The Question of Kurdistan
Outside the violent city of Mosul lies the last checkpoint of the Kurdish militia, or peshmerga. The gunmen control a bridge where the dusty rolling land of the northern Mesopotamian plain tucks itself into a seam along the Al Kazir River. In a few months these fields will be green with winter wheat, but now they are wind-swept, pale and desiccated. The yellow late-afternoon sun casts long shadows.
From a hilltop redoubt, the peshmerga watch but do not control three majority-Arab villages clustered along the winding, silted river below. At the bridge they search cars for explosives and weapons and check the identities of Arab drivers headed east from the hell that is Mosul toward the secure enclave of Erbil, the Kurdish capital.
At the checkpoint there is no Iraqi flag flying, only the banner of greater Kurdistan, which nationalists say includes parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. "We are working for the future, not for now. We want an independent Kurdistan. We want to defend our real borders. And we want America to help," says the peshmerga's commanding officer as we sip hot tea and lean into the wake of his desk fan.
All the outward signs at this checkpoint indicate that Kurdish independence is imminent and that Iraq will soon break apart. The new Constitution can also be read as hastening Iraq's end by allowing groups of provinces to create semi-autonomous regions, possible mini-states. Many observers fear this will lead to massive intercommunal war--ending with an oil-rich Kurdistan in the north, an oil-rich Shiite state in the south and a badly wounded, festering Sunni-dominated rump of Iraq in the middle.
Some experts actually argue for such a breakup of Iraq, believing that creating three substates will avoid a wider war. The most prominent advocates of this position are Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and Peter Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia. Over the summer Galbraith, an adviser to the Kurds who is highly critical of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy, laid out this case in a widely read piece for The New York Review of Books. Since then, among the chattering classes of the United States, something like a Galbraithian consensus has developed that sees the "invented" postcolonial nation of Iraq as inevitably headed for disintegration and Kurdistan as already de facto independent.
Yet on the ground in Kurdistan these assumptions begin to fall apart. The region's ties to Iraq are quite strong. At the same time, Kurdistan's internal divisions are surprisingly intense. Just as the Shiites in the south have been fighting among themselves--followers of Sadr versus the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq--so too is the political culture of Kurdistan defined by the fault lines of class, tribe, party and ethnicity; there is no monolithic Kurdish state ready to emerge. Most important, Kurdish leaders are keenly aware that the United States has not given them a green light to seek total independence. The Kurds, landlocked and surrounded by enemies, are candid about not wishing to alienate their new patron, Uncle Sam.
As the crisis in Iraq deepens, American policy has devolved from bold ideological vision into an ad hoc collection of emergency tactics aimed at containing the spiraling violence that now seriously hampers even basic petroleum production. US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's frantic last-minute, technically illegal negotiations around the referendum on the new Constitution are a case in point. The compromises he brokered were all designed to keep the pieces together, to stave off greater chaos.
"We [Kurds] are more Iraqi than Saddam Hussein," says Sadi Ahmed Pire, one of the top Kurdish politicians. Pire, sitting in his party's huge fortified Erbil offices, says that all the high-level American generals and advisers he has spoken with "are committed to a united and democratic Iraq."
"In 2003 we could have declared independence," Pire explains. "But we went to Baghdad instead." When pressed, he and other Kurdish politicians note that full independence for their region would most likely be followed by secession of the Shiite-controlled south. And that, everyone acknowledges, would greatly enhance the already considerable power of Iran. Thus, the dream of an independent Kurdistan is held hostage to US fears of growing Iranian influence.
Economics is another important factor keeping Kurdistan in Iraq. As currently constituted, Kurdistan does not have much oil. The Kurdish economy survives almost entirely on oil revenue from the Iraqi central government. With a population of 4 million, the Kurds get an estimated $5 billion from Baghdad annually. The main petroleum deposits of the north are in and around Kirkuk. But Kirkuk is a disputed city, by no means fully controlled by the Kurds and not included in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region. Complicating matters are Kirkuk's large Turkmen and Arab populations. A Kurdish annexation of the city and its environs would not be easy. Without the oilfields of Kirkuk, however, Kurdistan is not economically viable.