Alternative Insight

The Coming Battlefield - Iraq's Kurdish Region

An alarm has sounded. Political pundits predict extension of the Iraq violence to its more peaceful Kurdish provinces. The stable Kurdish province is facing problems similar to Israel in appearance and dilemma. Both areas: have secular populations with strong religious elements, exhibit chauvinism that extrapolates to ethnic purity, find themselves entirely surrounded by "unfriendly nations," have ties to ancient lands that are linked to demands to have their own race-based nation, and use worldwide public relations to promote their causes. The resemblance goes deeper; according to a study at the Hebrew University, the Kurds are genetically close to the Sephardic Jews.

Kurdish ambitions for an independent state clash with fears of adjacent nations that success of these ambitions will arouse rebellion in their own Kurdish populations. Kurdish claims to oil rich lands clash with Iraqi Sunni claims to the same lands. Kurdish claims to the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk clash with Turkmen and Sunni claims to the same cities.

The Kurdish Ambitions
The non-Arab Kurds are too close to having their own state to retreat back to sharing power.
Five-thousand year-old Sumerian writings mention a "land of the Karda." Despite fifty centuries of an established Kurdish people, the allied powers, after World War I, did not solicit Kurdish population approval when they incorporated the Kurds into the new Arab nation of Iraq. The British administered the "cradle of civilization," and, in 1925, attached Mosul and its newly discovered oil fields to Iraq. After struggling for decades, the Kurds have almost fulfilled their aspirations for a federated Kurdish state. A semi-autonomous “Kurdistan Regional Government” exists, although it is denied absolute control of the oil-rich and predominantly Kurdish city of Kirkuk. The Kurdistan Alliance slate won about 26% of the vote in the first Iraq election and 75 seats in Iraq's National Assembly. Kurd leader Jalal Talabani serves as interim President of Iraq and Kurds fill nine of the 37 cabinet positions. However, beneath the surface, more radical Kurds want:

  • A federated state of Kurdistan,
  • Control of oil-rich Kirkuk, and
  • Incorporation of Turkish and Iranian Kurds into one state.

The Kurdish Diaspora encompasses four nations with these 2005 estimated Kurd populations:
Iraq 4.5 M
Turkey: 14 Million
Syria:1.5 Million
Iran: 6 Million

Iraq, which has the most self-governing Kurdish population, surprisingly has many less Kurds than Turkey and Iran. This disparity between population and self-governing size strengthens the demands of Kurds in Turkey and Iran for more autonomy and enhances demands of radicals in the semi-autonomous region to incorporate more Kurds into an envisioned Kurdistan. Although Kurdish national aspirations are not highlighted in the media, they are apparent. Many Kurds are vociferous in refusing to recognize their territory by its official name of Northern Iraq. A Kurdish website adamantly expreses this position.




Northern Iraq is invalid . Please update your brain, it is Southern Kurdistan. The word, 'Northern Iraq' is only used by the enemy of the Kurds. If you are an enemy, please contact the nearest American Marine and ask for the directions to Saddam's palace. You ,should also learn not to use: ' South Eastern Turkey,' instead of Northern Kurdistan, 'Western Iran,' instead of Eastern Kurdistan. 'Eastern Syria,' instead of Western Kurdistan.

The Kurdish Region has its own flag and does not recognize Iraq's national flag. The blazing golden sun emblem is an ancient Kurdish religious and cultural symbol. The Arabic script in the Iraq flag translates to:ALLAHU AKBAR (God is Great).





Kurdish Flag                                           Iraq Flag

An open debate for Kurdish Independence occurred at a Conference at Salahaddin University & University of Sulaimani.
Kurdish Independence Conference in Kurdistan, 9/13/2005, Salahaddin University & University of Sulaimani • Kurdistan

"Man is free at the moment he wishes to be"- Voltaire. We say "Nations are free at the moment they want to be."Concurrent with the Iraqi National Elections, 98% of the population living in Southern Kurdistan voted to form an independent state. This resolve is also shared by an overwhelming majority of Kurds in Iranian, Syrian and Turkish occupied Kurdistan as well as Kurds in Diaspora who are determined to make statehood a reality, not only for Southern Kurdistan but also for the other parts of their divided homeland.

Due to Kurdish chauvinism, only about 150,000 Iraqis, who fled the southern violence, have gone to Iraq's northern provinces. They realize they will find themselves unwelcome strangers in the northern part of their own nation and prefer to go to either Syria or Jordan. They might have other reasons; if the semi-autonomous Kurdish provinces have troubles they will find they have few friends and many unfriendlies.

Few Friends and Many Unfriendlies
All of the nations that border on Iraq's Kurdish provinces are hostile to any Kurdish demands for independence. The United States commitment to a united Iraq and its friendship with Turkey defines its relationship with the Kurd authorities. Only Israel, which shares Iran and Syria as common enemies, needs a friend in the area, and can use the Kurdish territory to harass Iran, can be considered a close friend of the Kurds.
Tensions are increasing between Turkey and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region government (KRG). The Kurd's Regional President Mamoud Barzani has been quoted as saying that if the Turks intervened in Iraqi Kurdistan, then the KRG would do the same in Kurdish populated South East Turkey. His statement reacted to a Turkish threat to enter Iraq's Kurdish areas to combat the extremist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Turkish army hinted they believe Regional President Barzani supports the PKK.

Turkey's concerns have been reflected by U.S. concerns.
Apr. 19, 2007 , New crisis brewing in northern Kurdish Iraq By DAVID IGNATIUS, Washington Post

Air Force Gen. Joseph)Ralston is said to have warned administration officials in December that the Turks might invade by the end of April unless the United States contained the PKK. Other knowledgeable officials are similarly worried. One analyst predicted that the Turks may seize a border strip about eight miles deep into Iraq.

A wild card in the Kurdish problem is Iran. Like the Turks, the Iranians have a restless Kurdish minority and would be tempted to intervene militarily against a militant group called PJAK that operates out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Indeed, top Iranian military officers met in Ankara recently for discussions with the Turkish general staff about possible military contingencies in Iraq, according to one U.S. official.

Kurdish sources report that the Iranians have recently shelled Kurdish targets inside Iraq, and that Iranian-backed Islamic groups have attacked border posts in northern Iraq. The Iranians want to destabilize Kurdistan, partly in an effort to damage America's wider policy aims in Iraq, Kurdish officials argue.

Israel also walks a fine line in its friendship with Iraq's Kurdish region. Too close friendship can jeopardize Israel's ties with Turkey. Although there is no doubt that Israel desires strong relations with the Kurds and several nationalist Kurd factions eagerly seek close ties with Israel, the Kurdish and Israeli governments carefully deny reports of close cooperation, especially the charges in a 2004 article by New Yorker journalist, Seymour Hersh.

As June 30th approaches, Israel looks to the Kurds, Seymour Hersh, New Yorker, June 28, 2004

Israeli intelligence and military operatives are now quietly at work in Kurdistan, providing training for Kurdish commando units and, most important in Israel’s view, running covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria. Israel feels particularly threatened by Iran, whose position in the region has been strengthened by the war. The Israeli operative include members of the Mossad, Israel’s clandestine foreign-intelligence service, who work undercover in Kurdistan as businessmen and, in some cases, do not carry Israeli passports. ... The former Israeli intelligence officer acknowledged that since late last year Israel has been training Kurdish commando units to operate in the same manner and with the same effectiveness as Israel’s most secretive commando units, the Mistaravim. The initial goal of the Israeli assistance to the Kurds, the former officer said, was to allow them to do what American commando units had been unable to do - penetrate, gather intelligence on, and then kill off the leadership of the Shiite and Sunni insurgencies in Iraq.

If Kurdish national aspirations don't bring violence to Iraq's Kurdish region, internal factors might end its peaceful interlude.

Internal Crisis
The Kurdish region is developing conflicts that can become explosive. The media failed to give sufficient attention to a mass demonstration in Halabja on March 16, 2006. In the site of a poisonous gas attack during the Iraq/Iran war, the Halabja Kurds tore down the monument dedicated to the memory of the 1988 poison gas attacks by Saddam Hussein. Although the exact reasons for the demonstration remain obscure, the prominent reason is that "rioters, mostly locals, were directing the violence at the governing party of the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The cause was the party’s misuse of foreign aid funds dedicated to help the region recover from years of persecution by the repressive Baath party."

Corruption is a continuous problem and allied to the corruption are unification and military control. A Jamestown Foundation report describes these problems.
Internal Divisions Threaten Kurdish Unity by Lydia Khali

Although the administration of the Iraqi Kurdish region was officially unified under the KRG, they still have yet to implement the unification agreement fully. This means that there are still unresolved issues and rivalries between the preeminent Kurdish political groups—the KDP and PUK. For one, unifying the administrations will mean dismantling old patronage networks. In doing so, the PUK-KDP leadership will be forced to manage the ramifications of the fallout within the mid-level political ranks in order to strengthen their institutions and ministries. The so-called "old guard" still has long standing feuds, rivalries, personal interests and patronage networks that could be threatened by unification or by greater democracy in the region.

The other obstacle to unification is the armed forces of each party—the peshmerga. The Iraqi constitution calls for the creation of a unified National Guard—ostensibly made up of the same peshmerga fighters that had previously fought one another—to provide internal security for the North. This is no easy task. The challenge is to unify their command and control so that they can comply with the constitution, provide adequate security, link up to the central command in Baghdad and prevent the temptation to call in the peshmerga whenever there is an internal dispute between the KDP and PUK. Despite the unification agreement, there remain two separate peshmerga ministries. Peshmerga fighters are loyal to their political bosses, not to the KRG. The peshmerga are affiliated with the parties and they perceive themselves as PUK and KDP peshmerga, separately. Looming in the background are past grievances from the civil war that raged from 1994-1998.

The most anticipated conflict is the struggle for control of the oil rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

The status of Kirkuk, and its large oil fields (eight percent of Iraq's reserves) are scheduled to be settled in a 2007 referendum. The city is an ethnically diverse mixture of Turkmen, Arab, Kurdish, and Christian, but has special historical significance to both the Kurds and Turkmen. Being as the Kurds have signed production sharing agreements with foreign oil companies to develop the oil fields in the region, they aren't going to be easily replaced, even if they lose the vote. No law is guaranteed to resolve the predictable crisis. Will there be suitable compromise? Possibly, but groups who don't trust one another aren't constituted to compromise.

Mosul, another contested city in an oil rich area, is already included in the violence. Daily reports of bombings are common. On April 27, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at an office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party near Mosul, killing three people and wounding 13. Although the Sunni Arabs are considered to have a majority in the province, the city of Mosul has had shifting populations and "ethnic cleansing." Patrick Cockburn reported in September 2006 that " In and around Mosul, the third-largest Iraqi city, some 70,000 Kurds have fled their homes so far this year. Many have run away after receiving an envelope with a bullet inside and a note telling them to get out in 72 hours. Others became refugees because they feared that a war between Arabs and Kurds for control of the region was not far off."

Kurds command the 30,000 Iraqi troops in the vicinity of Mosul, and these troops are at least 50 per cent Kurd. However, the 16,000 policemen in the province, and 6,000 in the city are almost all Arab. The policemen are a permanent fixture, which gives them more consistent control. Article 140 of the Iraq constitution requires a late 2007 vote to decide which regions will join the KRG. The Kurds will want to join the KRG. The Arabs will try to make them leave. While the fate of Kirkuk might be resolved by ballots, the fate of Mosul is more likely to be resolved by bullets.

The Coming Battlefield
Is it possible that all the contending forces involved in internecine rivalries, economic disputes, land disputes, national aspirations and definition of the territorial integrity of Iraq will be able to resolve their arguments? Hardly likely. The Kurdish region is squeezed between Turkey, Iran and belligerent Iraqi Sunnis. The latter feel they define Iraq, and being the most well armed of the insurgent groups, will flex their muscle in Mosul and beyond.

If the Kurds are forced out of Mosul, which is likely, they will need Kirkuk for economic security and to fulfill national aspirations. With Turkey supporting the Turkmen in Kirkuk, the Kurds will find it difficult to accomplish their objectives. Each loss will feed another dispute until internecine warfare - who controls the direction of an envisioned independent Kurdish state - will erupt.

History has not been kind to the Kurds, one of the world's most ancient and homogeneous people. Similar to the Armenians, who struggled for centuries to obtain their own nation, the Kurds' political and military weaknesses have denied them a sponsor to fulfill their aspirations.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds are much stronger and more unified - but not enough. A comparison with Israel illuminates the Kurds' struggle. After 60 years, an economic and military strong Israel has still not achieved final status as a peaceful and defined state. How can the Kurds do better?

may, 2007