a stable, multicultural democracy here are getting more and more remote.

So far, two members of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council have been assassinated by terrorists, and hundreds of police officers have been killed by suicide car bombs. In June, the coalition plans to hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi people (while keeping troops in the country), but that will hardly strengthen the legitimacy of the central government.

After all, the resistance movement does not want more democracy - but less of it.

"When Americans came into Iraq, they shuffled the deck on the Sunni Arabs," says Col. (res.) Moshe Marzuk, a terrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya. Though only 15% of Iraq's population, the Sunnis "were the ones in the Ba'ath party, intelligence agencies and Special Republican Guard."

Deprived of their privileged position in the system, they have made central Iraq ungovernable.

And the idea of a democratic Iraq has another potent enemy in the south.

Last year, Muqtada al-Sadr raised a radical Shi'ite militia called the Mahdi Army with the ultimate aim of installing an Iranian-style theocracy in Baghdad. At first tolerated by the coalition, the young cleric's 10,000-strong militia has, in recent weeks, opened up another war front in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

By contrast, the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq feels like an entirely different country.

Gun-toting Peshmerga guerrillas, in baggy pants and keffiyehs wrapped like turbans, are common enough on Kurdish street corners, yet violence is rare here. In fact, Americans and Israelis - as this writer can attest - are warmly welcomed.

The Kurds also hold comparatively liberal attitudes towards democracy, the role of religion in government, and the status of women. And despite the fact that the region is split into two rival administrations, one led by the KDP and the other ruled by the PUK, the economy is booming.

"You can just tell by all the new roads being paved," says Saman Shali, president of the Kurdish National Congress, an organization that represents American-Kurds.

But the safe haven set up in 1991 has not only given the Kurds time to rebuild their economy. It has also nurtured a society free from foreign domination: Many youngsters in the north have grown up only speaking Kurdish, a fact not lost on Arab Iraqis.

On April 9, al-Jazeera reporter Roshan Muhammed Salih visited the north.

"My Arab Sunni driver and Arab Shi'a researcher, both from Baghdad, say they feel like foreigners in their own country," said Salih. "They predict [that] in 10 years the Kurds will break away from the rest of Iraq and take the region's oil with them."

Independence would come even sooner than that if the people had the choice. In February, a group of activists collected the signatures of 1.7 million Iraqi Kurds, out of four million, demanding a referendum on independence. Similarly, other activists have been trying to organize public hearings on the issue.

But the Kurdish leadership is playing it cool.

"A Kurdish state is the dream of every Kurd," says Safeen Dizayee, the KDP's director of international relations, adding that "Kurdish leaders are wise enough to understand the situation surrounding them and not to allow the dream to turn into a nightmare."

The KDP and PUK do not want to be the ones blamed for the failure of America's Iraq policy, so they have been cooperating with Arab Iraqis while, at the same time, retaining their militias and preventing the entry of the Iraqi army into the north.

In fact, Rebwar Fatah, director of the London-based Kurdish Media, argues "that without the help of the Kurdish politicians, there would have been no Iraqi interim government. Of all the council members, only they have backing within their community."

However, Michael Rubin, an Iraq scholar at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, believes that the U.S., without intending it, is creating sovereign Kurdistan by bowing to the pressure of Sunni and Shi'ite radicals.

"Powell's readiness to accept a theocracy in Iraq," says Rubin, "and Bremmer's pursuit of a Sunni strongman will make Kurdish independence more likely because the Kurds will not live under a dictatorship."

Shi'ite leaders have already complained that under the interim law, any permanent constitution can be rejected by the opposition of three of Iraq's 18 provinces. This gives the Kurds veto power over the process - and safeguards their freedoms in the north.

And what would the Turks do if the Kurds actually seceded from Iraq?

No doubt, Kurdistan is a very touchy subject in Turkey since almost one-fourth of its population are Kurds. Robert Olson, a Middle Eastern history professor at the University of Kentucky, noted that only last year, Turkey agreed to let its Kurdish citizens broadcast TV programs and teach in their mother tongue. Until then, forced assimilation was the order of the day.

To now expect that Ankara can suddenly put aside its fears of Kurdish irredentism is too much. Until 1999, it had fought a 15-year war with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), a Marxist separatist group founded by Abdullah Ocalan and responsible for the deaths of 5,000 civilians.

But Peter W. Galbraith, the former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, believes the Turkish-Kurdish relationship has matured over the last 10 years, given the economic investment in and military cooperation with northern Iraq.

Besides, says Gareth Stansfield, co-author of The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy or Division, "the Turks may not have much of a Choice. The question is what do they want on their border - a failed state or a dependent Kurdish state that can serve as a buffer?"

The Arab concern

Judging from its media, the Arab world is very concerned about Kurdish nationalism - even if it is carefully circumscribed within a federal Iraq.

Most writers prefer to consider the Kurds a troublesome ethnic group manipulated by "American interests," though a few are willing to acknowledge in some vague manner that, like the Arabs, the Kurds are a distinct nation and as such deserve national rights.

During the war in Iraq, Samir Ragab expressed outrage that the Kurds would actually fight the regime of Saddam Hussein, the man who had gassed them during the Anfal Campaign in 1988. Writing in the Egyptian daily al-Gomhuria, in April 2003, Ragab celebrated the accidental American bombing of KDP forces, 20 kilometers south of Arbil.

"A divine miracle occurred in Arbil in the north, when enemy warplanes killed the invaders and Kurdish traitors, who sold themselves to the Satan," he said.

Not to be outdone, Abdel Rahman Majid al-Rabia'ai compared the creation of an Iraqi federation to the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. Writing in the London-based Palestinian daily al-Quds al-Arabi on January 9, al-Rabia'ai warned that "the Kurds' greed for their so-called historical Kurdistan has been revived, and they became insistent on devouring parts of Iraqi territory, taking up to one-third of Iraq, if not more."

Even a sympathetic journalist like Abdullah al-Ashal, who acknowledges the historic suffering of the Kurds, opposes a federal Iraq. Writing in the January 19 issue of al-Hayat, al-Ashal relegated the Kurds to the level of an "ethnic group" and called on them to help rebuild a presumably Arab Iraq.

Last August, Yehya abu-Zachariah argued in the pages of the Qatari newspaper al-Watan that the Arab and Kurdish intelligentsia should develop a common dialogue to solve outstanding political problems.

Ignoring the birth of modern secular nationalism, he suggested that "Islam is one of the most effective elements that can bring about a historic reconciliation."

Then again, remembering the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks could say the same thing to the Arabs themselves.

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