Mountain views: Kurds may have shot at forming a homeland

OLEAN — This space has been used in the past for commentary on the Middle Eastern anomaly of the Kurds, the largest ethnic group on the planet without their own official state. When President Dubya invaded Iraq in 2003, only a tiny fraction of Americans had ever heard of them.
Now, almost daily, it becomes more and more evident the success of the United States effort in Iraq is wedded to the future of the Kurds.
“Kurdistan” — the mountainous area they’ve called home for centuries — is about the size of France. It has no official borders. It encompasses southeast Turkey, southwest Armenia, northwestern Iran, northeastern Syria — and northern Iraq.
It is this last particle upon which the future of the troubled region seems to hinge.
It may be their time. For most of modern history, the Kurds have been screwed over in royal fashion by neighboring peoples — subjugated, oppressed, partitioned, displaced, manipulated, misled, murdered and crushed every time they got a whiff of independence or a hankering for better circumstances.
Even archaeologists argue about from whence they came. Many believe their ethnic wellspring to be the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas. Lots of Kurds have blue eyes. They are non-Arabic people. Their language is closer to Aryan or Persian than Arabic roots. Most Kurds, but not all, are Sunni Muslims. Their outlook, however, seems much more western than the mind set of their neighbors. This has not gone unnoticed by American intelligence officials.
For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, at least, the Kurds led a nomadic existence, herding sheep and goats through the highlands of the above regions. Today, there are about 25 million of them — almost 9 million in southern Turkey. There are about 5 million Kurds currently in Iraq. Many have fled to Europe.
After the Ottoman Empire was shattered in World War I, the French and British rushed in to fill the geopolitical vacuum in the oil-rich Middle East, and redrew most of the boundaries to set up new nation-states and get a piece of the oil action. France mapped out Syria. The Brits drew the boundaries of Iraq.
A 1920 treaty promised the Kurds their independence and own nation in the north of Iraq, and they came within a whisker of achieving it. But the new leaders of Turkey, Iran and Iraq feared so large a separate ethnic group on their borders and would have none of it. The Kurds argued among themselves, and the westerners shrugged off the idea. The treaty went unratified.
A fellow named Winston Churchill, the young British Cabinet secretary charged with making sure the oil from Iraq kept flowing, was rather stern in promoting the British Empire in those days. He even suggested dropping mustard gas from airplanes on Iraqis if they got out of line. But he did realize merely poking the Kurds away in some corner of Iraq would lead to future unrest. He urged British supervisors on the ground in Iraq to make sure Kurds “not be put under Arabs if they do not wish to be.”
Like most Cabinet members in London and Washington through the years, he was ignored, of course. In recent decades, the Kurds have further struggled against oppression. They supported Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
In the last year of that conflict, Saddam Hussein ordered chemical gas attacks against Iraqi Kurds for such insolence and razed several villages, besides killing more than 5,000 Kurds with such weaponry in the town of Halabja — a murderous snit for which he now is in the dock, among other homicides and imaginative atrocities. In Turkey, the government refuses to recognize the Kurds as an ethnic minority group, referring to them officially as “Mountain Turks” and banning use of their native tongue.
In our current unpleasantness in Iraq, we rely greatly upon the Kurds, not that we’ve treated them properly, even in recent years. In 1991, in the closing days of the first Gulf War, Bush the Elder followed his triumphal ousting of Saddam from Kuwait with a rousing public speech in which he exhorted all Iraqis to rebellion against the evil Saddam. Conservative defenders of the Bush pere-et-fils have tried to depict it since as just a wish that would be nice if it came true. It was no such thing. I know. I covered it. Bush the Elder implied forthcoming American military support for such a venture. The Kurds, among others, took him at his word. So did the Shiites in southern Iraq.
Mindlessly, our negotiators had left Saddam with his attack helicopters as part of the 1991 cease-fire terms. He used them. Tens of thousands of rebellious Iraqis were slaughtered, many of them Kurds. About 1.5 million Kurds were forced to flee to the mountains of neighboring Iran and Turkey. The TV images pained the hearts of watching Americans. The Bush administration stood silent.
Perhaps feeling guilty, the White House and Pentagon quickly established a “no-fly zone” north of the 36th parallel — a boundary verboten for Saddam’s attack choppers and fighter planes to cross. It was efficiently enforced all through the 1990s by the Clinton administration and in the early years of Dubya’s first term.
Under this protection, the Kurds prospered. Hospitals and universities went up. Income from black market oil smuggled into Turkey flowed through Kurdistan, as American officers and diplomats looked the other way. American troops stationed in Kurdistan say prayers of thanks they are there and not in Baghdad. The well-trained Kurdish peshmerga — literally, “those who face death” — serves as local militia and relatively successful peacekeepers.
Even with insurgency raging in the south, the Kurdish area in the north of Iraq seems — as former ABC News producer Kevin McKiernan calls it in The Washington Spectator, an excellent capital newsletter — an “island of peace.”
McKiernan — whom intelligence officials respect as very knowledgeable about the region — has written an informative new book on the Kurdish situation. It is called “The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland.” Writing on the subject in the above newsletter, McKiernan writes:
“Outside of Kurdistan, Iraq is awash in sectarian warfare. Government officials in Baghdad report that across the lower two-thirds of the country as many as 110,000 families have fled their homes, that 25,000 people have been kidnapped this year, and that the murder rate has passed 1,000 a month. By contrast, the three provinces under Kurdish control are largely peaceful, continuing the experiment in self-government they began in 1991. Kurdish roads are protected by 24-hour checkpoints, manned by disciplined fighters. Not a single American soldier has been killed in the region.”
In Kurdistan, 200 miles north of Baghdad, “Kurdish society emulates western ways and looks abroad for other models to follow. People on the street readily admit they envy the alliances Israel and Kuwait enjoy with the U.S.”
McKiernan comes very, very close to predicting the Kurds will make their own move soon for independence. McKiernan writes: “Kurdish — not Iraqi — flags fly on public buildings and hints of quasi-sovereignty are everywhere: visitors entering northern Iraq now have their passports stamped ‘Iraqi Kurdistan,’ and a law has been passed by the Kurdistan parliament forbidding Iraqi troops from entering the region without a special vote of Kurdish lawmakers. Arabic is no longer spoken in the three Kurdish provinces, and the Kurds recently signed a contract with a Norwegian company — without consulting Baghdad — to drill for oil near the Turkish border. … There are now direct flights from Europe to Kurdistan, with no need for risky connections in Baghdad; and luxury hotels are being built to accommodate tourists.”
Kurds hope the Americans see all this promise. Every administration since Nixon has used the Kurds as uber-pawns in trying to prop up Iran or Iraq or Turkey in playing one off against another. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan — still cheesed off at Iran for holding U.S. diplomats hostage in Tehran for more than a year — dispatched a much younger Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to offer clandestine aid to Saddam in his war with Iran. It resulted in billions of dollars in military and domestic help, much of it used to suppress the Kurds. More than 100,000 Kurds ended up dead or missing, and 4,000 Kurdish villages were razed. U.S. aid flowed to Saddam unabated until the day he invaded Kuwait — Aug. 1, 1990.
Iraqi Kurds, writes McKiernan, now “worry they will be sacrificed in the new American effort to better relations with Turkey, which was given the cold shoulder after its March 2003 refusal to provide a land corridor to attack Iraq.”
Dubya — in his well-publicized drive to keep the mullahs in Tehran from achieving nuclear arms power — needs Turkey to pressure Iran, and Ankara has already moved 100,000 troops to the Iran-Turkey border. Turkey’s 15 million Kurds — the largest single Kurdish population in the world — are now “restive and eyeing the freedoms of fellow Kurds in Iraq,” according to McKiernan. Turkey is worried about this, and about the presence of rebel units in Iraqi Kurdistan close to the Turkish border. Since April, Turkey has massed another 250,000 troops near its border with Iraq.
Ankara, reports McKiernan, “wants the Bush administration to approve a major cross-border operation against the (rebels) but Iraqi Kurds fear U.S. approval would allow the Turks to occupy, at least temporarily, a large swath of Iraqi Kurdistan. In April, Dubya dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Ankara to confer with Turkish leaders about a joint agreement with Washington on both questions — Iran and the Kurds. The confab turned out to be another embarrassment for Rice and Foggybottom strategists.”
Rice, writes McKiernan, “wanted action on Iran. Turkey wanted action on the Kurds, and local Turkish newspapers heralded Rice’s visit with leaked stories of U.S. satellites monitoring (Kurdish rebels) for the Turkish army.” Not only that, but the Turkish general staff chose her 16-hour visit to mount a huge military crackdown on Kurdish rebels back in Turkey, and — more significantly, but little covered in the United States — to make a limited border-crossing into Iraq while Rice was still in-country. In diplomatic circles, this is akin to smacking an American dignitary across the face with a big, smelly, wet fish.
“It was unlikely the timing was accidental,” concludes McKiernan. “There seems little doubt that the U.S. countenanced the incursions into both Kurdish areas in advance.” So, will we once again betray the Kurds as we bumble through Iraq? McKiernan doesn’t pretend to know. He quotes an old Kurdish proverb that says, “Someone who has been bitten by a snake will always be afraid of a rope.” Me? If I were a Vegas odds-maker? It’s 5-2, on “Yes.”
John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at

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