Verbal sparring between those who believe Iraq is in a state of civil war and the Bush administration, who insists it is not, may find the argument increasingly in favor of those who believe the country is affected by civil divisions, and may be slipping towards greater chaos.
Iraqi Kurds living in the semi-autonomous northern part of the country lowered Iraqi flags this past weekend, replacing them with Kurdish banners over official government buildings in Iraqi Kurdistan. Their actions sent immediate shock waves to Baghdad, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki derided the move by the Kurds, calling it “illegal.”
And when Baghdad complained, the Kurds threatened to secede.
This move by the Kurds has also sent up red flags in neighboring Turkey, where Ankara eyes any move towards Kurdish independence with much trepidation, less it encourages its own Kurdish population to emulate their Iraqi brothers.
Addressing the region’s parliament, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, said Iraq’s flag was a symbol of his own people’s past oppression. He asked the regional parliament to adopt the new flag.
Barzani told his parliament: “If at any moment we, the Kurdish people and parliament, consider that it is in our interests to declare independence, we will do so and we will fear no-one.”
Baghdad reacted with a statement from the prime minister’s office, saying that “the Iraqi flag is the only flag that should be raised over any square inch of Iraq, until parliament makes a decision as laid down in the constitution.” The statement avoided any direct mention of the Kurdish flag.
Are the Kurds taking the first step towards independence? The Kurds, who are scattered between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, have long dreamed of an independent country. And more than once they were promised support in that dream by Western powers in exchange for their support. The Kurds repeatedly showed loyalty only to be repeatedly let down.
The first attempt in modern times by the Kurds to establish a homeland occurred at the end of World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson supported the notion of Kurdish self-determination. And despite the fact that the idea of an independent Kurdistan was mentioned in the 1920 Treaty of SÃ©vres, an independent Kurdistan was omitted from being penciled in post WWI maps.
The new Turkey of Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk) rejected the treaty in 1923, denying the Kurds their state. This was the genesis of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, a conflict which continues to this day. In fact, in recent days Kurdish separatists are believed to have been responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in Turkish tourist resorts.
In 1924, shortly after Ataturk rejected the idea of a Kurdish state, Turkey banned the Kurdish culture and prohibited the use of the Kurdish language. In Iraq, sporadic fighting between Kurds and the central government occurred from 1964 to 1975. That was when the Kurdish leader at the time, Mustafa Barzani, turned to the United States for help.
Appealing to then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Barzani asked for assistance, telling Kissinger: “Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way.” Relying on an agreement reached with the shah of Iran, the United States, once again, abandoned the Kurds to their fate.
Persecution of Kurds continued in Turkey, in Iran and most notably in Iraq, particularly under the regime of Saddam Hussein. One of the most horrendous acts against the Kurds was committed in the town of Halabja, in 1988, when mustard gas was used against the civilian population. More than 5,000 people, including women and children, died in the attack.
The 1990-1991 Gulf War changed the fate of Iraq’s Kurds. In the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the no-fly zone established by the United States to protect its pilots offered Iraqi Kurds an almost divine protection. In the years after the first Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdistan began to enjoy unprecedented autonomy as Baghdad pulled its administration out of the region, leaving the two main Kurdish political parties to establish a local government.
The Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq has prospered further since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Kurdish leaders are closely watching Washington’s attempts at pacifying Iraq and establishing a working democracy. Should Washington’s efforts fail, the Kurds are prepared to breakaway from Iraq and live happily off revenues from the oil in the Kirkuk region.
That, however, is a point of contention with Baghdad and particularly with Iraq’s Sunnis, who stand to lose more than Iraq’s other major politico-religious group, the Shiites. The Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south sit on top of large oil reserves. This leaves the Sunnis, who have ruled Iraq in the past, in the middle of the country with little or no oil revenues. And this is something they will fight for.
More likely than not, so too will Turkey be prepared to fight to prevent the Kurdish dream from becoming a reality.