There are few areas in the world more entangled
in historical deceit and betrayal than northern Iraq, where the British, the
Ottomans, and the Americans have played a deadly game of political chess at
the expense of the local Kurds. And now, because of a volatile brew of internal
Iraqi and Turkish politics, coupled with the Bush administration's clandestine
war to destabilize and overthrow the Iranian government, the region threatens
to explode into a full-scale regional war.
A series of bombings and attacks over the past year in Turkey touched off the
current crisis. The Turks attribute the violence to the Iraq-based Kurdistan
Workers Party (PKK), which fought a bitter war against the Turks from 1984 through
the 1990s. Ankara's campaign to repress its Kurdish population during that period
ended up killing some 35,000 people, destroying 3,000 villages, and forcibly
relocating between 500,000 and 2 million Kurds. The Kurds make up about 20 percent
of Turkey and Iraq and have a significant presence in Syria and Iran. With a
population of between 25 and 30 million, the Kurds represent one of the world's
largest ethnic groups without a country, a status that has long aggrieved them.
In May, the Turks declared martial law in three provinces that border Iraq.
They massed troops, armor, and artillery and threatened to invade if the United
States and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not suppress
the PKK. It looked like a conflict simply between the Turkish government and
the Kurdish separatists. But things are never quite what they appear in northern
While the Turks are indeed concerned about the
activities of the PKK, Ankara's real agenda is to block any possibility of an
independent Kurdish nation on its border. The Turkish army is also whipping
up nationalism in an effort to influence the outcome of the July 22 Turkish
Turkey is deeply worried that an upcoming plebiscite in Kirkuk could make the
oil-rich city, which the Kurds claim as their capital, a part of Kurdistan.
Ankara fears that if Kirkuk joins Kurdistan, the Kurds will obtain the economic
base they need to build a Kurdish state, which will, in turn, stir up Turkey's
restive Kurds to demand independence or autonomy. The Turks charge that the
Kurds are trying to influence the outcome of the plebiscite by driving 200,000
Turkmens and Arabs out of the city, and moving in 600,000 Kurds. This would
reverse the 1980s population shift when Saddam Hussein forced many Kurds out
of Kirkuk, moving in Arab families to take their place. To keep the Kurdistan
regional government (KRG) as an ally, the Maliki government is backing the plebiscite
and supporting a plan to remove 12,000 Arab families from Kirkuk and send them
back to their original homes in central and southern Iraq.
Ankara blames the United States for ignoring the issue of Kirkuk and turning
a blind eye to the PKK. "It is widely acknowledged," says
Syrian historian and journalist Sami Moubayed, "that the PKK cannot operate
out of northern Iraq without the full blessing of Maliki, [Iraqi] President
Jalal Talabani (a Kurd) and the United States."
Rather than suppressing the PKK, the United States
its offshoot, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK), to attack
Iran. According to a Financial
Times investigation last year, U.S. Marines are working with Iranian
minorities to see if "Iran would be prone to violent fragmentation along the
same kind of fault lines that are splitting Iraq."
Farsi-speakers dominate Iran, but they make up only a slim majority of the
country. The rest of the population consists of Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, and Balochs.
The United States is also supporting
a violent Baloch group, the Jundallah, which killed 11 Revolutionary Guard this
past February in southern Iran.
"I think everybody in the region knows that there is a proxy war already afoot,
with the United States supporting anti-Iranian elements in the region as well
as opposition groups in Iran," says
Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations. Investigative journalist Seymour
that PEJAK is also receiving help from Israel, and that there are some 1,200
Israeli intelligence agents in northern Iraq. According
to Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli expert on the Kurds, Israel is using the
Kurdish areas of Iraq "to undermine Iran's influence" and "the Iranian government
The Islamist Maliki government, with its ties
to extremist Shi'ite militias and Iran, is no friend of the secular and socialist-minded
PKK. But Maliki needs Kurdish support in his battle with former Iraqi Prime
Minister Iyad Allawi, whose coalition of former Ba'athists, Sunnis, secular
Shi'ites, and disgruntled Kurds that has designs on bringing down Maliki's government.
And while the current Kurdistan regional government (KRG) – a coalition of the
formerly warring Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party
– has no great love for the PKK, the organization is tough and battle-hardened
and has become an invaluable ally against a rising tide of Islamism in the Kurdish
The United States is hoping the KRG will rein in the PKK. One anonymous Iraqi
official told The New
York Sun, "The Americans want the Kurds to make their lives easier.
They need the Kurdish government to show they are willing to tackle terrorism
in the north … maybe alert Turkey of a threat, act on intelligence, arrest some
people, make an effort."
However, the KRG has a problem with a growing wave of Islamism in Kurdistan.
The PKK is strongly secular – it was formerly the Kurdish Communist Party –
and, in a fight with Islamic extremists, it would be an invaluable ally. On
top of which, the PKK is widely respected for its long struggle against the
Turks, and if the KRG were to turn against the PKK it might not go down well
with the average Kurd. Even if the KRG reins in the PKK, it might not be enough
for Ankara, because Turkey wants to roll back any movement that would create
an independent Kurdistan.
But that genie is already out of the lamp. The well-ordered and relatively
peaceful Kurdish region has a working parliament, several universities, and
Kurdish language radio and television. It has essentially been a functioning
country since 1992 when the Americans and British established a no-fly zone
over the area following the end of Gulf War I.
Whatever the Turks might want, Kurdistan is already a reality.
The current crisis is also a reflection of Turkey's
internal politics. Beating the anti-Kurdish drum is part of the Turkish army's
strategy to whip up nationalism in order to weaken the religious government
of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the July elections.
The major danger is that the tension between Turks and Kurds could quickly
get out of hand. For the past few weeks the Turkish army has been shelling Kurdish
villages in Iraq and sending small units across the border. A miscalculation
by either side could quickly escalate, which is exactly what the United States
"Fighting between Turks and Kurds in Iraq could spread to Turkey itself,"
J. Barkey, chair of international relations at Lehigh University and widely
considered to be the top U.S.-Turkish scholar. This, he said, could lead to
"a severe rupture in U.S.-Turkish relations" and "deal a fatal
blow" to U.S. efforts in Iraq.
Northern Iraq has always been a complicated place, but the U.S. war has sharpened
the tensions that have plagued it for over a century. Now those tensions have
pushed the region to the brink of chaos.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.