Letter from Iraqi Kurdistan

Letter from Iraqi Kurdistan

Kurds want Saddam Hussein gone but are wary about joining a US-led attack.


Qala Diza

The view, like so many in Iraqi Kurdistan, was special, and for the tenth time that day I asked Meriwan, my long-suffering driver, to stop so I could take a picture. Stretching out before us was a vast, fertile plain patterned with the satisfying geometry of agriculture; golden squares of wheat slotted in neatly next to oblongs of sunflowers and thin strips of tobacco plants. Shirtless laborers tilled the fields, wearing traditional Kurdish baggy trousers and floppy wide-brimmed straw hats to protect against the fierce July sun. As a backdrop, the impressive heights of Mount Kandil, straddling the border with Iran, were still capped with snow, despite the thermometer pushing 107 degrees Fahrenheit on the plain. And in the foreground was the town of Qala Diza, fitting snugly into the rolling landscape, its squat, flat-topped houses sheltering under a verdant umbrella of trees.

I took a deep breath of the hot, scented air, and just stared, knowing that my camera would never do justice to this bucolic scene. Suddenly I was hit by a powerful sense of déjà vu; I had seen this all before. Then I remembered the photograph. Taken in April 1991 by Susan Meiselas, and included in her excellent book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, it was a panorama of Qala Diza shot from a vantage point close to where I now stood. Except that eleven years ago, Qala Diza did not exist. The photograph was a haunting study in decimation. Every building in the town had been flattened, squashed into the ground as if by a giant boot. Only the trees remained upright. As Meiselas noted at the time: “Stone houses are now piles of rubble. No electricity, no running water, little food. People living under slabs of concrete within the ruins of their former homes.”

At first glance, Meiselas’s picture appeared to document the harrowing aftermath of a massive earthquake. But Qala Diza was no natural apocalypse. The Iraqi Army had systematically, and expertly, dynamited and bulldozed the town’s houses, stores, schools and hospitals. Those among the population of 70,000 who had not fled to Turkey or Iran were rounded up and moved far away into purposefully built and easily policed settlements–or to give them their official, Orwellian epithet, “collective towns.” Some residents simply “disappeared,” adding to the long list of victims of the genocidal tendencies of Saddam Hussein. The destruction of Qala Diza was a central part of Saddam’s now notorious Anfal (“the spoils”) campaign. The aim was to create a cordon sanitaire around the borders with Turkey and Iran that would be ethnically cleansed of Kurds.

Today, Qala Diza II is rising from the rubble. The aura of fear and oppression evident in Meiselas’s photograph has evaporated. As our air-conditioned pickup bounced down the potholed high street (the local authorities accept that resurfacing the roads must be next on their to-do list), we swerved to dodge one of the town’s two bulldozers belching exhaust fumes as it headed jerkily toward its next task. “It’s liberated!” said Meriwan, pointing at the aging machine with a gleam in his eye. It had, he said, once been used by Saddam to destroy what it was now helping to renew.

Since the establishment of the safe-haven and the no-flight zone in the wake of the Gulf War of 1990-91, the 3.5 million Kurds in this mountainous region in northern Iraq–roughly the size of Switzerland–have been conducting what they call their “democratic experiment” in self-rule. Under the protection of the US/UK air umbrella and free from the brutal hand of Baghdad, those who returned to pick up the pieces in such towns as Qala Diza now exude a burgeoning self-confidence. New roads, schools, hospitals, even hotels, are under construction. The two Kurdish authorities that rule the autonomous area (in the west, Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the KDP; and in the east, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK) are fostering democratic freedoms rarely seen in the region. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a little bubble of democracy in a neighborhood from hell,” said a Western diplomat who visited the area recently.

Amid the white noise emanating from Washington about the future of Iraq, Kurds are wary that their “bubble” could easily burst. They know that they will never feel secure while Saddam is in power, but they are anxious at the prospect of more violence and upheaval. The support of the Kurds, who control as many as 80,000 peshmerga (meaning “those who face death”), is seen as an essential part of any US mission to dislodge Saddam. One of the military scenarios being considered by Washington is to use the peshmerga in a Northern Alliance-style attack on Baghdad, backed up by US air support. But the peshmerga are lightly armed and no match for the might of the Iraqi Army in head-to-head combat, especially if chemical weapons are used. Kurdish leaders have asked the United States to provide them with special protective gear and medicine. Eager not to provoke Saddam, Kurds have also publicly distanced themselves from any US attempts at covert action to effect regime change.

In Washington in mid-August, PUK leader Talabani was in an ebullient mood following what an aide described as “our most positive meeting with the Americans in years.” He said that the Kurdish people would welcome US troops in their areas. However, he qualified this apparently forthright statement of intent by saying that the United States should be there as “a source of protection to the Kurds against weapons of mass destruction, and for protection against regional interference.”

Until 1996 the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition umbrella group backed by the CIA, had a base in the safe-haven zone. But infighting between the PUK and KDP led to Saddam’s tanks rolling into the Kurdish region once more, and the opposition network was smashed. Since then, the American presence here has been largely limited to diplomatic and military observers, and the past six months have seen a surge of them. Of the $97 million authorized for the Pentagon under the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 to aid the Iraqi opposition, less than $1 million has been used; and of the $43 million authorized for distribution by the State Department, only about $24 million has been given out–spent largely on political activities outside Iraq. The funding program has been plagued by interdepartmental bickering and suspicions of misappropriation by its chief beneficiary, the Iraqi National Congress.

Nevertheless, airstrips dating back to the British Mandate in the 1920s have been resurfaced with US help, and a radio station, backed with Congressional money, is being built high up in the border region with Iran. In July the State Department announced an open competition for “humanitarian assistance projects” on the ground in northern Iraq, though it was quick to point out that the timing of the program held no significance for those trying to predict the kickoff date of any military offensive. Indeed, as the American logistical buildup gathers momentum in such regional countries as Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey, the US presence in Iraqi Kurdistan is noticeable by its absence–though inevitably America looms large in the minds of almost everyone. As we walked through the Sheikallah bazaar in the city of Erbil, a 5-year-old boy holding a tray of gum approached our interpreter and asked of us: “Are they the people of Mr. Bush?” My left-leaning American colleague shrugged and said, “Unfortunately, we are.” “Welcome!” beamed the boy.

Since the state of Iraq was carved out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire by the British eighty years ago, the Kurds–around a quarter of the population–have been struggling for some form of self-determination. They have been attacked, persecuted and betrayed by successive governments in Baghdad, and cynically exploited or ignored by the international community. But did they, I wondered, welcome the thought of a US offensive? Would they be prepared to join in? Was this going to be just another US-backed proxy war? Or would the Kurds be able to extract sufficient promises from the Americans to realize their long-held dreams of self-rule? The efficiency and sheer ruthlessness of the Anfal operations in the late 1980s, which included the use of chemical weapons, was reminiscent of the Nazi campaign against the Jews. To its shame, the West, more worried about the threat of Shiite fundamentalism in Iran than about their bloodstained boy in Baghdad, remained largely silent throughout the whole affair.

As Mahmoud, a local contractor for UN engineering projects, told me, the Anfal was not the first or last time that the Kurds felt abandoned by people they assumed were their natural allies–namely, the United States. It is this perceived perfidy toward them that made the majority of Kurds I spoke to during my three-week visit here wary of committing themselves to any US-led attack on Iraq. “Appreciative though we are for the protection of the no-fly zone, and eager though we are to see the back of Saddam, how do we know that our American friends will stick to their promises?” Mahmoud said, adding quickly, “If they make any, that is.” The message to America seems to be: If you’re going to do it, then do it right this time.

Kurds remember with some bitterness the words of Henry Kissinger after the United States and the Shah of Iran withdrew support from a Kurdish uprising in 1975: “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work,” said the self-regarding guru of realpolitik. They remember, too, at the end of the Gulf War, when the then-US President, George Bush Sr., famously called on the Iraqi people to rise up against the battered Baghdad regime. And how the West remained on the sidelines as the Kurds in the north (and the Shiites in the south) staged a swift but short-lived revolt that was ruthlessly suppressed once Baghdad realized it was free to use its lethal helicopter gunships.

There is no certainty that a new, post-Saddam regime in Baghdad would be any less hostile to the Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan is not recognized by the United Nations, and Turkey, a US NATO ally, objects to any move that would enhance what the Kurds already have. Ankara, to the point perhaps of paranoia, fears that an independent Kurdish state on its borders would stir up its own harassed Kurdish population. The Kurdish leadership is quick to dispel such fears, insisting that it is not asking for, has never asked for, independence. The KDP and the PUK have different domestic agendas, and their leaders don’t have much time for each other. But they do cooperate in key areas, such as health, education and security, and are slowly negotiating their way toward holding elections for a new Kurdish parliament (in which the Turkmen and Assyrian communities would be represented). Crucially, however, they appear to have adopted a united stance on the future of Iraq. Both parties want to see a federal, democratic state in which the Kurds have control over their own region and in which the rights of all the ethnic groups in Iraq, including the majority Shiite Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, the Turkmen and Assyrian Christians, are guaranteed. They just hope that the Americans will listen.

“For the last ten years we have had this ongoing debate with the US government that the salvation for the people of Iraq lies in democratic transformation and does not lie in a palace coup,” Barham Salih, the head of the PUK government, told me in his office in Sulaimaniya. “The misery of the Iraqi state lies in a lack of democratic life, lies in denial of basic human rights. I think Iraq is a problem because the state of Iraq has been in a constant state of war with the people of Iraq. If the international community, including the United States, wants a peaceful Iraq, at peace with its neighbors, then they should support the people to bring about a broad-based democratic representative government that is at peace with the people.” The Kurds, he emphasized as we lunched on kebab and salad washed down with cold beer, “are no threat to anyone.”

Even so, if there is an attack on Baghdad, I asked, Kurds surely won’t be able to stay on the sidelines. Which could leave them very exposed, especially if Saddam unleashes another wave of chemical attacks against them. “A Kurd by definition lives in a dilemma,” said Salih, an articulate, Western-educated moderate. “We are the orphans of history. We have never had easy choices in our lives. But I am hopeful about the future. We are now venturing into a very dangerous period, no doubt about it, and we have to be very careful not to risk unnecessarily the lives and livelihoods of our people. But at the same time eight decades of the state of Iraq is nothing but a miserable failure. Everybody recognizes that to restore the unity and stability of Iraq, it requires a lasting solution to the Kurdish problem, and there will be no lasting solution unless you have a democratic, pluralistic, federal Iraq. I remind you we fought the present government of Iraq at a time when the United States was supporting the present government of Iraq. We are freedom fighters struggling for freedom and we have the cause of our people at heart. We are not guns for hire.”

Back in Qala Diza we stopped at a large building site. Gradually emerging from the mass of spindly timber scaffolding facing us was a two-story high school that will soon open its doors to 600 pupils. Even in the heat of the midday sun, the place was a hive of activity: Bricklayers, carpenters and plasterers were hard at work. We were given a tour by Hamza Agha, the contractor who was building the school under the auspices of a UN program. Hamza Agha leads one of the most powerful tribes in the region. Once the Kurdish aghas (or chiefs) were despised for their indolence, for living off the fat of other people’s land in time-honored aristocratic fashion. Many of today’s aghas, by contrast, are busy doing business, and helping to rebuild their country at the same time.

We sipped sweet cardamom-scented tea in the foreman’s office. The walls were lined with maps and plans of the construction work. Hamza Agha was convinced that Saddam had lost the town of Qala Diza for good. “Look at what we’re building here. Our people only want to go forward. Saddam can’t compete with that,” he said. I wondered what made him so sure that the Kurds of the town would be able to contend with the full brunt of another Iraqi attack. Shouldn’t he be urging the townsfolk to arm themselves however they could? Hamza Agha leaned forward conspiratorially and said, “We have a secret weapon. We have the stealth bomber.”

Before I could signal my incredulity he winked and nodded at a diagram pinned to the wall. It was an architect’s plan of the school, and yes, I had to admit, it did resemble the shape of a stealth bomber. Education and knowledge, Hamza Agha seemed to be saying, was the only true form of defense.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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