Kurdistan: Birth of a Nation?

Violence and suffering disfigure Iraq on a daily basis. But not everywhere is blighted. The Kurdish region is largely peaceful, and cities are beginning to thrive. So after decades of bloodshed, could its people's goal of self-determination finally be realised? Patrick Cockburn reports on an unexpected consequence of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein
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The Independent Online

In northern Iraq, stretching in a crescent from Iran to Syria, is one the strangest states to emerge in the world over the past half century. In theory, Iraqi Kurdistan is not independent but it is more powerful than most members of the United Nations. It has an efficient army. It remains part of Iraq but Baghdad has little influence on its actions. An old saying in the region claimed bitterly that "the Kurds have no friends but the mountains". But today its leaders make and break Iraqi governments. Once the White House and Downing Street ignored their existence, but now they are received with acclaim as important allies by George Bush and Tony Blair.

The struggle of the Iraqi Kurds for self-determination has been longer and bloodier than that of any nationalist movement outside Vietnam. It began under the British in the 1920s when "Bomber" Harris, later the commander of the air offensive against Germany, practised his art against Kurdish villages. Setting the tone for Baghdad's treatment of the Kurds over the rest of the century, he wrote with approval in 1924: "They now know that within 45 minutes, a full-size village can be practically wiped and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured."

Saddam Hussein proved an apt pupil. He imprisoned or forced hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee when their independence movement collapsed in 1975 after being treacherously abandoned by the Shah of Iran and the US. Repression of the four or five million Iraqi Kurds reached a peak of cruelty and violence in the late 1980s: Saddam Hussein's forces slaughtered 182,000 of them and destroyed 3,800 of their villages as he crushed another uprising during the Iran-Iraq war.

To this day a frequent sight in the Kurdish countryside are the sinister mounds of earth covering the remains of towns and villages whose inhabitants were deported or killed. What Saddam Hussein did in Kurdistan was not total extermination, like Hitler against the Jews, but the scale of butchery and destruction came close to that inflicted by the Nazis in Russia and Poland.

At first glance, all this has changed. The Iraqi Kurds were the somewhat accidental beneficiaries of George Bush's determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003. This could have been a disaster for them. They had enjoyed quasi-independence under American air protection after the failed uprising of 1991. Then, to their horror, Kurdish leaders suddenly found 12 years later that the US army was about to invade Iraq from the north accompanied by 40,000 Turkish troops. This would have ended their de facto autonomy. They were only saved when the Turkish parliament astonished American diplomats by rejecting the invasion plan. Overnight the Kurds became America's only reliable allies inside Iraq and this has remained true.

Today, as war rages though the rest of Iraq, the only peaceful parts of the country are the three Kurdish provinces of Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk. Kurdistan's hotels are packed with well-off refugees from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, who have fled there to escape kidnappers and murderers. In the Iraqi capital, despite the billions of dollars supposedly spent on reconstruction, there is scarcely a crane to be seen on the skyline. In the cities of Arbil and Sulaimaniyah, in sharp contrast, the cranes rise above construction sites in almost every street. Doctors who dare not work elsewhere in Iraq are opening smart new clinics. Even prostitutes from Baghdad have moved to Kurdistan, complaining that it is too dangerous to ply their trade in the capital.

The Kurdish gains are not just within the three northern provinces that they have ruled for 15 years. The Kurdish area of control is now much bigger. As the Iraqi army collapsed in April 2003, the peshmerga - Kurdish soldiers - advanced into cities, towns and villages from which their people had been driven long before. In the space of a few days they were able to occupy Kirkuk city and the nearby oilfields.

Suddenly there were peshmerga in the streets of Mosul, a mostly Sunni Arab city of 1.7 million people but with a large Kurdish minority. Kurdish forces were able to extend control to towns like Khanaqin, north-east of Baghdad, which Saddam Hussein had given to Arab settlers.

The power of the Kurds has not just increased geographically. The President of Iraq, chosen by parliament in Baghdad last year, is Jalal Talabani, for many years the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is in control of eastern Kurdistan. The very able foreign minister of Iraq since 2003 has been Hoshyar Zebari, the former spokesman of the other main Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Paradoxically, the most effective members of the Iraqi government in Baghdad are Kurds who at heart would like to have a legally independent state of their own. The best units in the new Iraqi army and security forces consist of Kurdish soldiers.

But for all their outward show of self-confidence, many Kurds worry about their future. Could this be the high tide of their fortunes? For the moment their position is strong, though this could change. They are firmly allied to the US, but Washington has shown no qualms about letting them down in the past. As it withdraws its troops from Iraq it may once again look to its old ally Turkey, with its large Kurdish community and visceral suspicion of the Iraqi Kurds.

Again, the Kurds are strong because the Arabs of Iraq, the Sunni and Shia communities, together making up 80 per cent of the population, are effectively fighting a civil war in and around Baghdad. But what would happen if they came together in future? Would not one of their first priorities be to rein in the Kurds, who are now so powerful?

Of course, the opposite might happen and Iraq might break up. But this would not necessarily be good news for the Kurds. Already they are being forced to flee Baghdad and Sunni Arab provinces where they are a small minority vulnerable to assassins and death squads.

I first encountered the Kurds at the nadir of their fortunes in 1975, when Saddam Hussein had taken over Kurdistan after Iran, in return for Iraqi territorial concessions, withdrew support for the Kurdish national movement. His act of betrayal did not do the Shah much good. Three years later I was in Tehran where Ayatollah Khomeini had just overthrown him. I drove two days to the Iranian border with Iraq to meet Massoud Barzani, today president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He was holding a meeting to try to reorganise the Kurdish forces.

Their prospects looked bleak enough to me. They were fighting a wholly ruthless leader, Saddam Hussein, with a powerful army and ever-increasing oil wealth. The Iraqi leader had yet to reveal that he had an infinite ability to shoot himself in the foot by exaggerating his own strength and underestimating that of his opponents. Having convinced himself that Ayatollah Khomeini's regime would be a soft target, he attacked Iran in 1980 and the Iranians retaliated by giving support to the Iraqi Kurds.

The Iran-Iraq war ended with an even more terrible defeat for the Kurds. Those who were not killed saw their country devastated. The uprising of 1991, in the wake of Saddam Hussein's defeat in Kuwait, swept away Saddam's rule in a few days. Kurdish soldiers captured Kirkuk. But as the Iraqi army counter-offensive gathered strength, the entire Kurdish population fled to the borders of Turkey and Iran. A wave of sympathy provoked by their flight forced the US to provide air cover, allowing a de facto Kurdish state to begin to come into being.

Saddam Hussein believed he could leave Kurdistan alone because it was isolated, war-torn and impoverished. In this he was not wrong. In 1996 I visited a village called Penjwin, not far from Iraq's border with Iran. The Kurdish villagers, living on the verge of starvation, had taken up the world's most dangerous occupation to feed their families.

Around Penjwin were some of the largest minefields in the world, laid by the Iraqi army at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. One of these mines was called the Valmara, an Italian jumping mine which looks like a miniature Dalek with horns on its head. Touch one of these prongs and a small charge makes it hop into the air before exploding at waist height, sending hundreds of lethal ball-bearings in all directions.

Such was the poverty in Penjwin, however, that villagers would defuse the Valmara to earn a few dollars by selling the explosives it contained and the aluminium in which they were wrapped. The local cemetery was full of the newly dug graves of men who had made some small slip while dismantling the mine; others had somehow survived with the loss of a hand or a leg and could be seen limping down the village street.

I always thought of Penjwin as the epitome of the misery to which the Kurds had been reduced by decades of war. But the courage and ingenuity needed to harvest the minefields was also a sign that they would survive the disasters inflicted on them. When I went back to Penjwin in 2005, parts of the village were being rebuilt. Minefields were still visible beside the road, their presence indicated by metal sticks with red triangles on top, but many had been cleared.

The villagers said they were no longer so poor that they had to defuse the Valmaras to make money. They lived instead on the government ration, herding sheep and, when night fell, on the flourishing smuggling trade with Iran a few miles down the road.

Kurdistan was for decades the most dangerous part of Iraq. Getting there was always a challenge. When I went a few weeks before the invasion in 2003, I had to cross the Tigris from Syria secretly in a tin boat with an outboard motor.

Three years later it is far less nerve-racking to travel to Arbil, the Kurdish capital, than Baghdad. Its newly built airport is already overstretched, with 60 to 70 flights a week to and from Europe and the rest of the Middle East. When I flew there from Amsterdam last month my main anxiety was loss of my luggage as the small airport tried to cope with the influx of passengers. It was all very different from Baghdad, where the burnt-out cars used by suicide bombers lie beside the airport road.

At first, Arbil, the world's oldest inhabited city with a population of about a million, appears normal compared with the rest of Iraq. New houses and apartment blocks are being built across the city. People drive late at night without worrying about curfews. The lawn of the main International Hotel, invariably called the Sheraton, is covered with tables crowded with diners listening to live music.

It takes a little time to realise that not everything is quite as seems. My hotel, for instance, had more than a dozen flags, including those of Brazil and Morocco, fluttering from poles outside its main door. Few visitors noticed that the only flag missing was that of Iraq, the country in which the hotel is standing.

In theory, the administration of Kurdistan, once deeply divided between the warring mini-states of the KDP and PUK, has united since 8 May 2006 into a single integrated government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). There is a joint 32-member cabinet. The degree of unity is difficult to judge, but at least the Kurds have presented a united front to the rest of Iraq and the world.

Kurdistan is not wholly sealed off from the problems of the rest of Iraq. It is still connected to the Iraqi electrical grid, and electricity is in permanently short supply. Every few hundred yards along the road are young men selling petrol in clear plastic containers. The fuel smuggled in from Iran, considered to be of premium quality, is coloured pink, and that from Iraqi refineries has a clear colour. Substitution of inferior fuel is frequent. Drivers suspiciously smell and rub a sample of petrol through their hands to see if it has been watered down and colour added with a spoonful of red paint before sale.

I may have too rosy a view of Kurdistan because I have too vivid a memory of the bloodiness of its recent past. I half-unconsciously compare every city and town with the way they looked after the the wars of the recent past. My hotel in Arbil, for instance, was fought for by the KDP and PUK during the civil wars between them in the 1990s. Its walls were scarred by machine gun and rocket fire. Arbil was a city that lived with fear. At the start of the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, most of the city's population fled into the country because they thought he would fire chemical weapons into Arbil.

Set in a green plain surrounded by snow-streaked mountains, Sulaimaniyah in eastern Kurdistan was always a prettier city than Arbil. For months now the centre of town has been blocked by a half-built flyover on which work is proceeding at a snail's pace. Local people speak witheringly of the high-level official corruption. Possibly they are right. But the present is at least better than the past. The mountains overlooking Sulaimaniyah are impressive, but I remember, after the Iraqi army recaptured the city in 1991, standing in their foothills beside an excavator that was unearthing a mass grave filled with the bodies of Iraqi security men. They had been slaughtered by the peshmerga.

Whenever I forget the violence of the recent past in Kurdistan, something happens to remind me. I was driving earlier this summer to a resort called Shaqlawa in the mountains above Arbil. The driver of the car had been pointing out various points of interest on the road when he added, without changing his tone of voice, "over there my father and elder brother were shot dead by the Iraqi army during the uprising".

The great majority of Iraqi Kurds would like to be independent, but most are probably resignedly aware of the great dangers involved. They have also become ever more different from other Iraqis. Fewer and fewer speak Arabic. When I asked a hundred peshmerga how many spoke the language as well as Kurdish, only three men put up their hands. Kurdistan also stands out as being broadly secular in a country that is becoming more Islamic. Nevertheless, the Kurdish leaders know that they must have an alliance with the Shia religious parties inside Iraq and the support of the US outside it. Even if Iraq becomes more and more of a geographical expression, the Kurds need to be part of it.

Most Iraqi Arabs accept that the three northern, wholly Kurdish provinces should enjoy autonomy close to independence. The real differences arise in defining Kurdistan. The Kurds intend to roll back half a century of ethnic cleansing, above all in the oil province of Kirkuk, over which they have de facto military and political control. They want Arab settlers to return to their homes elsewhere in Iraq and Kurdish refugees to replace them. By 31 December 2007 there should be a referendum under which Kirkuk can vote to join the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The fate of Kirkuk province has traditionally been the single issue on which agreements between past governments in Baghdad and the Kurds have always broken. At the moment the Kurds have the strength to get most of what they want, though they might have to cede control of the heavily Arab western part of the province. But their determination to include Kirkuk in their Kurdish super-region convinces Arabs that, whatever the Kurds say, they are bent on practical independence.

In the meantime, violence in Kirkuk is escalating. On 13 June, four suicide bombs killed at least 16 people in the city. Arab militiamen are establishing a presence. When I visited Kirkuk earlier in the year Kurdish security had arrested a doctor called Luay al-Tai at the local Republican hospital, who confessed to murdering 43 patients, mostly wounded security men and soldiers. The member of an insurgent cell, Dr Luay had injected them with lethal drugs or switched off their oxygen supply over a five-month period up to February 2006.

Economically, Kurdistan is still tied to Baghdad, from which it receives 17 per cent of Iraq's oil revenues. Under the new constitution, oilfields developed in future will be managed by the regional government. The KRG has already signed agreements with several foreign oil companies to explore for oil inside the three northern provinces, and some oil has been discovered. Old oilfields, mostly in desperate need of repair and maintenance, will be managed by the oil ministry in Baghdad.

For the Kurds, it is all the most delicate of balancing acts. They want an Iraqi state to prevent their becoming too vulnerable to Turkey or Iran. Iranian artillery recently fired 2,000 shells across the border with Iraqi Kurdistan to drive this point home. Within Iraq the Kurds need an agreement with the Shia, who make up 60 per cent of the country's population. Kurdish leaders are intent on keeping close to the US as foreign guarantor against the Iranians and Turks.

So far the Kurdish leaders have been astute in dealing with the myriad threats facing them and, thanks to a certain amount of luck, successful. They also know that failure would once again exact a terrible price from their people.