Copyrighted material


by Jalal Ghazi

The United States and the Kurds: A Brief History

(PNS) -- As a Palestinian I understand the Kurdish dream of independence, kept alive despite decades of Turkish, Arab and Iranian oppression. As a Palestinian, I also worry about where it will lead them.

The Kurds and Palestinians have more in common than most people realize. Palestinians were supposed to have their own state through the Partition Plan approved by the United Nations in 1947. Israel just celebrated its 60th anniversary, and Palestinians are still waiting for their state.

Kurds were also supposed to have their own state based on the Treaty of Severs, signed by the Allies and the Ottoman government in 1920. But Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk renegotiated the terms under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 which called for the division of Kurdish land between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Turkey was able to keep the Kurdish territories and the British who occupied Iraq at the time were able to control the oil-rich region in Northern Iraq.

The Palestinians and the Kurds have never given up trying to undo these historical injustices. Though both of them were able to establish some form of self-rule in parts of their original homelands after years of sacrifice, the price has been steep. Self-rule left them vulnerable to economic sanctions and military retaliation, and highlighted divisions among their major political factions.

It is too late for the severely divided Palestinians to turn the clock backward. Their dream of independence has led them to a dead end and made them the weakest they have ever been.

The Kurds, however, still have the chance to avoid the Palestinian fate.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq may be considered the most successful self-rule experiment in modern Kurdish history, but it still could end in catastrophe like their first two attempts at autonomy.

In 1945, Qazi Muhammad, the head of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, proclaimed the formation of the Kurdish Republic of Mahbad in northwestern Iran with the backing of the Russians. It only lasted eleven months. When the Iranian government reached an oil deal with Russia, Moscow withdrew its support from Mahbad. The Iranian army quickly crushed the newly formed republic and hanged Qazi Muhammad.

In the early 1970s Saddam Hussein, chief negotiator for the Baath regime, and Kurdish leader Mustafa al-Barzani, who fought the Iraqis for years, signed the Manifesto of March that called for Kurdish self-rule in what was called Kurdistan Autonomous Region. A census was supposed to be held in 1974 to determine the borders of this region and include areas where Kurds formed the majority of the population.

Iraq, unwilling to relinquish oil-rich regions like Kirkuk started a process of "Arabization" in which the Iraqi central government forcefully replaced thousands of Kurds with Arab settlers. When the Kurds supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Saddam Hussein launched the Anfal campaign in which chemical weapons were used and more than 100,000 Kurds reputedly died.

The Kurds attempted to rebel against Saddam Hussein again after the first Gulf War in 1991. Though the United States did not follow through on its promise to support the Kurds in that rebellion, the United Nations imposes a no-fly zone that enabled the Kurds to establish a proto-state there.

Ironically, the establishment of a proto-state fueled a power struggle between the two major Kurdish parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Civil war erupted between them in 1994, claiming the lives of 1,000 Kurds.

But in 2005 the two parties joined forces under the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan and won 26 percent of the vote, thus securing the post of the Iraqi president for Jalal Talabani, the head of the PUK. Massoud Barzani, leader of the KDP, became the president of the Kurdish Regional Government. But the two parties remain suspicious of each another and maintain separate militias and finance ministries.

The Kurdish Regional Government, operating under the central authority of Baghdad, has made it harder for Turks to impose economic sanctions on them. Though the Turks are threatening retaliatory attacks in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, a Turkish invasion would have to face the Iraqi army as well as opposition from other Arab countries.

All this could change if the Kurds declared independence.

Regrettably, the policies of officials from the Kurdish Regional Govenment indicate that they are actively pursuing the never-ending Kurdish dream of independence -- despite the 100,000 Turkish soldiers at their borders. The Kurdish Iraqi officials have expressed willingness to cooperate with central Iraqi government and U.S. forces in cracking down on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but in reality their cooperation is insufficient and done in the hope that it will lead to direct talks with Turkey. That would be a de facto recognition of the Kurdish regional government.

In addition, the Kurdish regional government under Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has signed several oil contracts with foreign states in clear violation of the Iraqi constitution.

On Nov. 30, Barzani expressed resentment over the central Iraqi government's decision to delay the referendum on Kirkuk, which was supposed to be held by the end of the year. He said, "We could have taken over Kirkuk by various means in 2003 when Saddam was toppled. However, we choose to do this through peaceful means and through the laws." The Kurds are determined to hold onto Kirkuk since no viable state can be established without Kirkuk's oil.

If the Iraqi Kurds don't want to end up where the Palestinian are now, they should pause before taking further steps towards independence. This will only isolate them from their neighbors who fear an increase Kurdish national sentiment among their own Kurdish populations. An independent Kurdistan would make it harder for the Kurds inside Turkey, Iran and Syria to fight for their rights because they would be under increased suspicion. As for the Kurds in Kurdistan, they should integrate further into the Iraqi political and economic system because their best hope to protect their territory and rights is as Iraqi citizens.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   December 4, 2007   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.