- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus The U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has brought to the fore the Kurds, a people whose centuries-old dream of statehood has contributed to Middle East complexities.
Now the aspirations of the Kurds are challenging Iraq's future rulers, while in Ankara the authorities fear that any Iraqi concessions to the Kurds may spark similar demands among Turkey's restive Kurdish minority.
The United States is faced with the dilemma of unfulfilled Kurdish hopes, Arab accusations of plans to fragment Iraq, and Turkey's threat of military intervention to prevent the creation of an independent Kurdistan in the region where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet.
The contribution of Kurdish fighters in seizing northern Iraqi oil centers at Kirkuk and Mosul from Saddam Hussein's troops can no longer be ignored by Washington, diplomats say.
They add, however, that while some Kurdish leaders might cooperate with U.S. plans and intentions, the Iraqi Kurds cannot be taken for granted as allies.
To many U.S. diplomats in the area, the Kurdish problem looms as a nightmare.
It is particularly sensitive in view of accusations of a U.S. betrayal of the Kurds after the 1991 Desert Storm campaign, when the first President Bush encouraged a Kurdish uprising and then ignored it. The world remained silent, then, as Saddam Hussein's troops repressed the Kurds, who remained very much "accursed people" and "orphans of the universe."
Now the Iraqi Kurds expect a reward from Washington for their cooperation. Failure to honor any commitments Washington may have made could provoke a violent wave of anti-Americanism and obstruction, area specialists say.
"There is a price for Kurdish help against Saddam," said Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador and specialist of the area's problems. "Will the Kurds be deceived again?" he asked. Right now, no one seems to have an answer.
The Two main Iraqi Kurdish parties the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) envisage a large degree of autonomy for the Kurdish area in a federated Iraq. The idea is firmly opposed by Iraq's Arab neighbors, who see in it the beginning of Iraq's fragmentation and their own weakening.
"The Kurdish people are not ready to accept being ruled as we were ruled before," said Roj Shawess, speaker of the KDP parliament in Erbil. "We will ask for a federal system with international guarantees."
While the protection by U.S. and British air patrols over northern Iraq during the past decade gave Iraqi Kurds a form of self-rule and security, the situation of Kurds in nearby Turkey is basically that of second-class citizens.
About 15 million of the 66 million inhabitants of Turkey are fully or partly Kurdish. Their clamor for recognition and a say in public life is regarded by officials as potential dynamite under the republic's foundations.
The treatment of the Kurds changed radically after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Turkish republic in 1923, when the Kurdish language and national characteristics were banned. Officially, the Kurds became rural "mountain Turks."
According to Jason Goodwin, a historian of the Ottoman Empire, although the Kurds are Muslims "they became the new republic's second-class citizens. Now, 80 years of Turkish repression have fostered a cycle of violence and a legacy of mistrust."
Since 1924, there have been 29 Kurdish uprisings against Turkish rule all drowned in blood.
Despite some recent concessions, the Kurdish language is still banned in schools, use of the term "Kurdistan" is punishable by jail, and the wounds of the recent war against Kurdish separatists are still festering.
Turkey's war against the leftist separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which theoretically ended three years ago in the bleak mountains of southeastern Turkey, killed about 30,000 people, displaced 4 million, and destroyed thousands of villages.
Most of the fighting stopped when PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, captured by the Turks and sentenced to death, appealed to his fighters to end the war. His death sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment.
The war's conduct weighed heavily on Turkey's democratic credentials, but there were few protests in the West because the PKK was considered to be communist.
However, the Turkish government does not oppose Kurdish assimilation it encourages it, with considerable resistance from those who seek to preserve a Kurdish identity. Nonetheless, Kurds have become judges, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament.
Intermarriage exists mainly in urban centers, where ethnic Kurds rarely use their native language. Kurdish nationalists, active mainly in rural areas, are divided: Some demand an independent Kurdistan, others would settle for autonomy, and many would simply like freedom of Kurdish expression. All such demands have been opposed by the government.
In last November's legislative elections, a pro-Kurdish party know as the Democratic People's Party (DEHAP) failed to win the 10 percent threshold required to win parliament seats.
After the recent war against Iraq, according to historian, Mr. Goodwin: "The key Turkish objective is to prevent any radicalization of its Kurdish population."
Meanwhile, despite their crushing defeat by Saddam Hussein's military in 1991, and thanks to the "no-fly" zone imposed over northern Iraq by U.S. and British planes, Iraq's "orphans of the universe" are now as close as they ever have been to creating their own civil society and a form of democracy.
Close to 4 million Kurds live in northern Iraq. A common government established by the two big parties broke down in 1994. After intense fighting, the two parties agreed to cooperate, with Mr. Barzani's KDP administering the northern part of the enclave and Mr. Talabani's PUK, the east.
The size is approximately 15,000 square miles a fifth larger than Maryland and varies from parched desert to the breathtaking mountains on the border with Turkey.
Repression of the Iraqi Kurds by Saddam's regime began in 1987 during the Iran-Iraq war, when there were Kurds on both sides of the battle lines. During the next three years, more than 4,000 villages were destroyed and about 100,000 people were killed in this and a subsequent campaign in 1991.
The Kurdish enclave has several military airfields built by Iraq. The number of Kurdish fighters called Peshmerga, "those who face death" is said to be 100,000. About 20,000 of them took part in ousting Iraqi forces from Mosul and Kirkuk, then withdrew at the request of the United States.
According to diplomatic assessments, Kurdish leaders in Iraq know that Turkey will not tolerate an independent Kurdistan, nor Kurdish control over nearby Iraqi oil fields, a source of enormous income.
Last November the two Kurdish factions drafted a constitution outlining a system under which the Kurds would have autonomy in a federal Iraq.
"If Iraq is to be united, federalism is the only solution," said Berham Saleh, prime minister of the PUK government.
The 15-page draft constitution proposed that Iraq consist of two regions one Arab, south of Kirkuk, and one Kurdish in the northern part. A clause stipulating that "the city of Kirkuk shall be the capital of the Kurdistan region" immediately brought a violent reaction from Turkey, which refused to allow so much of Iraqi oil wealth to be controlled by Kurds.
By all indications, the document is doomed to be soon forgotten and the plight of the "accursed people" will continue this time with mounting international complications.


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