Kurds Head Towards Separation Up North

Recent developments in Northern Iraq may lead to the division of post-Saddam Iraq along ethnic lines.

Kurds plan to turn their tactical gains from their role as unflinching U.S. allies in ousting Saddam Hussein into a strategic and historic one – a Kurdish federation that would include one of the world’s richest oil reserves in Kirkuk.

Plans for a Kurdish federation emerged unexpectedly last month after a unity move between two bickering Kurdish groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massous Barzani.

The first group controls the north-eastern provinces of Sulaimaniyah, and the second the north-western provinces Arbil and Dohuk.

The Kurd plan falls short of the independent land they have dreamt of for centuries. But it is strong enough to cause alarm both within and outside an unsettled Iraq.

The Kurdish plan did not indicate any clear division of land; it only set out the principle that Iraq would be a binational federation between Kurds in the north and Arabs in the centre and south. There would be a substantial Shia overlap on both sides.

The plan would legalise and broaden a de facto Kurd area since the first U.S. blitz on Iraq in 1991. Kurds have own affairs since then, first under protection of a U.S. and British air umbrella and now more openly.

In a sign of further consolidation of their power in the north, Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties were reported to have agreed Tuesday this week to set up a separate regional administration in the provinces each controls in Northern Iraq. Former Kurdish military forces, the Peshmerga, have already been incorporated into the police in Kirkuk.

Kirkuk is quite a bounty. The 3,000-year-old city would be the capital of the projected Kurd federation. Land around the city is source of 40 percent of Iraqi oil production. The area has 10 billion barrels of known oil reserves.

Turkmen and Arab residents of Kirkuk are protesting already against a “Kurdification.” Turkmens claim to be the majority in this city. Ethnic violence flares up occasionally.

The city of 700,000 is the traditional site of the tomb of the biblical prophet Daniel. Archaeological findings of flint sickle blades and milling stones here have provided evidence of innovative agriculture thousands of years ago.

The city is a melting pot of Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians and now the Arabs pushed up north in Saddam Hussein’s anti-Kurdish and anti-Turkmen “Arabisation” drive.

Turkmens, the third largest ethnic group in Iraq after Arabs and Kurds, live in areas that would fall within the projected Kurd federation. They feel close to Turkey because of ethnic and linguistic affinities.

Estimates of their population in Iraq vary from 300,000 to two million. But they claim to be the majority in Kirkuk, and refuse to be swallowed up by a Kurdish federation. A Turkmen leader said recently that his people would declare a federation of their own if Kurds went ahead with their plans.

The Arab population that has swollen up in the past two decades is suspicious both of Kurds and Turkmens, though current Kurdish dominance is bringing them closer to Turkmens.

Kurds also claim to be in the majority in Kirkuk. Already, they are reported to have begun to seek the return of Kurds driven out by the “Arabisation” of the city.

The plan for a Kurdish federation is officially on hold for now. The United States which owes a favour to the Kurds for their support against Saddam Hussein has taken no official position on the proposed Kurdish federation. All that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said is that Northern Iraq will remain a part of Iraq.

Turkey is playing a leading role in marshalling support against a division it says would further unsettle Iraq and the region. It needs to convince the United States, which was stung last year by Turkish refusal to join the invading coalition.

“But as Kurds are drawing the borders of their federation in Northern Iraq by including the oil-rich Kirkuk province in their territories, Turkey finds itself with no leverage over American policies,” says Omer Taspinar, co-director of the U.S.- Turkey project at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The simple fact is that Iraqi Kurds have become the best friends of the United States on the ground..”

Turkey has gained the support of neighbouring Syria and Iran. In whirlwind diplomatic moves that saw Turkey host Syrian President Bashar Assad and dispatch its foreign minister Abdullah Gul to Iran within a matter of days, it then invited a leading Shia cleric from Iraq to drum up support against any ethnic split in Iraq. The Shia religious majority in Iraq is usually portrayed as seeking a strong central government that would contain intensifying Kurdish strength in the North.

Turkey will argue its case strongly within the Arab world and at the United Nations with Syrian and Iranian support, Turkish officials say.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was briefed by the military on developments in northern Iraq Wednesday night. He reportedly told Iraqi Shia leaders later that Iraqi Kurds were “playing with fire” and must be stopped.. He said Iraq’s neighbours would not stand by idly if the country fell apart. Erdogan is due in Washington later this month.

Turkey, Iran and Syria have Kurdish populations of their own. The Kurd population in the area is estimated at 20 million, with 12 million in Turkey, four million in Iran and about two million in Syria. Iraqi Kurds claim a population of about five million.

Turkey fears that an autonomous Kurdistan within Iraq could be a first step towards independence, and embolden Kurds in Turkey to seek similar status.

Inter Press Service