April 14, 2005


Kurdistan Rising: For the pesh in northern Iraq, it's the birth of a nation—and they don't mean Iraq (David Axe, April 11th, 2005, Village Voice)

At stake as Kurds wield their growing political power are the unity of Iraq, more than 5 percent of the world's oil reserves located in one key Kurdish city, and a peculiar relationship that has developed over the years between the Kurds and the United States.

In 1991, the Iraqi army, battered though it was in Operation Desert Storm, swiftly crushed the Shiite revolt. But in mountainous Kurdistan—the area around Sulaymaniyah and north of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where half of Iraq's estimated 4 million Kurds live—guerrillas known as peshmerga, hardened by decades of insurgency, stopped Hussein's soldiers dead in their tracks.

Fourteen years later, the rusting remains of Iraqi tanks littering Sulaymaniyah bear grim testimony to the peshmerga forces' victory.

But Kurdish victory came too late for K.G. and his family. K.G.'s father was a well-known "pesh" leader in an area crawling with Iraqi agents. Their village ravaged and his cover blown, they fled north into Turkey in a column of refugees. K.G. recalls stealing bread from the houses of dead families and drinking from puddles teeming with frogs. Eventually, they reached the relative safety of Turkey. But in 1997, a brief civil war between Kurdish factions in Turkey claimed the life of K.G.'s father and put the family in flight again—this time to America, which since 1991 had become a sort of big brother to young Kurdistan. Since the pesh victory, the U.S. Air Force had flown daily air patrols over northern Iraq and dropped food supplies to starving Kurdish villages.

Now, years later, Kurdistan is all grown up—and K.G., now in his mid-20s, is too. And like his father and his grandfather before him, he's a soldier in the Kurdish army.

Sort of.

Actually, K.G. is a U.S. Defense Department translator working for the U.S. Army in Sulaymaniyah. But he carries a weapon, wears a uniform, speaks Kurdish most of the time, and is still an Iraqi (he says "Kurdish") national. And in order to protect himself from insurgents, he identifies himself only as "K.G."—a practice entirely consistent with that of other Kurds, who typically use only one name.

K.G. says that he's a Kurd and an American—and that he's equally proud to be both. In a land whose fortunes are irrevocably tied to the United States, K.G. is a living, breathing symbol of an unusual and, at times, uneasy alliance. [...]

Officially, there is no Kurdistan, except to Kurds. And while it has its own army, police, and courts—even its own national assembly— Kurdistan is not recognized by any other nation in any official capacity. All of autonomous Kurdistan is contained within the borders of Iraq, and these days, Iraq's territorial integrity is a main priority of the U.S. government. Meanwhile, Kurdish regions in neighboring Iran and Turkey are anything but autonomous—oppressed is more like it. While some Kurds dream of a pan-state Kurdistan that would unite all Kurds under one government, that's unlikely as long as both Iran and Turkey have all those tanks and helicopters, and as long as the U.S. has any say. Only in Iraq, only in the unique conditions created by U.S. intervention in the region, beginning with Operation Desert Shield in 1990, could there be any Kurdistan at all, official or otherwise.

Kurdistan only exists because, from 1991 to 2003, the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force flew round-the-clock jet fighter patrols over northern Iraq that kept Hussein's own aircraft on the ground and hamstrung his forces. It was this advantage that enabled the lightly equipped pesh fighters to best the Iraqi army.

The pesh are the key to Kurdish autonomy and, inasmuch as Kurdistan has prospered, the key to its success—a fact not lost on the U.S. Army.

For the moment, at least, it serves our purposes that they be part of Iraq, but they deserve our support if/when they decide on statehood.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 14, 2005 12:00 AM

An independent Kurdistan would be an oil-producing state friendly to Israel, which has been aiding them for decades.

Who are the impediments to Kurdish statehood?

First, the Turks who seem to be setting records for stupid statecraft. Dismembering large areas of their culture and criminal law in order to nuzzle up to the Titanic that is the EU and pissing off the US and Israel at every turn. Cold war nostalgia and gratitude only goes so far.

Second, the Arab Sunnis of Iraq. Kurds are fellow Sunnis and the Arab Sunnis want to use them as a counterweight to Shia dominance. Isn't it the Sunni Arabs who spent the better part of the last 4 decades using Kurds for target practice and aren't the Sunni Arabs the main terrorists in Iraq currently? So who cares about what they want.

Finally, the last remaining stronghold of Baathist ideology, the Near East Bureau of the US State Department. They could resign en masse and be replaced by non-Arabic speakers randomly selected from the DC Area phonebook and the quality of the work from that morass would improve exponentially. You can teach Arabic to a patriotic American, you cannot take a Ba'athist sympathizer and make him a patriotic American.

Posted by: bart at April 14, 2005 8:49 AM