De Facto Kurdistan

By ELDAD BECK, ERBIL, IRAQ
April 14, 2010 12:00

Kurdistan's long-awaited strides towards independence could be imperiled by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.




Massacre: Survivors of the Halabja gas attack pose

kurds 311. (photo credit:Eldad Beck)

Sabih Kareem Najeeb was IN hell and came back to tell the tale. It happened on March 16, 1988. A day earlier, the Peshmerga, the Kurdish liberation army in northern Iraq, and its allies the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, had taken control of the city of Halabja, 17 kilometers (10 miles) from the Iraq-Iran border. The fierce war between the two countries was still underway, and the Shi'ite mullah regime in Tehran was helping the Sunni Kurds gain their liberation from their common enemy - Saddam Hussein. For the Kurds, there was a taste of hope in the air.

'I was standing on the street when Iraqi Air Force planes arrived. I and other people who were near me stopped to see what they were doing. We saw them drop bombs around Halabja. 'Thank God,' we said to each other, and ran to find shelter in nearby basements. We heard the planes fly over Halabja but we didn't hear any bombs. A little while later the noise of the airplanes stopped. We were sure we had survived the attack. We breathed a sigh of relief.'

Najeeb's voice cracks. Every few sentences he utters a dry, strong and short cough. He wears dark sunglasses, so you cannot see the expression of his eyes.

'When we came out of the basement we saw a terrible sight: everything around us was dead. People, children, animals, all were lying on the ground like dolls. Their eyes were open. Their mouths were open. We all went into a panic. We did not understand what happened. We hadn't heard any bombs. We were terrified and started running every which way, in such confusion that some people left their kids behind. We thought the Day of Judgment had come. Everyone wanted to save themselves.

'Tears started streaming from my eyes. The air was full of a strange smell, like rotten apples. I tried to run away from the smell. I found the car and started it. But I couldn't go far. The streets were full of bodies. Somehow I got to the nearby mountains and found shelter in a village. But at 7 a.m. the next day the Iraqi planes came back and started bombing the village we were in with gas.'

Najeeb is only 45 but looks much older. We are sitting with some other survivors at a special treatment center for the victims of the 'Holocaust of Halabja,' as the Kurds call that horrific event, in which thousands of civilians were murdered by Saddam loyalists. The center is operated by the government Ministry of Martyr and Anfal Affairs - the name Saddam gave his bloody campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s, after the eighth chapter of the Koran, and meaning 'the spoils of war.'

Najeeb pulls four photographs out of his pocket. Each one shows the scarred face of a different family member. All four survived the chemical assault by the Iraqi Air Force on Halabja, were taken in grave condition to hospitals in Tehran and died there. Najeeb lost 18 relatives in the murderous gas attack. He still suffers from various respiratory and eye problems. None of the Iranian fighters who were still in town at the time of the attack were affected - they were equipped with gas masks.

On January 26, hundreds of Halabja residents took to the streets to celebrate the execution of Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as 'Chemical Ali,' who was hanged the day before for his role in the 1988 gassing of some 5,000 townspeople.

Twenty-one years after that dark day, Halabja, the city that has become the symbol of the Kurds' endless suffering, is still licking its wounds. Its land and homes are saturated with poison gas. A few months ago, more bodies of victims of the massacre were exposed by chance during construction works. Some of the people who removed them contracted serious skin diseases.

At first the authorities demolished most of the homes in the areas directly hit by the gas attack and built new ones instead. But the local population continued to complain about strange diseases. Now there is a plan to completely evacuate Halabja and turn it into a monument for Saddam's crimes against humanity, but the residents refused to relocate. 'We will not give Saddam a posthumous victory,' said one.

There is a Kurdish saying that a person who was bit by a snake is afraid of ropes. The Kurds cannot count the number of snakebites they have sustained in the last century. To them, the world is full of snakes and ropes. They were and are persecuted by the Iranians and the Syrians, massacred by the Turks and the Iraqis, and betrayed by almost everyone else.

The number of Kurds massacred by Saddam's regime remains unknown. Cautious estimates say 150,000 people, mostly civilians, including women, children and elderly, died in the Anfal attacks alone. Added to that is an unknown number of victims in the years before and after the Anfal. One of the first tasks of the Ministry of Martyr and Anfal Affairs is to try to document all of the victims. But with entire villages wiped off the face of the earth in one fell swoop and whole families gone without leaving a trace or a grave, it is patently a mission impossible.

'People here are full of fear,' the director of the Halabja victim treatment center tells The Jerusalem Report. 'The Turks and the Iraqis can come attack us again at any moment. And our biggest fear is the Iranians and their nuclear bomb. Everybody in Kurdistan is afraid that what happened to us will happen again.

'What happened in Halabja was not a natural disaster,' says the director. 'It was not an earthquake. Nor was it merely a human drama. It was a political event of the first order. People died here for their homeland. Everything that happened and everything that might happen is only because we are Kurds. But Saddam's chemical weapons did not erase our national identity. We are staying here and if we need to we will fight again.'

Since Saddam's cruel dictatorship was cast off almost seven years ago, the Kurds in northern Iraq are enjoying a level of peace and prosperity unprecedented in the history of the Kurdish nation, which was split by the imperial powers after World War I between four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The 25 million Kurds remain stateless while new states were established for all the allies of the British and French.

The Kurds are a non-Arab nation. Most are Sunni Muslims, and they speak Kurdish - an Indo-Iranian language that has four dialects.

Over the few last years, a de facto Kurdish state has been created in northern Iraq, with its own flag, president, government, parliament, police, television and radio stations and even its own stamps. This semi- independent republic is the homeland of only 5 million Kurds; another 12 million live in Turkey, 5 million in Iran and 2 million in Syria, under various degrees of oppression; a smaller number is in Armenia and others are living in exile in different countries.

Even though Kurdistan is still officially connected to Iraq and subject to the national policy made in Baghdad (including its relations with Israel), the Iraqi Kurds have managed for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to establish the basis for a future independent state of their own. In the new Iraq, based on a rotation agreement between the country's three main ethnic groups - Arab Shi'ites, Arab Sunnis and Kurds, a leading Kurdish politician, Jalal Talabani, now holds the office of Iraq's presidency.

But as the deadline for the promised U.S. withdrawal from Iraq - August 31, 2010 - draws near, the fear level of the Kurds in the north is rising. They are afraid that what they have achieved under the protection and with the blessing of the U.S. will be lost in the chaos created by the departure of the American troops.

The Kurds are looking in trepidation not only to the south, at their Arab rivals, the Sunnis and Shi'ites, but also northwards, to the alliance growing between their biggest enemies: the Turks, the Iranians and the Syrians. The rapid political rapprochement between the governments of Ankara, Tehran and Damascus is worrying not only the policymakers in Jerusalem. It is keeping the Kurds awake at night, too.

'We remind the Americans of what has already happened to us,' a senior official of the independent Kurdish administration tells The Report. 'But they don't want to hear about history. We, on the other hand, don't want the Kurdish genocide to recur. The British turned us over to the Arabs when they left Iraq in the 1940s and gave Baghdad the keys of government and control of the oil wells. Now the Americans are planning to do the same thing. To guarantee Iraq's stability after they leave, they are working to rebuild a centralist government at the expense of the freedom we have enjoyed in recent years. Again they are supporting the Arabs, so that they can leave here as soon as possible, instead of providing a fundamental solution to the Iraqi problem through a stable federative system.'

'If necessary, we can defend ourselves militarily,' predicts the official. 'The problem is mainly political: we are isolated in a region that is totally hostile to us. Turkey, Iran and Syria create a threatening network around us, besides the fact that Turkey is becoming more and more Islamic. The recent gestures by the Erdogan administration towards the Kurdish population of Turkey are surely an important step that should not be underestimated and must continue to be supported. But to this day, representatives of the current Turkish administration cannot utter the word 'Kurdistan.' They talk only about 'northern Iraq.''

The Kurds, who have been betrayed again and again in their national struggle, have had a bitter experience with the Americans as well. In the mid-1970s, the Shah of Iran stopped supporting the Kurds overnight and sold them to Saddam for an agreement that was not worth the paper it was written on; but Washington refused to provide the Kurds with weaponry vital for their rescue and stood by when militants and civilians were murdered by the Iraqi army.

Washington, which supplied Saddam with weapons for his war against Khomeini's Iran, was not really moved when the forces of the tyrant of Baghdad, employing weapons of mass destruction, committed genocide against the Kurds in the late 1980s. Nor did Washington act to prevent Saddam from massacring Kurds after his defeat in the first Gulf War. Only under pressure from its British and French allies did the U.S. acquiesce to establishing a buffer zone in northern Iraq, which eventually allowed the establishment of Kurdistan.

The last population census in Iraq was held in 1987. An initiative to conduct a new census was torpedoed by the Baghdad government, fearing it would substantiate the Kurdish demand to control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Many Kurds predict that the question of the future of Kirkuk will set off a major crisis in the elections, scheduled for February.

'The Americans claim their biggest allies in the area are the Kurds,' grumbles a senior adviser to the Kurdish leadership who refused to be named, 'but they are not really working with us. They want to leave as soon as possible and therefore they want the elections to be held on time. But it is hard for me to believe they are really going to leave Iraq completely, as they promised. They came here, as they did to Afghanistan, with a defined goal. They invested a great deal in their presence here, and if they leave in summer, they will gain nothing. The Kurdish region is strategically important to them because of the Iranian bomb, Pakistani terror and the war in Afghanistan.'

'Our biggest enemies,' continues the adviser, seated in the parlor of his spacious and elegant house in the mountains north of Erbil, 'are first of all our strategic location, then Arab, Turkish and Persian chauvinism, and finally our own stupidity. To this day we do not know exactly what we want and we have not put it down on paper. We have to develop in such a way that our fate is not entirely in the hands of the Americans. The idea of independence courses through our blood, even if we cannot talk about it right now. We are building our home. Sooner or later Kurdistan is going to be independent.'

The Iranians, like the Arabs, view the slow establishment of a Kurdish state as a Western attempt to create 'a second Israel' in the Middle East. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised in some of his more inflammatory speeches that if his country were attacked because of its nuclear program, 'the Zionists and their dogs will pay the price.' The Kurds have no doubt who the Iranian president is referring to.

A wall the Iranians are building along their border with Kurdish Iraq is the cause of wide outrage. 'The border between Iran and Kurdistan is not a natural border,' says a Kurdish politician who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'It is a border artificially imposed by the foreign powers after World War I and it separates the members of one nation, the Kurdish nation. Walls are not the solution. The Iranians should learn from the Turks, who went from a military conflict with the Kurdish underground to a policy of negotiations and openness.'

The Iraqi Kurds are deeply divided about the Erdogan administration's policy of gestures, which began with the gradual recognition of Kurdish cultural rights. After years of forced Turkicization and a complete negation of the Kurds' distinct cultural identity, Turkish Kurds are today allowed to use Kurdish names, produce Kurdish plays and there are even some Kurdish television broadcasts.

'We have a de facto Kurdish state here, and the Turks are very afraid of it,' says a television director in Kurdistan. 'More and more Turks believe a political solution of the Kurdish problem will prevent a further splintering of their country. Erdogan believes that through the Islamic religion he can create a new national glue between the different parts of the Turkish population, which will prevent Turkish Kurds from joining our Kurdistan.

'Now we are demanding that Turkey change its constitution, which blatantly discriminates against Kurds and violates their legitimate rights. Then we will demand they rebuild all of the Kurdish villages they destroyed in the long years of war they waged against the Kurdish underground. The Turks are committed to changing their policy towards the Kurds. Not because they want to, but because they see what is happening here and they are afraid.'

This can all change after the American withdrawal, says the television director. 'We know the Americans and their games,' he says. 'One day they are with us and another they are against us. If the Turks want to crush us, they will do nothing to help us. In secret conversations they tell us they want us to develop quickly towards establishing an independent state, but can we trust them?

'We must develop relations with Israel,' continues the director. 'The Kurds and the Jews have a common past and present. We were both persecuted and killed. Today, the Arabs want to throw both of us into the sea. The big difference is that you managed to establish a state and we haven't yet. We have to learn from the Israelis. We had very good relations even before 1948. When the Kurdish Jews left for Israel our relations only grew stronger.'

Israel has a complicated relationship with the Kurds. In the 1960s and 70s, Israel provided military training and weapons to Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani for his revolt against the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Israel maintained good relations with the Iraqi Kurds even after the Shah of Iran helped Saddam crush the Kurdish revolt in the mid 70s.

On the other hand, Israel's desire to have good relations with Turkey brought Jerusalem to assist the Turks in their fight against their own internal Kurdish revolt in east-southern Turkey. According to different reports, Israel helped the Turkish authorities arrest PKK Kurdish underground leader Abdulla …calan, in 1999 in Kenya, and bring him to trial. These reports led to an assault of Kurdish immigrants on the Israeli consulate in Berlin, which ended with Israeli security officers shooting into the crowd and killing three demonstrators. Today, Iraqi Kurdish leaders are said to be working for reconciliation between Israel and the PKK, which changed its name to KCK in 2002.

'It is very important for Israel to help us gain international recognition of the genocide against the Kurds,' says Chinar Saad, a young politician in the KPD (the Kurdistan Democratic Party headed by Mustafa Barzani's son, Masoud, who is president of Iraqi Kurdistan), who recently resigned as Minister of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs and went back to teaching sociology at the university. 'The Kurdish genocide continues. Many things are happening quietly in Turkey and Syria. Nobody talks about it but when you go to Kurdish settlements there you see the signs of persecution and destruction,' says Saad, whose father, a high-ranking Peshmerga fighter, was killed by Saddam's regime.

'It would be the best way to improve the relations between the two peoples. We would also very much appreciate if the people of Israel share with us their experience in dealing with the consequences of genocide. In the current political situation in Iraq, the Kurdish government would not dare speak openly about the need to establish relations with Israel. But I, personally, think we must work to develop a dialogue between the two peoples. The suffering of the Kurds has received international recognition by various bodies on the human level, but not on the political level.'

'It is very important for us to see how the Jews presented their problems to the world,' concurs the Minister for Victims of Genocide, Majeed Hamed Amin Jamil of the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), the party of Iraqi President Talabani. 'We want to learn from them and work together. Kurdish suffering has not ended. We used to be the victims of Saddam's regime. Now the Arab side is trying to prevent our independence. They don't recognize the fact that we do not belong to the Arab nation or that Iraq is not comprised only of Arabs. The Kurds are surrounded by big wolves. That is why we can only seek help abroad, but different countries have different economic interests. We hope Israel and its friends can help us achieve more recognition.'

'After Iraq was liberated by the Americans and their allies,' says the minister, 'Iraq was divided into three parts, which were historically not connected to each other. Iraq was an artificial conjunction. We believe this will all go up in flames if the Americans leave. That is why we hope the Americans or a third force remain here to prevent another war.'

Kurdistan's big cities - Erbil, the political capital, and Sulaymaniya, the economic and cultural capital - are enjoying an economic boom that is a tremendous source of pride for the Kurds. It has also attracted the attention of Kurdish Jews, who left Iraqi Kurdistan en masse in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Today all of Kurdistan is talking about the return of the Jews. 'They come and go, visit holy sites and celebrate. Some come to do business and some have moved back,' says a senior leader of one of the two big political parties.

A shroud of secrecy surrounds the return of the Jews to Kurdistan. For security reasons, of course. Fear of suicide bombers, from Al-Qaeda, and Iranian terrorists, constantly dogs everyone who lives here. 'In Sulaymaniya there are seven Jewish families who returned here from Israel,' says a member of the Kurdish security service. 'They are under the personal protection of Hero Khan, the wife of president Talabani. It is she who guarantees their personal safety.'

Sara, who asked not to use her full name, a woman in her 40s, lives in a small but well-kept house in Julekan, the old Jewish quarter of Sulaymaniya, which became a rundown slum after the Jews left. Sara, her sister and two brothers, decided to remain in Kurdistan when their parents moved to Israel in the middle 1990s, after the first Gulf War. 'They wanted to live in the holy land but we were already married to Muslims here,' says Sara. 'A few years later our parents came back. Life in Israel was hard for them. After they died, three years ago, all four of us converted to Islam. It is easier for us. In fact, we have already forgotten that we were Jews.'

Mawloud Afand, 25, made the opposite journey. His Jewish-Kurdish-Iranian family from the city of Mahabad in Iran converted to Islam shortly after the Khomeini revolution so that they could continue living in peace and maintain their property. Afand, who became active in the Kurdish underground in Iran and found refuge in Kurdistan, has returned to his Jewish roots.

As a journalist, he is a member of the board of a new newsletter, established last summer and distributed around Kurdistan in thousands of copies. Its name is 'Israel- Kurd.' Each one of the three issues that have so far been published included interviews with Israeli figures, who spoke in favor of relations between Israel and Kurdistan. The cover of the second issue, for example, had a picture of Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who gave the newspaper's representative in Israel an exclusive interview. Israel- Kurd has many articles explaining to the readers what Israel is and how it manages to survive in such a hostile environment, a feeling many Kurds can relate to.

'Through the newsletter as well as a friendship association I and others established here, we want to build a network of friendship between Kurdistan and Israel, so that we can build a common future,' says Afand, who looks like a fashion model who just stepped off the runway. 'It is very important for us to explain Israel's history to the people of Kurdistan. People here are very influenced by the media reports of the neighboring countries, who have problems with Israel that we don't. We Kurds want to have formal relations with Israel. Many Arab countries have official and unofficial relations with Israel. Why can't we?'

Afand has known since he was little that his family had Jewish roots, but since the family was under constant surveillance, they avoided observing any Jewish traditions. He has relatives in Afula, in northern Israel, and plans to move to Israel one day, but today, he says, he has more important work to do in Kurdistan.

'Most Kurds love Israel,' says Farhad Pirbal, a lecturer in humanities at the Salah A-Din University in Erbil. We meet on the university roof, where smoking is still allowed. 'I remember as a child that we used to listen to The Voice of Israel, because we knew that was the only place where they tell the truth about the situation in the Middle East. We do not forget our friendly relations with the Jews that lived among us. They contributed a lot to the development of Kurdistan before they moved to Israel. Without the Jews there would not have been modernization in Kurdistan in many areas. Many of us look forward to establishing relations between Kurdistan and Israel.'

'The regional balance of power makes it hard for Kurdistan to announce establishing relations with Israel,' says the senior Kurdish official, who prefers not to be quoted by name, so as not to get in trouble with Baghdad. 'But Israel has a very strong lobby in the U.S. Help us convince the Americans not to leave too soon.'

This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on March 1, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.


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