Special Reports




It is hard to think of a people in the world whose fortunes have changed so dramatically as have those of the Kurds. A nation whose name was once almost a synonym for a lost cause has become instead, a pivotal actor in the Middle East. The decisions of its leaders are of vital interest to the governments of the United States, the European Union, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and, of course, to Iraq itself. Iraqi Kurdistan, less than a state but far more than a mere “region”, has achieved a remarkable level of economic prosperity and political stability. It plays a difficult but critical role in the politics of Iraq as a whole, and has significant cultural and political influence over Kurdish communities in neighbouring countries. With more than four million people, and abundant natural resources - and notwithstanding the surrounding sea of troubles - it aspires to be the Switzerland of the Fertile Crescent.

Just 20 years ago, the picture was very different. As Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein’s cousin, began the “Anfal” campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, there was reason to believe that they might very soon cease to exist as a coherent people. Their offence was that they had aided the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war. The punishment was merciless. Anfal, named after a sutra in the Koran about the punishments awaiting unbelievers, killed perhaps as many as 100,000 Kurds, many in poison gas attacks. It turned many more into refugees, and wiped hundreds of Kurdish villages literally off the map. Policies of Arabisation, bringing in Arab settlers from the south of the country, and coercing and bribing Kurds into taking Arab names and repudiating their heritage, further weakened the nation’s foundations.

Across the border in Turkey, a less appalling and thoroughgoing but still ruthless counter insurgency campaign by the Turkish army against their own Kurdish rebels, combined with the emigration of Turkish Kurds to the big cities of western Turkey, was tending toward the same kind of result. In Iran and in Syria, tough regimes kept the lid down tight on the Kurdish communities in those countries.

It is true that the Kurds had been famous for their resilience over the centuries. They had never had a state, unless a short-lived Soviet supported entity in northern Iran is counted. Yet they had survived both the encroachments and the attractions of other states, Ottoman, British, Persian, Turkish, and Arab. But circumstances were changing. Modern weaponry could reach into the mountains which for centuries had been their protectors, in a way not possible before. Modern communications could similarly penetrate and subvert their culture and language. Modern economies were drawing people off the land into non-Kurdish areas, and even taking them as far away as Germany and Britain. And modern dictatorships could inflict physical damage of genocidal - or near genocidal proportions. It seems unlikely, even so, that the Kurds would have truly disappeared. But they might have been reduced to a status similar to that of, say, the Berbers of North Africa: still distinct, but without political aspirations, and just a fading presence.

Ironically, it was Saddam Hussein, their greatest oppressor, who indirectly rescued them from such a fate. His invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990, provoked an American led military campaign which weakened him but did not remove him from power. The United States and the other members of the coalition thought the war done and dusted. But as Saddam turned on the Kurds in the north and the Shi’ites in the South, both of whom had prematurely risen up when the Baghdad regime seemed to be doomed, there was a rapid rethinking in Washington and other Western capitals. Pushed by public opinion, the Americans, British, French, and others in the anti-Saddam coalition of those days, intervened again. They could not save the southern rebels but, in the north, they put in just enough troops, airpower, and humanitarian aid to create a tenuous but, as it turned out, long lived protectorate. That stopped Saddam and also, although it was not at all the intention, created a geographical and political space in which a Kurdish entity could put down roots. Seventy years after the treaty of Sevres, which had promised the Kurds a state, they finally had something which was at least a little bit like one. For a time, it was nicknamed ‘Bushistan’. That was apt, because President George Bush, along with Prime Minister John Major of Britain, and President Francois Mitterrand of France, had changed the dynamics of the whole region.

The Kurds had been extraordinarily and perhaps deservedly lucky in the way events played out. Their luck continued over the next decade, although at times they seemed to deserve it not at all. A four year long civil war between the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and their respective armies, was an act of egregious folly which almost gave Saddam the chance to reassert his dominance over northern Iraq. His penetration of Kurdish society in the northern enclave was in any case sufficient to enable him to nip in the bud two coup attempts, and, thanks to an alliance of convenience with Massoud Barzani, the KDP leader, to get his troops into Erbil and massacre the Iraqi opposition cadres who were based there. A sort of peace was brokered by the Americans in 1998, but Iraqi Kurdistan remained a divided and embittered society, with two parties, two armies, two governments, and two economies, one of which was still open to Saddam’s ‘divide and rule’ manoeuvres. 

Then the Kurds were again saved by outside events. The American decision to attack Iraq in 2003. whatever its rights and wrongs in the more general sense, was a blessing for them. When what had been expected to be a quick, clean war turned into a dangerous and difficult occupation, the United States urgently needed the one success story they had to hand, in the shape of the relatively peaceful and orderly north. They also desperately needed the services of Kurdish leaders like Jalal Talabani, who became the President of Iraq; Hoshyar Zebari, who became the foreign minister; and Barham Salih who later became a deputy prime minister. Kurds like these could to some extent play the role of neutral third parties in the stand off between Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs, while of course also looking out for Kurdish interests as well. In the making of the Iraqi constitution and in countless lesser but still important legislative and administrative decisions, the Kurds smoothed the way and sometimes saved the day. They even contributed troops to the surge which, under General David Petraeus, helped to transform the Iraqi conflict from a tragedy, which seemed beyond human control, to a more limited struggle to which an end could at least be envisaged.

A period of remarkable if still patchy economic development has seen a start made on more effective exploitation of the region’s oil and gas resources, the beginning of agricultural renewal, improvements in physical infrastructure, and reforms of banking and insurance aimed at encouraging foreign investment. The regional government has passed its own oil and gas law, enabling some foreign investment in energy -- in spite of powerful disagreements between the region and the Baghdad government. Villages destroyed by Saddam have been rebuilt, and planners envisage exports of grain, fruit, nuts, timber and even truffles from Kurdistan’s oak forests. The regional government has also passed its own foreign investment law, and foreign companies, mainly Turkish, have come into Kurdistan in some numbers. Roads have been improved, and two international airports are, or soon will be, fully functioning. Plans for the exploitation of Kurdistan’s plentiful water resources have been made. Breakneck educational expansion has given Kurdistan seven universities in place of the one which existed before. Thanks to oil and gas, per capita income is high for the region, and with better development and high oil prices, could be very much higher in the future. Indices of public health and life expectancy are up. At the end of the road, ministers rather ambitiously see a Kurdistan that is “the major financial centre of the Fertile Crescent, ”the kind of safe, moneyed haven for international business which Lebanon used to be and which Dubai is today”.

The Iraqi constitution of 2005 gave Kurds a high degree of autonomy in all but a few federally reserved areas. Kurdistan controls its own gas and oil resources, maintains its own security forces and posts representatives abroad, in offices associated with Iraqi embassies, but not under their control. The constitution enables the region to incorporate Kirkuk, if a referendum on the wishes of that city’s population shows a majority in favour, a change that would bring most Iraqi Kurds under one authority. Kurdish politicians have meanwhile stitched together a political system full of compromises, trade-offs, and illogicalities. It can hardly be seen as a permanent solution to the problems of democracy and unity in Kurdistan, but will, its defenders say, do for the time being. Since elections in 2005, the two major political movements share power in the regional government, with the KDP more in the lead in the region itself, and the PUK more in the lead in the national government in Baghdad. Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the old rivals for power, are now both presidents, Barzani of the Kurdistan Region, and Talabani of the whole of Iraq. This tacit division of labour and influence seems to have satisfied both parties, although they retain their strong territorial bases and patronage networks in the parts of Kurdistan where they have traditionally been dominant.

All of this may satisfy the parties, but not necessarily the people of Kurdistan. The duumvirate of the two political parties and the two dominant families, with its semi-feudal character, is more and more out of place in a society that sees itself as modern. Some Kurds, at least, have a growing sense of exclusion. The students who protested in Halabja in March, 2006, were angry that the constant stream of Western visitors to the town, the site of Saddam’s worst poison gas atrocity against the Kurds, had not been paralleled in any way by a stream of investment and help from the Regional Authority. While smart gated residential compounds went up in other Kurdish cities and political leaders built themselves villas, Halabja still had no proper water and sanitation and hardly any paved streets. When Kurdish police fired on youthful Kurdish demonstrators there, the outside world got a glimpse of the tensions underneath the surface in Kurdistan. (1) Halabja’s needs have since received more attention, but there are still Kurds who feel they are losers in the new Kurdistan, some of who turn to Islamist alternatives as a result.

Yet overall the history of the Kurds since 2001 is one of extraordinary success, and therein lies the dilemma. Of the three broad communities into which Iraq can be divided, the Kurds have got their way more completely since the American invasion than either of the others. Sunni Arabs were radically demoted, Sh’ite Arabs were radically promoted, both in conditions of extreme violence and danger. The Kurds escaped the violence, and maintained warm relations with the Americans, while the country’s constitution could hardly have been more to their advantage. In some quarters there is a degree of jealousy, in others a feeling that the Kurds have got independence in all but name, and in others still a wish to undo or subvert some of the commitments which favour Kurdistan.

This is not just a question of who is in the right legally but of what the traffic will bear, inside and outside Iraq. The Kurds may feel that they have done more than enough by explicitly renouncing independence as a practical prospect, but, some critics say, that could turn out to be too simple a way of looking at the situation.

The disputes over oil and Kirkuk illustrate the problem. The Kurds had the right to pass their own oil law ahead of Iraq as a whole. However, their pledge to divide the resulting revenue with the rest of the country on a basis reflecting population shares has not stemmed Baghdad’s resentment. Similarly, the Kurds are within their rights to demand that the overdue referendum on Kirkuk’s future be held soon, on a basis disenfranchising the Arab settlers planted there by Saddam. Yet it is also true that Kirkuk is a multi-ethnic city in which the Kurds only relatively recently became the leading group. (2) If it is to be part of the Kurdish region, the anxieties of non-Kurdish groups will have to be assuaged by appropriate guarantees, quotas for senior administrative positions, language provisions, and similar measures -- something which has clearly not so far been achieved. Relations between different ethnic groups in the city are already severely strained. Whether the Kurdish leadership can finesse the situation remains to be seen.

The economic model which attracts the Kurdish leadership, whatever its merits, similarly has a dimension of separatism. To aspire to be the Dubai or the Switzerland of Mesopotamia may suggest to some a desire for greater economic connections with the outside world than with the rest of Iraq. That impression could be reinforced by a certain cultural divergence. Many young Kurds now speak little Arabic, in contrast to the older generation, which often speaks it well -- men like Talabani use it with great eloquence. Two of Kurdistan’s new universities are teaching entirely in English. Not to be able to talk to ones Arab co-citizens or to the citizens of neighbouring Arab countries could be seen as defying both geography and common sense.

Neighbouring states, similarly, have reservations about what can be called Kurdistan’s foreign policies, both overt and covert. The success of Iraqi Kurdistan has already changed the attitudes of Kurdish communities in Iran, Turkey, and Syria. They are becoming more difficult to control, as seen by developments as diverse as serious protests in Syria, on the one hand, and on the other, Iranian students crossing the border to attend Iraqi Kurdistan’s universities.

Turkey watches developments in Iraqi Kurdistan extremely closely, reserving the right to intervene militarily, the more so as a considerable number of fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) operate inside Turkey, but from once safe refuges on the Iraqi side of the border. Although there is little love lost between the Kurdish parties and the PKK, and they have fought one another in the past, Iraqi Kurdish leaders do not want to be seen as betraying other Kurds. Neither can they afford to alienate Turkey which, quite apart from its military strength, sustains the new Kurdish economy in a myriad different ways. When Massoud Barzani last year warned Turkey not to interfere in Iraq, and seemed to imply that Iraqi Kurdistan could intervene in Turkey in retaliation, he crossed a dangerous line, according to regional experts, although relations have since then improved.

Not unnaturally, but also problematically, Kurdish “foreign policy” is based on a closeness to the United States not seen as desirable by most other Iraqis. Hilary Clinton, for example, included in her campaign platform a proposal to base US troops in Kurdistan after operations in the rest of Iraq were terminated. Some Kurdish leaders are not unsympathetic, seeing in such a continuing military connection a guarantee against the return of bad times. But it is disputable whether resolutions in the US Senate, like that pushed through by Senator Joe Biden, now the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate, demanding that the Iraqi federal constitution be rigorously enforced, help the Kurds or not. They may instead give the impression that the Kurds are all too ready to call in Big Brother whenever they face opposition. 

There are some indications, too, that the Kurds are facilitating an American policy of harassing Tehran by supporting various Kurdish rebel groups in northern Iran. Suggestions that there may be some sort of Kurdish-Israeli connection, if they were to turn out to be true, do not help the Kurdish image in this neighbourhood. 

The Kurdish difficulty is not a matter of one policy or another, but of calculating the cumulative impact that all their choices could have on their prospects. It may seem hard to stipulate that the Kurds carefully weigh the interests and prejudices of neighbours, inside and outside Iraq, who themselves have rarely weighed Kurdish interests in the past. But that is what the Kurds are doing, and what they have to do. 

In a recent study, a Kurdish filmmaker is quoted as remembering his grandfather telling him “Our past is sad, our present is catastrophic; fortunately we don’t have a future.” (3) 

Now the Kurds do have a future, and must take the utmost care to preserve it. 

(1) p 272 Invisible Nation by Quil Lawrence. Walker and Company, New York, 2008
(2) In the 1957 census, the last proper count, the Turcomen were the largest group.
(3) p 31 The Kurdistan Region: Invest in the Future edited by Professor Brendan O’Leary, Buxton Press, UK 2007

Martin Woollacott, a former Guardian foreign correspondent and columnist, covered the Kurdish uprising in 1991, returned to the region on a number of occasions afterwards, and has continued to follow Kurdish affairs in recent years.