Our Kurdish Problem

It didn’t take long for the “liberated” Iraqis to turn on each other. While no one expected the Sunni Arabs of central Iraq to take the de-Ba’athification of the country lying down, the Iraqi “constitution” had barely been printed up and distributed before large cracks began to appear in the edifice of the nascent Iraqi state. “President” Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), just the other day called on the Iraqi prime minister to resign, and while he backtracked a bit later on, the future of a united Iraq is looking grim. On the eve of Iraq’s long-awaited constitutional referendum, the country shows every sign of imploding.

The Kurds didn’t even wait for the ink to dry on the proposed constitution before they started pushing for de facto independence – and pushing Arabs and Turkmen out of Kurdish-controlled cities. Eager to seize control of oil-rich Kirkuk [.pdf], which they claim as their historical Jerusalem, the two major Kurdish factions are demanding that the city be turned over to them – and that thousands of Arabs and others settled there during the reign of Saddam Hussein be uprooted and sent back to wherever.

That the ethnic cleansing of Kurdistan hasn’t been completed yet is Talabani’s biggest beef: the goal of the two big Kurdish parties, the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), has always been the creation of a “pure” Kurdish state, and the politics of post-Saddam Iraq have speeded up the implementation of their program. The Kurdish parties are mobilizing all their resources in preparation for the coming census, which will determine the voter lists for the upcoming parliamentary elections in January. They want to ensure that they control not only the three provinces in which they hold a majority – Dohuk, Irbil, and Suleimaniya – but also seek to grab control of Kirkuk, which is split almost evenly between Kurds and Arabs, and includes a sizable Turkish minority that hardly looks forward to Kurdish dominance.

Kirkuk was a garrison city maintained by the Ottomans as their local military base until the breakup of the Ottoman empire, when it reverted to the Arabs. It wasn’t until oil was discovered in the 1920s that the Kurds came to their “Jerusalem” – as their propaganda portrays it – when the oil companies had to bring in workers. The population remained fairly evenly divided between Arabs and Kurds, even under Saddam Hussein – whose “resettlement” policies were aimed at driving an Arab wedge into Kurdish resistance to Ba’athist rule. However, today, in “liberated” Iraq, the Kurdish party militias (known as “peshmerga,” which translates as “those who are willing to die”), are carrying out an ethnic cleansing of their own. Middle East expert Dilip Hiro recounts the sad story:

“Assisted by Kurdish-dominated local security forces, tens of thousands of Kurds have forced Arabs from their homes, creating at least 100,000 new refugees living in squalid camps in north-central Iraq. This has engendered widespread anti-Kurdish feeling among Arabs in the region and beyond. Anti-Kurdish graffiti, attacking Kurds for collaborating with the ‘infidel occupiers,’ is a commonplace in the Shia districts of Kirkuk. … Viewing Iraq as a whole, it is safe to say that if the country slides into a civil war, it would not be between Sunnis and Shias, but between Arabs and Kurds – and it will start in Kirkuk….”

Arab and Turkmen families are being turned out at gunpoint. The Kurds, unleashed by their American “liberators,” have engaged in a program of systematic kidnapping, in which anyone who resists their rule is “disappeared” and spirited away to an underground jail, as the Washington Post reported. A grand total of 50 have so far been released, and the U.S. military is taking credit for negotiating this display of Kurdish magnanimity. Since the abductions were carried out under U.S. auspices, and often with the assistance of American Army units in the region, this is less admirable than it seems. Hundreds, perhaps more, still languish in Kurdish prisons, where they are routinely tortured.

The Kurds have enjoyed a largely undeserved reputation as the most democratic, admirable, and American-like of Iraq’s minorities, mainly on account of their Official Victim status. They were, after all, treated horribly by the Ba’athists: Saddam slaughtered them by the thousands, ruthlessly crushing a series of rebellions against Baghdad’s rule – albeit at the invitation of the Kurdish Democratic Party, which today shares power with Talabani and the PUK.

Now that they are on top, however, the Kurds are instituting their own reign of terror, one with the potential to be every bit as brutal as the Ba’athist version. Meet the new boss – same as the old boss. It’s an old song, and the lyrics aren’t any different when they’re sung in Kurdish.

The Kurds are the Kosovars of the Middle East: that is, they are unrelentingly aggressive, fanatically tribal, and willing – nay, eager – to place themselves completely at the disposal of the Americans (or whomever) in order to achieve their dream of an ethnically pure Kurdish state. Theirs is the bloody legacy of 19th-century romantic nationalism, which caused two world wars and birthed twin totalitarian monstrosities, national socialism and Bolshevism. Rival nationalist and supranational ideologies initially fought it out on the battlefields of Europe, but the scene of the collision has lately shifted to the Middle East – portending a tragedy that towers above the first.

To envision the future of Kurdistan, one has only to look at the reality of Kosovo today: the result of the “liberation” of that former province of Yugoslavia has been the forced removal of practically all the Serbs and the establishment of a thugocracy lorded over by the Kosovo “Liberation” Army. In a single year, over 300 Serbian Orthodox churches were destroyed by Kosovar terrorism, all under the watchful eye of the NATO occupiers. Today, Kosovo is run by the Albanian equivalent of the Mafia: the main industries are drug-smuggling, human trafficking, and the contraband arms trade. The place is a terrorists’ shopping mall.

Like Kosovo, Kurdistan is dominated by various clans, each with their traditional territory and ancient grievances. The Kurds, however, have it worse, in some ways, because they are saddled with two competing gangs of thugs, the PUK and the KDP, which extort protection money from smugglers and local businessmen and often engage in internecine wars. The two parties are ostensibly devoted to the idea of Kurdish independence, but in the past both have been so busy colluding with outsiders – the KDP cuddling up to Saddam, the PUK allying with Iran – and advancing their own narrow partisan and economic interests that this goal has often been forgotten. Yet now the Kurds are remembering it and pressuring their leaders to act.

The U.S., which needs them to fight the insurgency, is cooperating in every way possible short of calling for their formal independence. U.S. forces, ostensibly pursuing insurgents coming in through neighboring Syria, have attacked the Turkmen city of Tal Afar, effectively supplementing the Kurdish ethnic cleansing campaign by bombing the area and leveling the city.

As Patrick Cockburn, writing in the [UK] Independent, reminds us:

“Days after the fall of Saddam the Kurdistan Democratic Party appointed its own mayor called Abdul Haleq in the city. He ran up a yellow Kurdish flag outside his office. He was told by local people to take it down or die. He refused and was killed the following day. His office, along with the yellow flag, was burned by an angry crowd.”

Now the Kurds – wielding the American military as their instrument – have had their revenge. The yellow flag will soon be raised over the smoking ruins of the city, and the voter registration rolls will be filled with Kurdish – and not Turkish – names. “Democracy” triumphs once again, and we all ought to be properly inspired. Why, it’s almost enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Aside from the overwhelming American presence, there is also the less obtrusive but no less important presence of the Israelis. Seymour Hersh broke the story of how the Israelis have penetrated Kurdistan in the wake of the American invasion and are using it as a forward base from which to keep a close eye on the Iranians. This piece, which first appeared in Le Figaro, reports some trouble on that front, a “conflict of interests” between the Israelis and Talabani, who has a history of good relations with the Iranians and has to keep up the pretense of upholding the fictitious unity of the Iraqi state:

“Yet the conflict helped retighten the partnership between Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and Kurdish officials – allies for thirty years against the nationalist regime in Baghdad. For Israel, it was a question of promoting the Kurds’ federal aspirations and of containing Iranian influence in Iraq. ‘After the hostilities, the Israelis, worried to see thousands of so-called Iranian pilgrims penetrate Iraq, tried in vain to convince Americans to close the Iran-Iraq border,’ Patrick Clawson, Associate Director of the American research center Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explained to Le Figaro. But the United States, anxious not to obstruct their Iraqi Shi’ite allies, played deaf.

“The Israelis, observing that their allies were getting stuck, then decided to take things in hand. In Erbil and Suleymanieh, Israeli instructors, often disguised as businessmen, were charged with improving the training of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia. According to French military intelligence, at the beginning of 2004, about 1,200 agents from Mossad or from Israeli military intelligence were operating in Kurdistan. Their mission: to get Kurdish commando groups on their feet that would be strong enough to counter the Shi’ite militias in southern Iraq, the latter more or less manipulated by Tehran.”

Due to growing American displeasure, however, the number of Israeli agents in Kurdish territory has now supposedly been reduced to around 100. Or perhaps the others are merely keeping a low profile. Have the Israelis meekly submitted to the Americans and largely abandoned Kurdistan? Le Figaro doesn’t give us any reason to believe it:

“‘We’ve gotten strong pressure from Washington to stop our maneuvers with the Kurds,’ confides an Israeli sent to Erbil under academic cover. ‘The Americans are no longer in agreement with Israeli plans,’ he asserts. Washington no longer wants to tolerate a presence embarrassing for its interests.”

Well then, what is this Israeli “academic” doing there, exactly? Washington may not want to tolerate the Israelis egging on the Kurds, but U.S. policymakers and military leaders may not have much choice. The Kurdish-Israeli relationship, as author Georges Malbrunot avers, is some 30 years old and not about to be dissolved by an American edict. Kurdistan is crawling with Israeli agents who have the ability to make plenty of trouble for the central government in Baghdad – and the Americans.

A three-way civil war, pitting the Kurds against both the Shi’ite south and the Sunni-led insurgency, is a looming possibility, one made more probable by the American (and Israeli) presence, which acts as a spur to Kurdish separatism. This would be but the prelude to a regional struggle that would draw in not only Iran but also Turkey and Syria, which have their restive Kurdish minorities, as well as Jordan and perhaps even the Saudis.

It isn’t just Iraq that’s imploding: it’s the entire region. This is what the neocons have always wanted: Michael Ledeen hails “creative destruction” as the operating principle of the “revolutionaryBush Doctrine, which is supposed to be spreading capital-D Democracy throughout the Middle East.

However, as we are seeing in Kurdistan, and throughout Iraq, what is spreading is not democratic liberalism but sectarian hatred – and war. A civil war, to start, morphing quickly into a regional conflagration.

The irony is that all the factors supposed to be standing in the way of this tragic result – the U.S. military, the Iraqi “constitution,” the once and future elections – are only exacerbating the crisis. The Americans level Tal Afar – and encourage the Kurdish rampage. The “constitution,” which is supposed to settle outstanding ethno-religious conflicts and regional rivalries, instead only worsens them. The elections are an occasion of a scrambling for advantage, with the majority Shi’ites holding the upper hand – a result, as we have seen, that the Kurds are not about to accept without a fight.

As Iran and Israel face off on Iraqi terrain and the country falls into chaos and civil war, U.S. troops are caught in the crossfire – and still our politicians do nothing. Both parties, as Cindy Sheehan has discovered in her meetings with Republican and Democratic warmongers alike, are committed to our foreign policy of global intervention, especially when it comes to Iraq. Chuck Schumer’s aide told her the war is “good for America” – a crackpot belief shared by John McCain and the neocon-run Republican party.

As we fall into the Middle Eastern abyss, there is no one to throw us a rope or so much as an outstretched hand: we are falling, falling, falling, imagining what it will feel like when we hit bottom.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].