A Glimpse at the Coming Kurdistan

ZAKHO, Iraq – One of the best ways to understand the political dynamics at play in northern Iraq is to hop into a taxi and travel north toward the Turkish border.

Once you reach the multi-ethnic oil-rich city Kirkuk, every checkpoint is manned by peshmerga guerilla fighters loyal to one of the two Kurdish political parties. And they are on the lookout for one thing: Arabs.

I knew this, of course, even before departing Iraq Tuesday. Traveling from Ranya near the Iranian border toward the provincial capital Arbil a few days earlier, I had been forced to disembark my bus a half dozen times for grilling by local peshmerga. They were concerned my American travel documents were false – because I have vaguely Semitic features, speak some Arabic, and do not speak Kurdish.

But this was nothing compared to the grilling that a middle-aged businessman from Baghdad was given. As we approached each checkpoint in our communal taxi, the peshmerga would politely ask if there were any Arabs in the car.

"No, we’re all Kurds," the driver would answer to quicken our trip.

But the more persistent among the peshmerga were never satisfied. They would stick their head inside the driver’s side window and peer around the car. When they saw the man from Baghdad in the back – with a full beard and skin slightly darker than that of his neighbors in the north – they would ask the driver to pull over to a side, and demand that everyone get out. At that point, a full search of the man’s bags and a long grilling were in order.

"You’re from Baghdad?" the peshmerga would ask. "Yes," he would say, "but I’m Kurdish," as if his language skills were not enough. He would be forced to produce piles of paper showing he had traveled many times to Kirkuk, Arbil, and Suleymania, and only then would we be allowed to continue on our way.

This, I thought, is the future of northern Iraq. A new bunker semi-state, terrified that the violence and terrorism that has engulfed much of Iraq will spread north.

Already, Kurdistan has its own flag, its own police force, and its own budget – all this was guaranteed in the Jan. 30 election. Kurds scored 26 percent of the vote and secured the second largest block in parliament. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani is frontrunner for the presidency of Iraq.

The only question now is where the borderline will be drawn, and whether Kurdistan will include Kirkuk, which Saddam ethnically cleansed of Kurds in the 1970s and 1980s.

Kurds seem certain to take control of the city following the Jan. 30 election. Arab parties boycotted the election after refugees from the city were allowed to vote in the municipal election. As a result, the Kurdish slate won a 58 percent share of votes in Kirkuk. The city’s Turkmen community came in second with 16 percent.

"The election was very good for Kurds," a passenger says as we near the Turkish border. His name is Sardar, and he holds an EU passport. "We won in Kirkuk, and Talabani will be the president. This is all we could ever hope for." Like an increasing number of Kurds who fled during Saddam’s regime, he now lives much of the year in the city of his birth. In December, he opened a shop in Suleymania selling floor tiling.

Like most Kurds, Sardar does not think much about allegations of irregularities in the election, which include allegations of stolen ballot boxes in Haweija, missing ballot boxes in Mosul, and the failure to deliver any ballots at all to Christian and Arab areas west of Mosul, where an estimated 150,000 voters were not able to vote.

Like the peshmerga manning the checkpoints on the road toward Turkey, he sees most Arabs as terrorists.

Indeed, by boycotting the election, most Arab groups in northern Iraq have limited their options for nonviolent speech. In the predominantly Arab Nineveh province, which includes the third largest city Mosul, only 17 percent of the voters participated in the national assembly race, and just 14 percent voted in the provincial council contests.

Most of those who voted were Kurds, pushing the border of peshmerga control farther west into traditionally Arab lands.

"Mosul is divided into two parts," Arbil’s deputy governor, Tahir Authman, told me before I left. "There is the east side of the city, which has a large Kurdish population, and the west side, which is the Arab side. The [foreign military] coalition asked us to control the western half of the city."

Will this not increase tension between the two groups, and violence against Kurds, I ask? "It might," he conceded. "But we have to defend Kurdistan."

(Inter Press Service)