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Uncertain Future


new internationalist
issue 316 - September 1999

Uncertain future
Sarah Graham-Brown outlines the Kurds’
complex relationship with the Iraqi Government.

The Kurdish people have retained a distinct identity for at least 2,000 years, living mainly in the mountainous areas of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and the south-west of the former Soviet Union.

Although governments’ attitudes to their Kurdish minorities have differed, all have been suspicious of Kurdish national aspirations. Turkey has refused, for most of the last 70 years, to accept the Kurds as a separate people, to allow them to use their language or to openly learn about their culture. In the 1990s, measures allowing limited recognition of Kurdish language and culture were set against intensified conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in south-eastern Turkey, bringing in its wake severe human-rights abuses.

Successive Iranian regimes’ persecution of the Kurds has been somewhat less harsh, but has nonetheless denied them any real political autonomy. In Iraq, the Ba’athist Government has allowed Kurds more freedom to use their language and express their culture. However, the Kurds’ overall experience in Iraq has been one of war, bloodshed and dispossession.

Following decades of intermittent hostilities between the Kurds and a succession of Iraqi governments, the Ba’ath Party in 1970 proposed limited Kurdish autonomy in the north of the country. However, mutual suspicion and Baghdad’s reluctance to cede the key economic asset demanded by the Kurds – the oil-rich city of Kirkuk – stymied any agreement. A much watered-down autonomy proposal was rejected by the Kurds in 1974, followed by a fierce war in which the Kurds were supported by Iran. When Iran, pursuing its own political interests, withdrew its support in 1975, Kurdish resistance collapsed.

During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Kurdish reluctance to fight for the Baghdad regime led to further conflict. Some Iraqi Kurds received support from the new Islamic Republic of Iran. From the mid-1980s, the Iraqi Government began an operation to clear the predominantly Kurdish rural population from its northern borderlands adjacent to Iran and Turkey. This resulted in many thousands of deaths and mass displacements, culminating in the so-called Anfal campaigns of 1988. Some 4,000 Kurdish towns, villages and settlements were razed to the ground. Many of their inhabitants were relocated to so-called collective towns constructed by the Government, mainly in the lowland Kurdish areas. Up to 100,000 people remain unaccounted for from 1988 alone.

Iraqi forces also launched a number of chemical attacks in Kurdish areas in 1987/88. Amnesty International estimated that some 5,000 people died as a result of the chemical gas attack on the town of Halabja in March 1988. During 1988, some 55,000 Kurds fled to Turkey and a similar number to Iran. Although Kurds were the primary targets of these abuses, other groups living in the predominantly Kurdish north, including Assyrian Christians, Turcomans and Arabs, were also victims.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the short-lived Kurdish uprising in March was followed by brutal Iraqi reprisals. Some two million Kurds and others from the northern governorates fled to the borders with Turkey and to Iran, creating one of the largest and most rapid refugee flows in recent times. In April 1991, the Gulf War allies, responding to this massive crisis and to Turkey’s refusal to accept the refugees, imposed a ‘safe haven’ or ‘no-fly zone’ covering the north-eastern part of the Kurdish region (most of Dohuk governorate) to allow the refugees to return (although some 150,000-200,000 have still not done so). Coalition troops were withdrawn in July, but a no-fly zone covering the region north of the 36th Parallel was maintained. This led to the return of many of the refugees, though Iraqi forces remained in the Kurdish areas outside the safe haven.

In October 1991, following the failure of autonomy talks with Baghdad during the summer, the Iraqi Government withdrew all troops, funds and services from the Kurdish region (covering the three northern governorates of Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniya but excluding the Kirkuk area) and imposed an increasingly tight embargo on goods crossing what became a de facto border with the rest of Iraq.

Despite the new opportunities created by the withdrawal of Iraqi government control, the Iraqi Kurds found themselves in a difficult economic and political environment. A Kurdish regional parliament was elected in May 1992 but lacked funds and a recognized international status. By May 1994, internal rivalries had provoked a low-level civil war in the region, with sporadic hostilities continuing until the end of 1997.

Bread, not bombs please: food distribution for Kurdish refugees.

Iraqi Kurdish politics has been dominated by two major parties, The first major Kurdish resistance movement, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was established in the 1940s and led first by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, and then by his son Masud Barzani. In 1975, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani split from the KDP. The Kurdistan Front, formed in 1987, bringing together the KDP and PUK with a number of smaller parties, was maintained until the 1992 elections.

After the elections, the KDP and PUK as the dominant parties embarked on an unsatisfactory power-sharing arrangement which limited the role of smaller parties. Both the KDP and PUK wanted to claim leadership of the region, and their rivalry was exacerbated by the deep distrust between Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani.

The withdrawal of central government funds left the local administration dependent largely on customs revenues to pay staff and run services. The geographical position of the KDP, which is dominant in the north-west of the Kurdish region, gave it control of the lucrative Turkish border trade. The more modest trade with Iran was mainly in the hands of the PUK. When internal fighting broke out 1994, control over these funds reverted to the parties and were a key element in sustaining the conflict, allowing each to buy arms and pay their fighters (peshmergas).

The increased PKK (the main Kurdish party in Turkey) presence in northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War, and Turkish military efforts to eradicate it, became a significant factor in the rift between the two Iraqi Kurdish parties. Mainly for reasons of geography, the PUK’s relations with the PKK were closer than those of the KDP. Both the former two shared a long-standing relationship with the Syrian Government.

By 1995, the internal conflict had effectively split Iraqi Kurdistan into two separate, party-dominated administrations. A succession of initiatives were undermined by the unwillingness of the two party leaders to make any real concessions and by interference from rival alliances. All the regional powers (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) attempted to influence events in Iraqi Kurdistan, or at the very least, to prevent rival powers from dominating the region.

By early 1998, both parties appeared more inclined to compromise and put forward peace proposals. Since that time, the US and Britain have, somewhat reluctantly, attempted more active intervention. In September 1998, the US brokered an agreement signed in Washington which was intended to lead to revenue sharing, a reunited administration and regional elections. However, talks between the two parties in June 1999 revealed continuing disagreements on the process of reunification and relations with the PKK. Furthermore, the political problems which led to the de facto separation of Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq remain unresolved. An atmosphere of uncertainty for the future prevails. #

In April 1991, UN Security Council Resolution 688, calling on Iraq to cease repression of its population, referred specifically to the plight of the Iraqi Kurds. But since that time, the international community has not developed a clear or consistent political response to their future. The status of the Kurdish-controlled region remained ambiguous because most Western governments feared any hint of separatism on the part of the Kurds. This would anger Turkey, an important NATO member and ally of the US. This despite the fact that the Iraqi Kurds never demanded independence – in 1992, the newly elected parliament called for a federal structure in Iraq. Nonetheless, no formal recognition was given to the Kurdish regional administration, while the idea of a UN protectorate never gained international support.

The no-fly zone has been maintained, though in 1996 France withdrew its forces, leaving only US and British planes operating from Incirlik air base in Turkey. The no-fly zone has deterred Iraqi forces from retaking Iraqi Kurdistan, but Turkey has been able to exercise increasing influence – including military incursion – in the region. The safety of the population in Iraqi Kurdistan is increasingly compromised by the actions of its own political leadership, the interests of regional powers and by US efforts to use this region to ‘put pressure’ on Saddam Hussein. In 1996, Iraqi forces staged a brief incursion to the city of Arbil, within the no-fly zone, to attack CIA-supported Iraqi opposition forces based there.

The Iraqi Government has also pursued a policy of forcing Kurds from the Kirkuk area to move to the Kurdish-controlled region.

Iraqi Kurdistan has remained subject to UN sanctions against Iraq despite repeated requests from the Kurdish Parliament for exemptions. The embargo has limited the possibility of improving or even refurbishing the infrastructure, exploiting small-scale oil reserves or rebuilding the few existing local industries. At the same time, from late 1991 until 1997, the Iraqi Government maintained its own economic embargo on Iraqi Kurdistan. To balance this, the Kurds have received a much higher level of international humanitarian aid per capita than the rest of Iraq. This was designed to compensate for the so-called ‘double embargo’.

As a result, significant progress was made in restoring the rural economy of Iraqi Kurdistan and resettling people in their villages. However, economic revival was limited to agriculture and a thriving smuggling trade. Although nutritional and health conditions did not decline as radically as in government-controlled Iraq, there were periods of serious hardship.

Implementation of the oil-for-food resolutions in 1997 has significantly eased conditions. Some 13 per cent of each tranche of oil funds go to the Kurds, although food supplies are purchased centrally and distributed by the Iraqi Government. Iraq has effectively lifted the internal embargo, while the increased flow of goods has diminished the intensity of inter-party competition over customs revenues. A rationing system covering the whole population has increased food availability, brought down prices, and improved nutrition, though aid agencies are concerned that food aid may undermine the fragile rural economy. Although this has eased the immediate economic crisis, it has done little so far to create an economic base to provide employment and encourage investment in the longer term. Political uncertainty continues to haunt the future of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Sarah Graham-Brown is a writer and researcher on the Middle East; from 1991-95 she was co-ordinator of the Gulf Information Project. She has worked as a consultant to Christian Aid on Iraq. She is the author of Sanctioning Saddam: the politics of intervention in Iraq.

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