- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

ERBIL, Iraq - Americans may be vilified in much of Iraq, but in the 15,000 square miles encompassing Iraqi

Kurdistan, wedding parties pose with U.S. soldiers, American flags are posted proudly on dashboards and officials beg visiting Americans to tell Washington to establish a permanent military base here.

“That would send a message to everyone not to do anything to the Kurds,” said a visiting professor at the 14,000-student Salahaddin University in this sprawling north-central city.

Thirty years of political oppression, poison gas attacks and outright genocide by the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad have led northeastern Iraq’s 4.5 million Kurds to rethink all their alliances.

Some even suggest contacting the Israelis for advice. Although most Kurdish Muslims instinctively distrust Jews, some say Israelis would be eager to help bolster a Kurdish democracy in the Middle East. Jews inhabited Kurdistan starting with the Babylonian exile in 597 B.C. and ending in the 1950s, when many returned to Israel.

Others say Kurds are flirting with Zoroastrianism or atheism, as Islam is seen as the religion of their Turkish and Arab oppressors. Evangelical Protestant missionaries who are quietly planting churches in the major Kurdish cities report flickers of interest. Copies of the New Testament, or at least portions of it, are available in both Kurdish dialects, and Campus Crusade’s “Jesus Film” has been on Kurdish television several times.

The evangelistic Dallas-based Daystar Television Network can be seen in any Kurdish home with a satellite dish.

The Amman, Jordan-based Manara Ministries, a Christian agency that conducts relief work in northern Iraq, estimates 200 Kurds have converted to Christianity in 20 years and that Erbil has at least one Christian bookstore. Other Christian agencies in the region agree numbers remain in the low hundreds, but thousands have received evangelistic literature and have had some contact with Christians.

Kurds have substituted their own red, yellow, green and white flag in place of the national Iraqi flag on flagpoles everywhere. In the few places the Iraqi flag is displayed, it is the de-Islamicized pre-1991 version before Saddam Hussein added “God is Great” in Arabic to the red, white, black and green banner.

“Some people are blaming Islam for what’s happening to us,” one college professor mused. “But I think the fault is with the British who divided our land after World War I. We have tolerated this bitter reality, but we have never accepted it.”

The Kurdish penchant for independent thinking begins with its “Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan” sign at the Iraqi-Turkish border — a calculated insult to Turkey, which has denied human rights to many of its 15 million to 20 million Kurds and whose border guards lecture travelers that “Kurdistan” does not exist.

Kurdistan is an unofficial nation-state encompassing at least 25 million people in the 74,000-square-mile mountainous region encompassing chunks of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It is the world’s largest ethnic group without a country of its own.

Kurds were promised a country in the Aug. 10, 1920, Treaty of Sevres that divided the former Ottoman Empire among Britain, Turkey and others, and gave independence to Armenia.

However, the treaty drafted in Sevres, France, was ignored by Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, who did honor the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that established Turkey’s present borders but partitioned Kurdistan into four parts.

Kurds generally were oppressed in all their host countries, resulting in the establishment of exile communities in Europe and the United States. Iraqi Kurdistan blossomed after the 1991 Gulf war, when overflights by British and American fighter jets generally kept Saddam’s forces at bay.

Today, some Baghdad residents are moving their homes several hundred miles north to tranquil Kurdish cities such as Dohuk, where legions of peshmerga — Kurdish militia — patrol the city streets and man checkpoints on rural routes. The more American — or Western — a passenger appears to be, the more quickly one is waved on by the peshmerga. Cars sporting Baghdad license plates or holding Arab occupants are pulled over and searched.

One Assyrian Christian driver relates how, while conducting business in Mosul 40 miles south of Dohuk, he was threatened at gunpoint by insurgents. He managed to talk his way out of trouble.

Asked the reason for the AK-47 assault rifle in the front seat?

“To shoot Arabs with,” he said.

Although danger remains, others are enjoying their new lives.

“I’m 37 years old, but I feel like I am only 1 year old because I feel freedom now,” said the Rev. Mofid Toma Marcus, an Assyrian Christian monk who oversees the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in Al Qosh, a Christian village near the burial spot of the Old Testament prophet Nahum. “America has given new life to Iraqi people.”

In five years, he said, “Iraq will be better. Under Saddam, we had no cell phones, no Internet, no interviews with American journalists. America took 200 years to get to where it is today.”

Al Qosh is one of seven Christian villages stretching north from Mosul.

“We don’t give permission for Muslim families to live in Christian villages,” Mr. Marcus said, explaining that Muslims would gradually turn it into an Muslim-majority village, then institute Islamic law.

A half-mile down the road is Bozan, a village populated by Yezidi Kurds who worship a pre-Islamic peacock god linked to Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. The children play in the town square near a bombed-out school that the monastery is trying to refurbish.

They run to fetch Elias Khalaf, the headmaster, a dignified man in a Kurdish-style gray suit with baggy pants, who begs for Americans to come stay in some of the monastery’s 200 rooms and help rebuild his school. Missing are all the basics: paint, windows, water, doors, blackboards, electricity, desks and toilets.

Thirty teachers toil with 1,100 students, sometimes as many as 60 per class.

“We need teachers,” he begs. “We need everything.”

The Yezidis were forced out of their villages 30 years ago by Arab Iraqis, gaining them back only since the overthrow of Saddam. On their way out, the Arabs cut the electric lines and poisoned the wells.

Kurdish cities are filled with unemployed men of all ages idling in cafes to escape the 111-degree heat. Despite the scorching temperature, many of the Muslim women cloak themselves in heavy, long-sleeved jackets, ankle-length skirts and head scarves.

Sulaymania, a city about 80 miles west of the Iranian border surrounded by hot, rocky, barren hills, has a reputation for free thinking and slightly more liberal dress codes. It has become a center for experimental newspapers that operate on shoestring budgets. The London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting has an office in Sulaymania, where it tries to instill journalistic standards into eager but inexperienced reporters.

One student-run paper is in a tiny third-floor office with no air conditioning. Cold sodas are brought for the guests, who are told that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the northwestern tier of Kurdistan, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls the southeast, exercise Mafialike control over Kurds. Any newspaper that criticizes the parties, they say, finds itself banned from local newsstands.

A similar conversation the next day with an Islamic newspaper reveals how dissatisfaction with the slow pace of change is everywhere. At a quiet dinner with Kurdish businessmen in the touristy suburb of Sarchinar, the topic of conversation is the failure of Kurdish political leaders to encourage Western investment and the reluctance of American companies to take a chance on the Kurds.

“If you don’t move quickly here,” one computer technician said, “the Chinese and the Germans will fill your place.”

The Iranians already have a consulate in Sulaymania, one is told, while the Americans only have plans for a consulate in Kirkuk, leaving most of northern Iraq with no official American presence.

Meanwhile, the Kurds already have a functioning airport in Erbil and plans are to open another one soon in Sulaymania. Iraq has been on hold for too many years, they say. Gas may be 3 cents a gallon here but passports are impossible to come by, reducing many Kurds to learning their English from BBC World telecasts. There is no postal service.

Plus, any Kurdish public figure working with Westerners knows his life could be snuffed out at any time. A drive to a lunch interview with Salahaddin University President Mohammed Sadik in Erbil begins when two armed bodyguards jump into the passenger seat of his car and perch on the back bumper.

Their caution stems from the Feb. 1 suicide bombings at the Erbil headquarters of the KDP and PUK during celebrations for an Islamic holiday. More than 56 Kurds, adults and children were killed.

The Kurds at this lunch are distraught over U.N. Resolution 1546, which they hoped would support Kurds’ semi-independent status. But the resolution was vague, not even mentioning the regional government for which Kurds have long campaigned. Furious Kurds now refer to L. Paul Bremer, who served as the United States’ Iraq administrator after the fall of Saddam, as “Lawrence of Arabia” for selling them short to Arab rulers who have little experience or taste for democracy.

“We feel Americans have bargained at the expense of the Kurds,” Mr. Sadik said. “The worst person they brought here was Mr. Bremer, who didn’t want to take any advice from the Kurds but who was willing to bargain with everyone else.”

All the lunch guests scoffed at the notion of “a new Iraq” touted by the Americans.

“We have nothing in common with the rest of Iraq,” said Kirmanj Gundi, a Tennessee State professor visiting his homeland. “Why did Bremer always compromise on Kurdish interests in favor of the Shi’ites and Sunnis who shoot at them?

“If America supports us, we’d be the most loyal friend in the region.”

Every Kurd in the room wanted independence. Why, they asked, was America so quick to recognize Israel 56 years ago but today raises objection after objection about Kurdish independence.

“When America decided to recognize Israel,” one said, “America didn’t care about how the 22 Arab countries would react or how the 56 Islamic countries would react. So why should the Kurds care what the Iraqi government thinks?”


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