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The next betrayal? The Kurds and their “friends”

Ayub Nuri
22 January 2004

Ayub Nuri is an Iraqi Kurd who has written regularly in openDemocracy.net from northern Iraq since 19 March 2003 when he first reported on, and welcomed, the American invasion. Since then his articles have born witness to his disenchantment with the role of the United States. Now, as the prospect of an American withdrawal looms (at least from formal political power in Iraq, if not from the new US military bases) Nuri calls upon the Coalition to protect the Kurds. This is not the analysis of a careful outside reporter looking at the complexities of, say, a city like Kirkuk, where Arabs and Kurds are now found side by side in an epicenter of Iraqi oil-production. Rather it is the voice of anguish and tension, fearing another long generation of bloody resistance and pain-filled repression. Inevitably, perhaps, the passion becomes nationalist, stereotyping Arabs as untrustworthy and Kurds as loyal people. We do not endorse such phrases but in these circumstances where the future of Iraq may have enormous consequences for the fate of the world, it is essential to attend to the pain and foreboding they express.

You will hardly find a single Iraqi Kurd who is not happy with the fall of Saddam’s regime and his capture in December 2003. Yet the struggle we Kurds have waged in the last thirty years was not against Saddam Hussein alone, but against a regime that was denying our democratic rights as Kurds.

Indeed, this struggle stretches back even farther than thirty years – to the period after the first world war, when much of Kurdistan was attached to Iraq by the British colonial authorities against the will of the Kurds themselves. The British, guided by their interests in the region’s oil, broke their promises of Kurdish independence, throwing the Kurds on the mercy of Arab nationalists (as well as Turks and Persians) without any compunction.

The Kurds were left with the hard task of fighting alone for our rights. For the last eighty years, we have sacrificed plenty of lives to this struggle. In Iraq, this has meant resisting successive regimes in Baghdad. Throughout, we have tried to take our story to the outside world, detailing all the crimes committed against us by those regimes. No country was willing to acknowledge what was happening to us in Kurdistan: the United States included. Only the fragile autonomy secured after the United States-led war to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 gave us a temporary breathing-space.

Arabs and Kurds: worlds apart

So many betrayals and rebuffs of our cause by the outside world did not, however, prevent the same Kurds from becoming a major ally of the United States in its war against Saddam’s regime in 2003. For us, this was another opportunity to achieve our aims and put an end to an especially cruel regime that had been killing us for three decades.

We did not forget that this meant entering into an alliance with the same America and Britain that had helped unleash Saddam on Iraq, and against the Iraqi people and their neighbours in the first place. It was, after all, the same Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and their associates who had turned a blind eye to the chemical gas attack on the Kurds in Halabja in 1988, who now visited it in 2003 as the scene of a war crime.

With the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, Iraqi Kurds hoped that finally we were within sight of guaranteed autonomy and stable relationships with our neighbours. But now that America has made itself master of Iraq’s destiny, it seems strangely unwilling to listen to Kurdish aspirations. Now that the ‘Iraqi freedom’ mission is accomplished, America has begun to argue that the fate of the Kurdish people lies in the hands of the Iraqi authorities and the Iraqi people. This latest setback is a huge disappointment to the Kurds, for the majority of the Iraqi population is composed of Arabs – both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

Shi’a members of the governing council seem to have promised Kurdish leaders that, after the Shi’a themselves have gained power in Iraq, they will vote for the type of federalism the Kurds favour. The Sunni community of Iraq, by contrast, sees such a federalist arrangement as the theft of part of their country, and a blow against their national feeling. But neither group seems likely to get what they want.

If the Shi’a majority ran Iraq, they would have to dance to the tune of their long-term supporter and co-religionist Iran, with its own millions of Kurds – whose rights are similarly denied. So our Kurdish leaders must be very careful indeed to avoid being deceived yet again by current promises, from whatever source.

Kurdish members of the Iraqi Governing Council have a historical responsibility to future generations of Kurds, who must not be asked to pay a heavy price for our weakness today. The world should realise that Kurds and Arabs distinct peoples. Kurdistan and its Kurds existed for centuries before Iraq came into being as a country. We Iraqi Kurds are self-sufficient and deserve to be treated in distinction from the other parts of Iraq.

Americans and Kurds: the price of partnership

The Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in central and southern parts of Iraq share a common language, history and culture. In addition there is a real prospect that a shared sense of belonging to the nation will make them willing to stay together in one Iraq. But what could such an Iraq offer us? Could we expect its Arab leaders to be either familiar with or loyal to Kurdish concerns? The Arabs of Iraq have always looked to the Arab League and the tribal system to solve all their problems as well as their day-to-day and national disputes. By contrast, we Kurds hanker for modernity and make every effort to keep abreast of international developments. Long ago, we put the tribal system that the Arabs still abide by, behind us.

The time, then, is overdue for the United States and the Arabs to recognise the Kurdish demand for self-rule. In return, we are quite explicit in saying that we will provide America with all the oil, security, support for the ‘war against terror’ and so-called democracy that it wants, if it will only grant us independence, or the kind of federalism that we can live with.

In recognising such a demand, the United States would do well not to rely on those Kurdish leaders who are members of the governing council as fully representative of the Kurdish case. Alongside their struggles in the Kurdish cause, these guys have their own ambitions to pursue. It is the Kurdish people as a whole who have to be listened to – and given the space we need to run our own affairs.

The United States is now talking about transferring authority to the Iraqi government as early as June 2004. So before the US leaves the country, it must give the green light to the Iraqi government to grant the Kurds the right of self-determination. Only this will be sufficient reward for our long struggle, the crimes perpetrated against us, and our support for United States efforts to overthrow Saddam’s regime.

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