Missiles fail to save the Kurds

Hitting Iraq boosted Clinton, but the deprived and divided people in whose name he acted could still fall victim to Baghdad
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Entitled Jihad vs McWorld, a book published last year in the US characterises our era in terms of a conflict between modern global consumerism and ancient tribalisms rooted in blood. One obeys the logic of the marketplace; the other answers to reasons of the heart. One is simple and predictable; the other unfathomably complex.

Such was the nature of the clash last week between the United States and Iraq. To comprehend why President Bill Clinton ordered the launch of the cruise missiles, think Hollywood, then think US elections, and his motives fall easily into place. Hollywood is defined by the political scientist who wrote Jihad vs McWorld, Benjamin Barber, as the quintessential expression of McWorld's "infantile" consumerist culture. It is a world of good guys and bad guys where the good guys stand up for American values and always win.

Bob Dole, the Republican candidate in this year's election, alerted his rival to how the US public is trained to respond when a man in green uniform with a black moustache and swarthy Arab features tweaks the behind of Uncle Sam. Barely 24 hours had passed since the Iraqi incursion into Kurdish territory, but Mr Dole said that by failing to do anything Mr Clinton had displayed "weak leadership".

The situation in northern Iraq did not lend itself to easy definition. Saddam had broken the rules, but he had done so in opposition to a Kurdish group friendly with Iran, which the US has branded a terrorist state and recognised as potentially a far greater threat to Middle East peace than Iraq. Besides, no sooner had Saddam invaded than he appeared to be withdrawing his forces once more. What ought the US course of action to be?

Best to act on Mr Dole's jibe, Mr Clinton figured, and do it swiftly. For had he failed to strike a blow against Saddam, he would have handed Mr Dole the opportunity of a speech every day from here to 5 November, pointing out his rival's lack of mettle. Instead the polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Americans supported the missile strikes, and he stretched his lead over Mr Dole.

Things are otherwise in Planet Jihad. Sitting in a small office hung with photographs of international encounters that charted the high hopes of Iraqi Kurdistan during the past five years, Jalal Talabani lowered his eyes to the floor as he considered the question of whether the Iraqi Kurds had now blown their best opportunity in decades to govern themselves.

"It's true," said the former lawyer and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), momentarily at a loss for words as his cigar went cold in an ashtray beside him. "We have squandered our chance."

That chance came in the years after 1991, a unique conjuncture in the recent history of the Middle East's 20 to 25 million Kurds to unite on the territory of one of the four countries between which they are split, Iraq. The 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds suddenly found themselves being presented a territory the size of Wales, an apparently blank cheque of Western military protection and a raft of international agencies ready to help them rebuild a society whose ancestral villages had been razed to the ground.

The Western support stemmed from a sense of guilt for encouraging the Kurds to revolt after the Gulf war and then abandoning them to their fate. Huge public pressure was piled on as the world saw television images of sick and starving Kurdish refugees on snow-bound mountain passes. At the same time, the other three states with Kurdish populations - Turkey, Syria and Iran - were compromised, weak or isolated and unable to unify as usual against the new emerging Kurdish entity in Iraq.

But all these factors were to prove ephemeral. Instead of finding strength in unity, the Kurds followed their historically inevitable course of action. They increasingly hedged their bets with Turkey, Iran and now even their long-time oppressor, Saddam.

Both Mr Talabani and his rival, Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) tried but could not unite the Iraqi Kurds behind them. And unlike Saladin, the great ethnic Kurd who used the banner of Islam to throw the Crusaders out of Jerusalem, they failed to produce an ideology to unite their peoples against their common enemies.

Perhaps it was too much to expect that the Iraqi Kurds could do all this, or indeed that they really wanted to. It is a common Western fallacy to think that all Kurds necessarily want an independent state. The mountain highlands where they have lived since the time of the Medes and Xenophon are poor, with few natural resources and are often impossibly remote. Decades of separate development mean that marked differences have grown up between Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish Kurds. Their language, a cousin of Persian, has several dialects.

The better-educated Iraqi Kurds have no wish to be dominated by the four times more numerous Kurds of Turkey, whose main political movement is a quasi-Stalinist guerrilla army. They may not necessarily oppose Turkey's plans to set up a buffer zone on the Iraqi side of the border to deal with the PKK guerrillas.

Above all, the geography and tribal make-up of the Kurds have given rise to intense rivalries for local independence similar to those seen in the feud between Mr Barzani and Mr Talabani today. It is historically completely acceptable to change outside alliances according to their capacity to pay.

"My enemy's enemy is my friend," was perhaps the phrase being used most often last week to justify the apparently unnatural re-alliances, especially that between Mr Barzani and Saddam, who, after all, is responsible for the massacre of 8,000 members of Mr Barzani's own clan. Last week's fighting may have done much psychological though little physical damage to Iraqi Kurdistan, although the capital, Arbil, which Mr Barzani captured last Saturday with Iraqi help, took some damage from light shelling.

Significantly enough, the worst-hit building was the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament, an ambivalent symbol of both Iraqi Kurdish pride and the Iraqi Kurds' last short-lived autonomy agreement with Saddam in the early 1970s. A few hundred villagers have also moved away from local fighting that continued through the week, but the blitzkrieg capture of Arbil was designed to prevent anybody fleeing, perhaps the only situation that could provoke a major Western response.

But there is still a risk that the Iraqi Kurds will lose those advances they have made in the past five years, despite the political uncertainty and in-fighting. Driving through the countryside last week was a completely different experience from five years ago. Many of the 4,000 villages razed by Saddam have been rebuilt, markets are busy and flocks of sheep, cows and goats are larger than ever.

Jerry-cans of smuggled petrol by the roadside have been replaced by proudly painted petrol stations rigged up with old tanks and meters. Big city restaurants have marble pools, forests of pot plants and - in return for a week's wages - can set the table groaning.

Away from the fighting, guns have been banned from the streets, tolls are being collected on bridges and taxes levied from customs posts, especially that on the border with Turkey.

Even so, the population of this once oil-rich country is tired of five years of UN blockades, Iraqi harassment, electricity blackouts and the almost total lack of new goods. All but the most patriotic of the educated classes of engineers and doctors have tried to leave or have succeeded in emigrating.

Messrs Barzani and Talabani used the same word to describe their turning to regional alliances with Iraq and Iran: "desperation". That is the word also used by many Iraqi Kurds who want to go back to a stable society with laws, predictability and above all a steady supply of food.

To this end, many favour reintegration with the rest of Iraq. At the same time they cannot stomach the thought of Saddam's secret police being allowed back, as they were briefly and frighteningly during last weekend's Iraqi army presence in Arbil.

Like their leaders, the Iraqi Kurds take out all their frustrations by blaming outsiders for their problems. "The problem quite simply is this: in 1991, America only took a humanitarian decision about Kurdistan, and not a political one," said Azad, a teacher taking time off at a shady restaurant by a roadside along which busloads of battle-ready guerrillas were once again heading one way and ambulances back the other.