NORTHERN IRAQ – For 11 years, U.S. fighter jets kept these
honey-colored mountains safe from Saddam Hussein.
But now the 3.5 million Kurdish people thriving here pose dangerous
problems for a possible U.S. war on Iraq, and for the country that
would remain if Hussein falls.
The U.S. air patrols have inspired Kurds – such as woodcutter Burus
Olmez – in their decades-long push for an independent Kurdistan.
Olmez, 28, who enters Iraq from a village in Turkey to load logs
and trade in cigarettes and sugar, looks forward to increased
commerce under Kurdish rule. In Turkey, he must work as a “village
guard” against Kurdish separatists, a job he hates.
“I don’t want to kill anybody,” he said recently, leaning on a
concrete security post that once bore Hussein’s eagle insignia.
“We want all Kurdish people to be free.”
This yearning for freedom is forcing a very tough play for the
United States – balancing the goal of replacing Hussein, Kurdish
ambitions and the concerns of neighboring Turkey, a key ally that
opposes Kurdish independence.
The Kurds are the world’s largest group without a country – 25
million people in all, scattered across Iran, Iraq, Syria and
Turkey. Nobody has ever controlled the Kurds. They are mostly
Muslims, ethnically distinct from Arabs, Turks and Persians, known
for their intricate language and fine, hand-tied carpets.
Entrenched in ancient stone hamlets, Kurds control vast oilfields,
as well as water sources such as the Tigris River that the Middle
East desperately needs. And Iraqi Kurds have amassed armies with an
estimated 80,000 troops.
Their leaders are grateful for the U.S. protection they’ve received
since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and pledge support if disarmament
efforts fail and America launches war on Iraq.
But Iraqi Kurds insist any war must give them freedom from a
central government in Baghdad.
“We want to make sure we are not oppressed,” said Qubad Talibani,
representing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main
Kurdish factions. “We are not satisfied with what we have.”
Neighboring Turkey bristles, concerned that independence could
cause chaos in Iraq and incite the 13 million Kurds in Turkey who
also want to be free.
The United States labors to keep Turkey calm. Turkey’s modern
military bases are critical for a war on Iraq. F-16s poised on
runways at Incirlik, northwest of the Turkey-Iraq border, fly the
patrols over northern Iraq. An underground hospital is ready to
treat victims of chemical attacks. U.S. cargo planes hauled in
supplies and bombs last week, and nurses gave anthrax vaccinations,
as diplomats negotiated for Turkish approval to use bases for a war
Turkey meanwhile has sent tanks and camouflage-clad troops to the
Turkey-Iraq borderlands. And it backs the Iraqi Turkomen Front in
northern Iraq. This group, with a 500-member militia and a
Washington lobbyist, asserts interests of non-Kurdish Turks in the
Mishmash of policies, treatment
U.S. officials face additional complications from internal Kurdish
feuding. Rival factions in Iraq – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
and the Kurdistan Democratic Party – run separate governments. A
civil war between these factions in the mid-1990s claimed 5,000
The Kurds also clash with other Iraqi groups. There are Shiite
Muslims supported by Iran, Sunni Muslims for and against Hussein,
royalists wanting to bring back a king, and an exile-run Iraqi
National Congress. All try to curb the Kurds.
Kurdish factions act “as if they are de-facto governments,” said
INC director Entifadh Qanbar in Washington, warning that Iraq seems
destined for “maximum fragmentation” if Hussein is removed.
This month, squabbling between Kurds and other opposition groups
postponed a unity conference that U.S. diplomats helped organize.
For decades, U.S. policy toward the Kurds has been a mishmash.
Americans treated Iraqi Kurds as allies when that was convenient.
Kurds in Turkey were ignored.
On one hand, the United States supplies combat helicopters that
Turkey’s military uses to enforce martial law in Kurdish regions.
Turkish forces emptied more than 3,000 Kurdish villages in the
1990s, uprooting an estimated 400,000 Kurds. Then they installed
some 46,000 “village guards” to squelch support for the banned
Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Turkish authorities continue to detain and torture Kurds, using
electro-shock and other methods, said Sezgin Tanzikulu, a
human-rights lawyer in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, walking
near a helicopter base where U.S.-supplied helicopters fly in and
Over the past 11 months, Kurds in southeastern Turkey filed 159
cases alleging abuse by military gendarmes or civilian police,
Tanzikulu said, adding that most abuses aren’t reported.
Freelance journalist Yilmaz Akinci, 25, recalled how a gendarme
collared him as “one with an illegal face,” put a gun to his
head, and said, “You know, I can easily kill you.”
International human-rights organizations accuse U.S. officials of
tolerating abuses in Turkey.
At the same time, U.S. Air Force patrols over northern Iraq –
dozens of fighter jets scream overhead enforcing a no-fly zone
against Iraqi forces – guarantee safety across an area the size of
Maryland. As a result, Iraqi Kurds savor what they call a golden
They’ve built thousands of schools, including a new university.
Leaders conduct parliamentary debates and recently drafted a
constitution declaring Kirkuk, just outside the safe haven, a
Kurdish capital. Kirkuk is the site of one of the world’s largest
This month, covert U.S. agents headed through southeastern Turkey
toward northern Iraq. U.S. officials decline comment on what they
may be doing.
‘No friends but the mountains’
U.S. military planners count Kurds as allies in any war on Iraq.
They have identified thousands as candidates for possible combat
training, said Lt. Col. Dave Lipan, a Pentagon spokesman. The Kurds
offer access to strategic runways and turf within 100 miles of
But first, Kurdish leaders demand a U.S. guarantee of protection
should Hussein launch a pre-emptive attack against them. They
remind U.S. officials how, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf
War, the first President Bush urged Kurds to rise up against
Hussein. The Kurds did so. The United States failed to help. Iraqi
forces crushed the Kurds, sending refugees north into Turkey and
reinforcing an ancient Kurdish proverb: “We have no friends but
That could happen again, said Farhad Barzani, a Kurdistan
Democratic Party envoy in Washington and nephew of its leader
Massoud Barzani. “Without moving a single soldier, the Iraqis can
shell us with chemical weapons,” he said. “We think America
should publicly say: ‘If Iraq attacks, we will respond immediately.
U.S. officials won’t comment on whether they would protect Iraqi
But U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Robert Pearson has told Turkey’s
rulers Kurds would be contained after a regime-toppling war.
“We oppose any independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq,”
Pearson said in a Denver Post interview at his residence in
Instead, U.S. officials talk of a democratic system designed to
give all factions equal opportunity in a post-Hussein Iraq – a
model for the rest of the authoritarian Middle East. The details of
how much control a central government could have still are under
debate. State Department bureaucrats guide “future of Iraq”
brainstorming sessions involving some of the 100,000 Iraqi
immigrants in America.
Analysts warn that any U.S. reliance on Kurds or other factions
will have strings attached – as in Afghanistan, where warlords who
helped the United States now seek favorable treatment.
The stakes, experts say, are much higher here.
“The Kurds could destabilize the whole Middle East,” said
political scientist and former government consultant Michael Gunter
at Tennessee Technological University. He emphasizes the Kurds’
presence in four countries, and global dependence on Mideast oil.
Today’s talk of eliminating Hussein and then delivering “a nice
democratic baby” is unrealistic, said Gunter, a former consultant
to the U.S. government on Kurdish issues who in March 1988 met with
Turkey’s now-imprisoned Kurdish separatist leader, Abdullah
Nor will America’s past “use-them-when-we- need-them” approach to
Iraqi Kurds suffice given U.S. interests in oil and regional
“The solution would have to be some type of long-term American
involvement. You need the United States in there. But you’d also
need cooperation from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. If you think
you are going to get that, you probably believe in the tooth
fairy,” he said. “It’s not easy to be optimistic about this. …
This problem will come back and burn us if we walk away.”
Bottom line: U.S. air protection already has created a de facto
“Kurdistan” in Iraq, said former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter
Galbraith, who has visited Iraqi Kurdish territory nine times over
the past two decades.
After any war, Kurdish forces “are not going to meekly go back
under Baghdad control,” said Galbraith, now a professor at the
National Defense University, a government think tank.
“We can’t use force to bring them under Baghdad control. They are
going to be our allies. Besides, that wouldn’t be just. We are just
going to have to come to terms with it. So is Turkey.”
Negotiating postwar arrangements
Now in the run-up to a possible U.S. war, Kurdish leaders are down
from the mountains, jockeying in Washington, London and Turkey’s
capital, Ankara, for favorable postwar arrangements.
Consider the scene one recent evening in Ankara, beyond clusters of
black Mercedes at a grand hotel. In the glowing atrium, Turkish
generals with medals on their lapels commanded prime, padded chairs
while intelligence agents skulked about murmuring into cellphones.
In strode a burly man with a mustache, Sanaan Kassap, leader of the
Iraqi Turkomen Front that asserts Turkish interests in northern
Iraq. The group seeks U.S. funding under the 1998 Iraqi Liberation
Act, said Mustafa Ziya, the front’s coordinator. The act provides
millions of dollars for Iraqi opposition groups.
Across the lobby, leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party watched
warily. They’re feuding with the Turkomen Front over its 500 armed
“guards” in Iraq, said Safeen Dizayee, the KDP representative in
Turkey. The Turkomen “totally disregard our regional Kurdish
administration,” he said, and the militia is “a security risk.”
Iraqi Kurds want independence, but without support from the United
States they will settle for autonomy within a federation of Iraqi
groups, Dizayee said. “I mean, we are actually independent now.
But if we declared it, how long would we survive? We have to be
pragmatic. It’s the right of the Kurds to be independent. But the
geopolitical situation does not allow that.”
Iraqi Kurdish leaders have proposed expanded turf, while a central
Iraqi government would guide foreign, military and economic
Turkish officials reject this.
“A federation can lead, in the long term, to a dismantlement of
Iraq,” said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“There is no experience of ‘a federation’ in the Middle East. If
there is instability in Iraq, it could be worse than it is under
And instability in a postwar Iraq could spread to Turkey.
Interviews with Kurds in southeastern Turkey reveal the push to
create a Kurdistan under U.S. protection in Iraq – and the arrival
of a new Turkish government – are raising expectations for better
‘We are second-class’
These rolling hills where scarf-clad women pick cotton and rusting
oil trucks whoosh past bullet-pocked shells of former shops long
have been a hotbed of anti-Turkish sentiment. The name of every
town has been changed from Kurdish to Turkish. Parents give their
sons and daughters Turkish names, and teachers punish children who
Turkey’s 15-year crackdown to suppress any sympathy for the banned
PKK cowed many Kurds.
Yet at the roadside village of Svik, sharecroppers proudly told how
they refused Turkish offers of $190 a month each to serve as
“village guards” against separatists. That money would have
bought medical care for sick and deformed children, and paved
Svik’s muddy streets.
“Any true Kurd would refuse,” said Bedirhon Gokhan, 42. “If we
could, we’d make a Kurdistan. We want all the Kurdish people to
live together. If the U.S. war against Iraq will help us live
together, we want this.”
The Kurdish-run People’s Democracy Party, successor to the PKK, now
wins more than 50 percent of votes in southeastern cities. Kurds
join because “they see that in Iraq, as in Iran, Kurds can teach
Kurdish in school,” said Aydin Unesi, a gas station manager who
directs the party in the town of Batman along the Tigris River.
Kurdish schools and newspapers in the Iraqi safe haven are “an
example for us,” he said. “Kurdish people in Turkey, we want
Some party members envision new arrangements for Kurds to cross
Turkish, Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi borders. “They are Kurds. We
are Kurds. Why not?” said Sehnaz Turan, 28, a party administrator
in Diyarbakir. “I know those outside Turkey have better
conditions. They are free to express the culture, the language. We
haven’t seen freedom in practice yet here.”
Turkish Kurds already press for cross-border commerce.
Thousands of oil trucks line up at the main border crossing at
Habur. There drivers wait for weeks as Turkish border guards parse
out permission to enter Iraq and buy oil, then return and sell it
for a profit.
This defies United Nations sanctions against Iraq, but long has
sustained Turkish Kurds. “People depend on it here,” said butcher
Bayram Yakut, 30, pouring tea as trucks rolled past his shop just
north of Habur. “We want the door open.”
Turkish soldiers posted in the borderlands say they will block any
Iraqi Kurdish refugees who might flee north to Turkey in a war.
A U.S. war may prompt an extension of martial law in southeastern
Turkey, said Selahattin Demirtas, 29, a lawyer leading a
human-rights group in Diyarbakir.
“If Turkey’s government would give equal rights to the Kurds,” he
said, “then people would accept being part of Turkey.”
Turkey’s ailing economy adds urgency to the Kurds’ call for
Huddled in burlap-and-plastic tents by a roadside near Batman, a
group of migrant $1.90-a-day cotton pickers complained they can’t
get medical attention. Rain pattered on the tent roofs and mud
oozed around them. They went to big cities looking for jobs, “but
we are second-class,” said Mehmet Titiz, 45, a father of six.
Even the childrens’ hands were calloused from picking. Parents said
they are ashamed that their children don’t attend school. They
would also prefer to give their children Kurdish names and listen
to radio news in Kurdish, said Mehmet Guli Tepe, 41, gesturing
helplessly at his skinny 12-year-old boy.
“We can’t keep living like this.”