Talisman Gate

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Kurds Marching Off

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

March 31, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1823 words

HEADLINE: Kurds Marching Off

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Iraq is about to complete its second month of political limbo as everyone awaits the formation of its first elected government. The Shia and Kurdish slates that took the largest share in January's election have yet to agree on a power sharing formula. The latest one-week delay is explained away as the week-long holiday for the Kurdish new year, Nawruz. Another three day delay went into effect when a Kurdish tribal leader, allied to Saddam until the very end of the latter's reign, died and the Kurdish block went off to observe his mourning.

March has always been an important month in the political calendar of the Kurds. All the following events happened in the month of March: The first Kurdish postage stamp, issued by the colorful leader of early Kurdish revolts in Iraq, who at one time declared himself the Messiah, was produced in 1923. The first Kurdish ministate of the 20th century, founded in modern-day Iran's Kurdish city of Mahabad, came to an end with the hanging of its leaders during 1946. In 1970, the Iraqi government arrived at an all encompassing deal with Kurdish rebels, only to have talks over implementation break down leading to hostilities in 1974, and the subsequent collapse of the Kurdish resistance movement the following year, after the mercurial patron of the Kurds, the Shah of Iran, had concluded a separate deal with Saddam Hussein. On the first day of March 1979, the iconic leader of 20th-century Kurdish revolts for rights and independence, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, who in one of many life roles served as the commander in chief of the Mahabad Republic, died a defeated and broken man in a Washington-area hospital.

Ali Hassan Al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, arrived in March 1987 to enact a genocidal campaign called the Anfal, which culminated in the March 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja. March 1991 saw the indigenous liberation of most of Iraqi Kurdistan subsequent to Saddam's defeat and ouster from Kuwait, only to have the gains reversed and then reversed again. In 1991, the weakening of Saddam's state, and belated world attention to the plight of the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of its own, contributed to the political anomaly of a de facto Kurdish state. During the 1990s, the month of March saw recurring military offensives in the civil war that pitted Mulla Mustafa's son, Massoud Barzani, as head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party against the one-time acolyte of the elder Barzani, Jalal Talabani, who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

March of this year also portends to be yet another important marker on the timeline of Kurdish politics and probably the most poignant of all: the decision by Kurds, of their own free will and under peaceful circumstances, to opt for the independent state they have fought so bitterly for. Independence has always been the story arc of the Kurds since the 19th century.

It is not hard to understand why the beginning of spring should carry so much history for Iraq's Kurds: just take a good look at their homeland on a map. The plains of Mesopotamia suddenly take on elevation, soaring thousands of feet into the sky. The Kurds celebrate their new year with the astrological spring Equinox, something borrowed from the ancient Babylonians and celebrated on March 21, as a day heralding the end of a dreaded winter, which can be quite gruesome at high elevations. The snows begin to melt and turn to bountiful streams that seep over the jagged mountainsides, a rock climber's heaven. Blooms of red, yellow, and white flowers erupt out of fields of lush grass. Such is the time of new beginnings, either for Kurdish revolts or the advent of conquering Iraqi, Turkish, or Iranian armies out to forcibly hold together their respective national states that harbor sizable Kurdish minorities.

The proportion of ethnic Kurds to the larger population of Iraq hovers around 22% to 25%, which is the largest in any country in the region, even though the Iraqi Kurds are outnumbered by their kinsmen in Turkey and Iran. Furthermore, the southwestern portion of Kurdistan, now a part of Iraq, has always been the center of Kurdish culture and nascent national ambitions for an independent Kurdish state. Two major fertile agricultural valleys, the Deshti Arbil and the Shahrazore, encompass the two power and cultural centers of southern Kurdistan: the cities of Arbil, where Barzani holds court, and Suleimaniya, the fiefdom of Talabani. Other markers delineate the boundaries between Barzani's turf and that of Talabani: two mutually intelligible dialects and two quite similar Sufi sects. In fact, both the Barzani and Talabani families, whose own ethnic origins are disputed, derive legitimacy not from the depth of tribal relations but rather from the Sufi orders whose leadership they had inherited and that brought a measure of unity among warring tribes.

The Ottomans, who more or less controlled most of Kurdistan for the four centuries preceding our own, were happy to let the Kurds govern themselves as long as they didn't leave their mountains and start raiding the areas where the Ottomans farmed bountiful taxes. Several Kurdish mini-principalities spent their days of relative autonomy to conspire against each other. Once in the while, the banditry got out of hand and the Ottomans resorted to deporting Kurdish tribes to the far ends of the empire in Africa. The Ottomans had another way to contain the troublesome Kurds, and that is by importing ethnic Turkomans and settling them along a boundary line that separated the Kurdish highlands from the plains of Mesopotamia. Saddam Hussein's ancestors, refugees from

Crimean Tatarstan, were first settled in this area as auxiliary cavalry in the service of the Ottomans some 200 years ago. This boundary ran from Kifri to Altun Kupri, through a fortress town called Kirkuk.

Barzani and Talabani, the beacons of Kurdish independence, borrow PLO-inspired rhetoric and call Kirkuk the "Kurdish Jerusalem." They vow to make it the administrative capital of whatever entity Kurdistan becomes. In contrast to the majestic beauty of most of Kurdistan, Kirkuk is a hellhole in the plains that stinks of gas and would make anyone think twice about lighting up a cigarette. But Kirkuk floats on a lake of oil, bringing Kurds, Assyrians, and Arabs to this historically Turkoman city in search of livelihood. Oil is the single commodity that can make an independent Kurdistan viable; otherwise the Kurdish economy must rely on exporting dried fruits and nuts.

The reason a government is not being formed in Baghdad is due to the Kurds having two legitimate demands that at this point in time are tantamount to blackmail: absorbing Kirkuk into Kurdish administration, and the preservation of another vestige of the Kurdish wars for independence, the pershmerga armed forces. If the central authority in Iraq does not accept these ill-timed demands, then the Kurds are to shrug their shoulders and defer the formation of a government for a little while longer, riling up an already tense Iraqi population.

Barzani and Talabani are a lot like Arafat, and I'm not only talking about the corruption, lack of freedoms, nepotism, and cronyism that are the hallmarks of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the governments of Arbil and Suleimaniya. They share the same sort of weird political legitimacy of representing a battered cause, even though Talabani used to do Saddam's bidding in the past and should have on his conscience the massacre of Iraqi opposition forces in Pesht-Aashan in 1983, and Barzani brought in Saddam in 1996 to wipe out his archrival Talabani, in return for the regime's destruction of Iraqi opposition bases in 'free' Kurdistan. Both leaders have also handed over Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian Kurds to the regional oppressors of Kurds. But, no one can speak with authority on behalf of the Kurds, and shape Kurdish aspirations, like these two gentlemen.

And here's the rub: the rest of Iraq's polity understands the Kurdish demands for Kirkuk and the pershmerga as veiled maneuvers in the direction of outright Kurdish independence. If that's the case, then Barzani (who on election day said that he hopes to see an independent Kurdistan in his lifetime) and Talabani need to come out and speak clearly on the issue of independence. The language for the right of Kurdish self-determination, and a timetable for disentanglement within five years, should be worked into the upcoming constitution-writing process (to be concluded by next August) that spells outs the nature of the Iraqi state. Iraq

cannot afford to raise two generations on the notion that Iraq's unity is inviolate, only to be confronted by a "surprise" Kurdish secession down the road, thus enabling demagogues in Baghdad to whip up national sentiments to send young Iraqi men to do battle with young Kurdish men. This has been tried in the past, and now is the time to start negotiating an amicable and mutually agreed separation.

If the Kurds and their leaders are still toying with the idea of remaining within the Iraqi union, then they should also make it clear to Iraq's other component ethnic and sectarian groups, the Arab Sunnis and Shias as well as the Turkomans, what they need to compromise on in order to keep the Kurds happy and Iraq unified. Kirkuk does not need to be administratively controlled by the Kurds in order for them to get their share of its oil wealth; rather the wells could be privatized and the Kurds represented, along with Kirkuk's mixed Arab and Turkoman populace and the Iraqi central government, on its executive board. A cordial three-way sharing of the proceeds could be worked out. If Talabani and Barzani want to remain part of Iraq, they should turn around and tell all those Kurdish youngsters who have grown up without knowing a word of Arabic and devoid of any sense of belonging to a larger Iraq that an independent state of Kurdistan is never going to happen and that they should get used to existing as Iraqi Kurds. They should also deliver this message clearly to other Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran that harbor hopes for national independence.

As it is, Kurdish reluctance to spell out what they want is setting up the stage for further future strife. Talabani and Barzani need to decide, now, whether to call for a Kurdish referendum on independence by March 2010 or seal a binding union with the Iraqi state. Keeping matters in flux against the backdrop of terrorist turmoil in Iraq is a massive shortcoming of the Kurdish leaders and an uncharacteristic mark of cowardice. The delays in forming a government this past March have left a bitter taste in the mouths of most Iraqis who are eager to move on from the travails of the last few years. The right thing for the Kurds to do now is to inform the rest of Iraq, as well as the Americans who have invested so much in creating a new Iraq, whether they are staying or leaving.