Kurd Issue Likely to Fuel Chaos in Future Iraq

Kurd Issue Likely to Fuel Chaos in Future Iraq
Amir Taheri, Arab News

Arab News
June 22 2004

With the end of the 14-month occupation, Iraq is likely to be faced,
once again, with some of the problems it has had ever since it was
put on the map as a nation-state in 1921.

The most complex of these concerns the Kurds whose leaders are playing
a game of bluff and counter bluff in the hope of exacting maximum
advantage in a period of uncertainty.

Both Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the two most prominent leaders
of the Iraqi Kurds, have dropped hints that they might decide to
“part ways” if their demand for a Kurdish veto on some key national
decisions is not included in the new constitution.

This may or may not be a bluff. But the threat of Kurdish secession
has already met with two different reactions from Iraq’s non-Kurdish
leadership elite.

Some Iraqi Arab leaders are horrified at the thought of the Kurdish
problem dominating the nation’s agenda once again. They are prepared
to do all they reasonably can to satisfy Kurdish demands within a
multi-ethnic pluralist system.

Others, however, manifest some frustration against the Kurds.

“The Kurds have been the source of all our national miseries from
the start,” says one Iraqi Arab leader on condition of anonymity. “We
became involved in several wars because of them. We also had to submit
to dictators because we believed they would prevent the Kurds from
secession. But now that Iraq is free why should we return to the
failed policies of the past just to keep the Kurds under our flag?”

Many Iraqis, and some policy-makers in Washington, see the Kurdish
secession as the worst case scenario for the newly-liberated nation.
Barzani and Talabani, arguably the most experienced politicians in
Iraq today, know this and try to exploit such fears.

A closer look at the reality of the situation, however, would show that
there is little chance for a breakaway Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

There are several reasons for this. To start with Iraqi Kurds do not
constitute a single ethnic entity let alone a “nation” in the accepted
sense of the term.

Iraqi Kurds speak two different, though mutually intelligible,
languages, each of which is divided into several sub-dialects, with
distinct literally and cultural traditions.

Iraqi Kurds are also divided into half a dozen religious communities,
including a number of heterodox creeds.

Some of the people generally labelled “Kurdish” are, in fact
ethnic Lurs and Elamites with their distinct languages, cultures
and histories. At the same time the predominantly Kurdish area is
also home to some non-Kurdish communities, including ethnic Arabs,
Turcomans, Assyrians and Armenians.

To make matters more complicated, at least a third of Iraqi Kurds live
outside the area that might one day become an independent Kurdish
state. (There are more than a million Kurds in greater Baghdad,
for example.) The creation of a breakaway Kurdish state in Iraq
could trigger a process of ethnic cleansing, population exchanges,
and displacements that could plunge the whole region into years
of conflict.

A Kurdish mini-state in northeastern Iraq might not even be viable.
It would be landlocked and will have few natural resources.

Almost all of Iraq’s major oil fields fall outside the area under
discussion. Also, the area’s water resources would be vulnerable to
manipulation from Turkey and Iran where the principal rivers originate.

But what about a greater Kurdistan, encompassing all who describe
themselves as Kurds? After all there are millions of people who,
despite the objective diversity of their languages, histories, and
ways of life, feel themselves to be Kurds.

Such a state, including Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iran, Armenia and
Azerbaijan as well as Iraq, would have a population of 30 million
in an area the size of France. To create this greater Kurdistan one
would have to reorganize a good part of the Middle East and re-draw
the borders of six states, including the two largest in the region:
Turkey and Iran. Even then the greater Kurdistan would still be a
weak landlocked state with few natural resources, and surrounded by
powers that, if not hostile, would not go out of their ways to help
it get along.

Such a greater Kurdistan would face numerous internal problems also.
To start with it will have to decide which of the four alphabets in
use for writing the various Kurdish languages should be adopted as
the national one.

If the view of the majority is to prevail the alphabet chosen should be
Turkish because almost half of all Kurds live in Turkey. At the same
time, however, the bulk of Kurdish historic, literary, political,
religious and other significant texts are written in the Persian
alphabet, itself an expanded version of the Arabic. And where would
be the capital of the greater Kurdistan?

If history, myth and, to some extent, the number of inhabitants,
are the yardsticks the Iranian cities of Sanandaj and Mahabad would
be strong candidates. And, yet, the city with the largest number
of Kurdish inhabitants is Istanbul, Turkey’s cultural and business
capital which is home to more than 1.6 million ethnic Kurds.

In a greater Kurdistan the intellectual elite would come from Iran and
the business elite from Turkey. Would they then allow Iraqi Kurds to
provide the political elite? That is hardly likely. What is certain,
however, is that in a greater Kurdistan Barzani and Talabani, now big
fish in the smaller Iraqi pond, could end up as small fish in a much
bigger pond.

All that means that Barzani and Talabani have no interest, personal
or otherwise, to provoke the disintegration of Iraq only to end up
as local player in a bigger Kurdish state. Nor do a majority of Iraqi
Kurds have an interest in leaving Iraq now that it has, for the first
time, a real opportunity to build a state in which Kurds can enjoy
full autonomy plus a leading position in national power structures.

The experience of the 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds who have lived a life
of full autonomy thanks to US-led protection since 1991 is a mixed
one. The area was divided into two halves, one led by Barzani the other
by Talabani, showing that even limited unity was hard to achieve in a
corner of Iraq let alone throughout the vast region where the Kurds
live. The two mini-states respectively led by Barzani and Talabani
developed a complex pattern of shifting alliances in which, at times,
one allied itself with Saddam Hussein against the other. The two
mini-states even became involved in numerous battles, including a
full-scale war.

Like pan-Arabism and its promise of unity, Kurdish unification is
easy to talk about but hard to implement even on a small scale.

Barzani and Talabani should stop bluffing about “walking away”. Other
Iraqis, meanwhile, should realize that a shrunken Iraq, that is to
say minus its Kurds, would be a vulnerable mini-state in a dangerous

The preservation of Iraq’s unity is in the interests of both Kurds
and Arabs. It is also in the best interest of regional peace.

At the start of the 21st century, the Kurds cannot pursue their
legitimate aspirations through the prism of 19th century romantic
nationalism which has mothered so many wars and tragedies all over
the world.

The Kurds, wherever they live, must be able to speak their languages,
develop their culture, practice their religions and generally run
their own affairs as they deem fit. These are inalienable human rights,
and the newly-liberated Iraq may be the only place, at least for the
time being, where the Kurds can exercise those rights.

In other words this is not the time for the Kurds to think of leaving
Iraq nor for other Iraqis to deny the legitimate rights of their
Kurdish brethren.