Arab and Kurd

What a future Iraqi civil war might look like and where it might begin.

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By Tom Engelhardt

The week before the early surprise “transition of power” in Iraq, the New Yorker magazine published a disturbing piece by Seymour Hersh that contained news probably far more dangerous than any coming out of Baghdad. His report, Plan B, revealed how top Israeli officials reached the conclusion by last August that “the Bush Administration would not be able to bring stability or democracy to Iraq.” Fearing the consequences, Ariel Sharon’s government began freelancing a new divide-and-conquer strategy meant, among other things, to help ensure the fragmentation of the Iraqi state and potentially destabilize further an already destabilized region. They decided “to minimize the damage that the war was causing to Israel’s strategic position by expanding its long-standing relationship with Iraq’s Kurds and establishing a significant presence on the ground in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan… 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.”

This (in Hersh’s phrase) “politically reckless” move — an example of tactically brilliant short-term thinking almost guaranteed to prove a long-term strategic blunder and sure to blowback on the Israelis — is likely to be especially harmful to the Kurds themselves. Now, like the Americans, they will be ever more closely identified in the region with the defense of Sharon’s Israel. The training of Kurdish militiamen may, in the short run, aid Israel’s policies in the region and bolster Kurdish dreams of an independent state, but it will, in the end, likely prove yet another disaster for the Kurds. Their militias are not serious fighting forces, if you’re thinking, say, of the Turkish military (which ruthlessly crushed its own Kurdish population’s desire for autonomy), or even perhaps future Iraqi armies. The Kurds, a people scattered across the region, have put their faith and fate in the hands of states (and their intelligence agencies) that have always betrayed them — including the Shah’s Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, the United States more than once, and now the Israelis.

If the Israeli link is dangerous for the Kurds, it may prove hardly less so for the Americans in Iraq. Paul Rogers, the sober and thoughtful geopolitical columnist for, has often pointed, as he did recently, to

“the development of closer links between the US military and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), especially the Americans’ procurement of specialist Israeli equipment developed for use against the Palestinians [for their forces in Iraq], and the IDF’s sharing their experience of urban warfare [with the Americans in Iraq]. In pursuing these links, US military planners believed that any relevant experience or equipment that might limit US casualties was greatly welcome. They did not appreciate that news of Israeli involvement would have a cumulative impact in Iraq and the wider region — confirming the widely-held view that the US occupation of Iraq was part of an overall Israeli-American policy to redraw the political map of the Middle East.”

The Israelis have simply added another round of munitions to a Kurdish situation in northern Iraq that is, as Dilip Hiro points out below, explosive. Any such explosion could draw all sorts of states into conflict. Hiro, a veteran Middle Eastern analyst, surveys the Kurdish situation at this perilous moment and suggests what the shape of a future Iraqi civil war might look like and where it might begin.

The Sarajevo of Iraq

Worsening Kurdish-Arab Friction Threatens the Region
By Dilip Hiro

In the ongoing crisis in Iraq, one factor has remained unchanged: the loyalty of the Kurds to Washington. Whereas, for most Arabs, March 20, the first anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, was ignored, Iraq’s Kurds celebrated it with traditional dancing and gunfire as “Iraq Liberation Day.” Unsurprisingly, when the time of “transition” came, the Bush administration gave the Kurds two of the top five positions in the new interim Iraqi government — instead of the one that would have been their due if their percentage of the national population were all that was taken into account.

Indeed, when Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani — the respective leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — protested Washington’s failure to include a reference to the Transitional Administrative Law (popularly known as the interim constitution), in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1546 that paved the way for the “transition” in Iraq, it was no more than a lovers’ tiff. Kurdish leaders have, in fact, doggedly maintained their loyalty to the United States in the hope and expectation that George Bush would set them firmly on the path to an independent state — even though their history, since U.S. President Woodrow Wilson failed to deliver such a state after World War I, should have taught them quite a different lesson.

Sadly, to this day their perception of that history is blinkered. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, signed by Damad Feird, the Ottoman Sultan’s Prime Minister, and the wartime Allies stipulated that Anatolia would be dismembered and Turkey’s southeastern region, then containing Mosul province, turned into an autonomous territory. The prospect of independence, if recommended by the League of Nations, was dangled before the Kurds, then rejected by the Turkish parliament and, in July 1923, superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne, which made no mention of the Kurds.

According to the latter treaty, Turkey renounced its claims to the non-Turkish provinces of the former Ottoman Empire and the Allies confirmed Turkish sovereignty over Anatolia. Two years later, at Britain’s behest, a League of Nations arbitration committee awarded Mosul province to Iraq, then under British mandate.

And so it went for the Kurds, though their historical myopia persists. Only recently, misreading the interim constitution, promulgated on March 8, the inhabitants of Iraq’s three Kurdish-majority provinces, Dohak, Irbil, and Suleimaniya — since 1974 collectively called the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR) — thought they had been granted independence, and welcomed its promulgation with wild celebrations. Apparently, this was due to a popular interpretation of a provision in the interim constitution stipulating that if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces cast their ballots against a draft permanent constitution in a referendum, then it would “fail.” This was seen as, in essence, an independence veto.

It was true that Turkey found this provision sufficiently objectionable to express its public disapproval of Iraq’s interim constitution, which describes the Iraqi government as “republican and federal.” Ankara has repeatedly aired its opposition to a federal Iraq, arguing that any such arrangement would inspire its own sizeable Kurdish population to demand a federal Turkey. The Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, racked by riots in its predominantly Kurdish northeastern region in March, has been no less alarmed by Kurdish irredentist aims in Iraq, which, in turn, fuel Kurdish nationalism in adjoining countries.

Turkey, uneasy with the armed Kurdish militias — or peshmargas (“those prepared to die”) — in northern Iraq, noted with satisfaction that, on June 8, soon-to-be Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Alawi announced that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had reached an agreement with the leaders of nine militias to dissolve their forces by January 2005. The erstwhile militiamen were to be given the options of retraining, integration into the new Iraqi security forces, or being pensioned off. Since three-quarters of the 100,000 militiamen that fell under this agreement belonged to the two main Kurdish parties, the on-the-ground responses of the Kurdish leaders were what mattered most, and they were predictable.

Having agreed to dissolve their militias or merge them into the new Iraqi army, Barazani and Talabani soon postponed the agreement indefinitely. So it came as no surprise when, in a recent interview with a Czech newspaper, Talabani practically disowned the CPA deal entirely. This led a senior Turkish military commander to criticize Washington for failing to curb the ‘terrorists’ (read, KDP and PUK militias) in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Growing Kurdish-Arab Divide

Within Iraq, there is a clear conflict between secular Kurdish nationalism, fostered by the 12 year long autonomous existence of the Kurdish Autonomous Region under an Anglo-American air umbrella while Saddam Hussein ruled the rest of the country, and the aspirations of the recently empowered, deeply religious Shia majority to establish a centralized Islamic republic in Iraq through the ballot box. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has made clear his fears that the Kurdish “veto” provided by the interim constitution will result in drafts of a permanent constitution bouncing back and forth indefinitely while the interim constitution hardens into permanency.

The situation in Kurdish Iraq threatens to draw various regional powers into conflict. For example, the potential for an expansive Kurdish-Shia conflict has been noted by Israel’s top leaders, who have been increasingly worried about the rising power of Shias in a region where Iraq and Iran are Shia-majority countries and Syria is ruled by an Alawi, a sub-sect within Shia Islam. In response, they decided to upgrade their espionage network among the Kurds in each of these countries as well as in Turkey. (The proportion of Kurds in their populations varies from 6% in Syria to 20% in Turkey.) For Israel’s Mossad and Aman (its military intelligence), the starting point for such an enterprise remains the 150,000-strong Kurdish Jewish community in Israel, a fairly wide pool to tap.

In July 2003, Israel’s intelligence agencies swung into action after their political masters concluded that the US occupation of Iraq was going badly, wrote Semour Hersh, the prize-winning New Yorker investigative journalist, in Plan B last month (based on his interviews with his intelligence sources in the United States, Israel, and Turkey). A further impetus to Israeli planning came in December when Washington suddenly announced that it would hand over power to the Iraqis on June 30. Israel’s leaders decided it was only prudent to take out an insurance policy in case the transfer of power went badly, resulting in chaos — to the benefit of Iran.

While evidently assigning their Kurdish agents in Iran the task of gathering intelligence on the government’s nuclear activities, in Iraq their agents have been encouraging Kurdish aspirations for an independent state. This, in turn — and to their satisfaction — inspired rioters in Syria’s Kurdish-majority towns of Qameshli, Amuda, Hasaka, and Malikiya, where protestors burnt public buildings and raised the Kurdish national flag. Some 40 people were killed before the Syrian army restored order.

But Israel’s strategy has a distinct downside, since encouraging desires for Kurdish independence runs dangerously counter to Turkey’s long-standing policy on the Kurds and so has the potential of undermining Israeli-Turkish military cooperation that dates back to 1995. “The lesson of Yugoslavia is that when you give one country or component independence, everybody will want it,” a Turkish official told Hersh. “Kirkuk will be the Sarajevo of Iraq. If something happens there, it will be impossible to contain the crisis.”

Kirkuk: Eye of the Storm

Lying midway between the Turkish-Iraqi border and Baghdad, Kirkuk was the military staging post for the Ottoman Turks, who captured it in 1534 and settled it with the Turks — called Turkmen — from Anatolia. It thrived as a garrison town. When petroleum was discovered in the area in 1927 by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, its executives found that neither Turkmen (mostly merchants and rentiers), nor beduin Arabs were interested in working for them; so they began to recruit workers from the Kurdish areas to the east and north. These Kurds settled in villages around the city.

Thus Greater Kirkuk emerged as a multi-ethnic city — with Turkmen at its center, surrounded by Arabs, in turn surrounded by Kurds on the city’s outskirts. While the three communities maintained this voluntary segregation, it was an edgy situation. In 1959, in a three-day battle between pro-Communist Kurds and anti-Communist Turkmen, for instance, 79 people were killed.

During the Kurdish insurgency of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ethnic composition of Greater Kirkuk became a point of contention between the Iraqi government and Kurdish nationalists, with the latter claiming a Kurdish majority in the city and its suburbs. However, the (then-classified) census of 1977 showed the 484,000 residents of Kirkuk province (later renamed Tamim) being 45% Arab, 38% Kurd, and the rest Turkmen. The 1997 census indicated that Kirkuk’s population of 370,661 was 40% Arab and 38% Kurd, with the remainder Turkmen — little change, that is, despite Saddam Hussein’s policy of settling Shia Arabs from the south in the area. On the eve of the Anglo-American invasion in 2003, the estimated 700,000 people then living in Greater Kirkuk probably divided up along similar lines: 45% Arab, 35% Kurdish, and the rest Turkmen.

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the two Kurdish parties made no secret of their plans to transform Kirkuk with its oil wealth into the capital of an expanded Kurdish Autonomous Region. Kurds, some pushed out of the city by Saddam, now arrived in their thousands. The Peshmerga were turned into the local police force and, assisted by the occupying American military, Kurds dominated the US-appointed city council. All this was in violation of an initial agreement that U.S. forces would maintain the status quo and not allow Kurds to cross the KAR’s border, 15 miles east of the city center.

Assisted by Kurdish-dominated local security forces, tens of thousands of Kurds have forced Arabs from their homes, creating at least 100,000 new refugees living in squalid camps in north-central Iraq. This has engendered widespread anti-Kurdish feeling among Arabs in the region and beyond. Anti-Kurdish graffiti, attacking Kurds for collaborating with the “infidel occupiers,” is a commonplace in the Shia districts of Kirkuk. Elsewhere, the followers of Hojatalislam Muqtada al Sadr have vocally denounced the Kurds.

Many Sunni Arabs, though sharing the same sectarian affiliation with Kurds, are equally critical of them. The Sunni Arab-Kurdish divide widened when the Arab press reported in April that Kurds were fighting in Falluja with the Americans. These Kurds belonged to one of the two Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (now National Guard) battalions that had been ordered to fight alongside U.S. Marines in the assault on the insurgents in the city. The other battalion, consisting exclusively of Arabs, refused to do so. Talabani’s convoluted explanation for Kurdish actions — “Some Kurds have joined the new Iraqi army, and if the Coalition commanders forced them to participate in some fighting, it was without the knowledge of the Kurdish leaders.” — left many unconvinced.

During her foray into Falluja in late April, Hala Jaber of the Sunday Times found the locals speaking of “the mercenary Kurds, accused of being Mossad agents.” She added, “Some Kurds had confessed [to being Mossad agents], I was told, and had been summarily executed.”

The situation in Kirkuk remains tense. “The Kurdish peshmargas [acting as policemen] are unqualified and untrained, and this creates irritation,” said Khudair Ghalib Karim, a Turkmen leader. “If there are clashes this is the reason.” Across the Green Line, though the Kurdish militiamen are reportedly ready to make a major push for Kirkuk, they are unlikely to act as long as the Americans remain in the city.

Viewing Iraq as a whole, it is safe to say that if the country slides into a civil war, it would not be between Sunnis and Shias, but between Arabs and Kurds — and it will start in Kirkuk.

Dilip Hiro’s latest book is Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After, a sequel to Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm (both Nation Books). Hiro is based in London, writes regularly for the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Nation magazine, and is a frequent commentator on CNN, BBC, and Sky TV.

Copyright C 2004 Dilip Hiro

A version of this piece will appear in print in issue #730 of Middle East International

Read regular posts by Tom Engelhardt at, a web log of The Nation Institute, where this piece first appeared.


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