Part 3 of ‘The tortuous path to the Kurdistan Regional Government’
By Mufid Abdulla:
A major bone of contention between the ruling parties was the KDP’s control of the Khabur Bridge on the Turkish border which enabled it to collect all the customs fees for legal and smuggled goods. (KDP leader Masud Barzani went on to tax Iraqi oil exports from Kirkuk through Turkey during the UN oil-for-food programme). In May 1994 tensions between the parties erupted in a violent land dispute near Qala Diza and the conflict developed into a four-year civil war. There is little doubt that agents from the governments of Turkey, Iran and Iraq all played their part in exacerbating the conflict. The Turks backed the KDP, which supported its assault on PKK forces based within Kurdistan, while the PUK got support from Iran, and allowed it to attack Iranian Kurds (from the KDPI) sheltering within its territory. To further complicate the imbroglio, the PUK was at war with the pro-Iranian Islamist IMK which had seized control of Halabja and was in alliance with the KDP. Kurdistan was effectively partitioned by the conflict.
Amnesty International condemned both parties for shameful human rights abuses “including practices of torture that could have been learned directly from Saddam: the use of electricity, sexual torture and beating with hoses and cable” (1).
In 1995, when the PUK was receiving support from Iran, Masud Barzani astonished many of his supporters by striking a deal with Saddam Hussein who provided military support enabling the KDP to seize Erbil and Sulamaniyah from the PUK. During this detente Barzani even met with al Majid – Chemical Ali. The current KRG President has yet to apologise for this.
However the PUK rallied and managed to recapture Sulamaniyah and most Sorani-speaking territory though it failed to take Erbil and the conflict dragged painfully on. In 1997 Turkey once again crossed the border deploying planes and land forces against the PUK and in support of the KDP.
The civil war resulted in the pointless death of thousands of Peshmerga fighters on both sides and hundreds of disappearances that remain unresolved to this day. Many families still don’t know what happened to their loved ones and neither party has accepted responsibility for its actions.
But despite the horror and dislocation there was thankfully a real economic and social recovery in both parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, partly driven by UN funding under the oil-for-food programme. Around 4,000 villages were rebuilt and abandoned fields again grew crops. The two governments built 2,000 new schools between 1992 and 2003, compared to just 1,000 schools built by Iraqi governments since the 1930s. The number of universities in Kurdistan trebled with two new ones opening in Dohuk and Sulamaniyah.
The US government made several attempts to secure a deal between the warring parties but it took until September 1998 for them to reach a lasting agreement.
On 11 September 2001 al Queda carried out a cataclysmic attack on New York, pushing the US desire for regime change in Iraq to the top of the global political agenda. This time the Kurdish political leaders were fully ready to seize their opportunity. When the administration of George W Bush sought to prove that there were links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the PUK was happy to supply evidence of the activities of Ansar al Islam, a terrorist group based in the mountains above Halabja. This group was attempting to make chemical weapons and it drew inspiration from bin Laden although it probably had no connection with Saddam.
As a US invasion of Iraq grew more likely, the KDP leadership was wary that the Americans might eventually betray the Kurds again, as it had done in 1975 and 1991. Another cause for concern was the US desire to open a Northern Front against Saddam via Turkey and with the support of Turkish troops. Iraqi Kurds were worried that the Turkish army would pursue its own agenda and try to grab territory under the pretext of striking against the PKK or defending the rights of the Turkoman population of Kirkuk. The US did its utmost to secure Turkish support by promising several billion dollars worth of aid, but the Turkish Parliament narrowly decided not to join the conflict.
“It would take years to realise.” writes Quil Lawrence, “but the failure to win Turkish assistance in March 2003 may go down in history as the luckiest thing that happened to America regarding Iraq, since it averted a guerrilla war between Kurds and Turks” (2). In the ensuing 22-day war and overthrow of Saddam, the peshmerga formed the Northern Front and there were more casualties from Kurdistan than from any other country supporting the US. Operating with US Special Forces, the Kurds destroyed the bases of Ansar al Islam and captured Mosul from the Baathists. The Islamist bases were targeted by US long-range missiles from the sea during the night when most of the Jihadists were asleep. (Video footage and images later suggested that some internationally-banned substances may have been used in the missiles since the bodies seemed to have dried up within hours and their skin was affected by what looked like the effects of chemicals). The PUK also took control of Kirkuk, without US sanction, although its grip there was tenuous because of ethnic tension in the city.
War of liberation
For the Kurds this was a war of liberation and Kurdistan was one of the few places in the world where people came onto the streets singing the praises of George W Bush and Tony Blair. After all the previous betrayals of the Kurds by the West, this time around there was a enduring coincidence of interests and Kurdistan became the US government’s most reliable ally in Iraq as the country almost disintegrated in a combination of sectarian warfare between Sunni and Shia Arabs and Arab resistance to the US occupation. To paraphrase the Irish nationalist leader Eamonn de Valera, Iraq’s difficulty became Kurdistan’s opportunity.
The Iraq War produced the best possible outcome for the Kurds by destroying the foundations of the Baathist state – the Army, the Baath Party and the intelligence services – and so consolidating the position of the KRG.
The strength of the Kurd’s position was underlined by the installation of PUK leader Jalal Talabani as the President of Iraq in 2005. In the same year, US Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice defied protocol by stopping in Erbil first to talk with Masud Barzani before flying on to Baghdad to meet the Iraqi Prime Minister Ja’fari. The new Iraqi Constitution recognised the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government and its right to maintain its own armed forces. On the issue of Kirkuk, however, there was no agreement and the Iraqi government failed to keep its commitment to hold a referendum in Kirkuk by 2007.
The KDP and PUK now collaborated peacefully and, in early 2006, they formed a single government in Kurdistan for the first time since the civil war. Apart from two huge bomb attacks on the headquarters of the ruling parties and the ethnic conflict in Kirkuk (which is not controlled by the KRG), Kurdistan became an oasis of calm compared to the hellish conflict raging elsewhere in Iraq. The economy boomed with investment flooding in, not only from the US but also from Turkey, Jordan, the Lebanon and Dubai. There were, however, protests about corruption and the uneven distribution of resources which would grow in the coming years.
During the 2005 elections to the Kurdistan parliament voters were invited to take part in an unofficial referendum answering the question, “Should Kurdistan be part of Iraq or should it be independent?” There was an Iraqi flag next to the Iraq option and a Kurdistan flag next to the independence option. Two million Kurds voted in the referendum and 98 per cent favoured independence. But while south Kurdistan had secured autonomy within Iraq it had yet to achieve full sovereignty – with the international and legal recognition and long-term security that this entails.
1. Invisible Nation, Quil Lawrence, Walker, 2008, p. 70
2. Lawrence, p.158