The Kurdish opposition forces, which have governed an independent state “de facto” in the mountainous area in Northern Iraq since the end of the Golf War, have been called to play a significant role in the new crisis that has blown up between Saddam Hussein and the United States. The current international situation has positioned the two main organisations –the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)– in a situation where they may risk their control over Iraqi Kurdistan, by joining the North American stance.
Never before in their history have the Kurds been this close to fulfilling their dreams. Neither the Mede coalition of their indo-European ancestors, nor when Saladin united the Near East under the flag of Islam, or with the feudal principalities of the Ottoman Empire, or even during the short-lived Republic of Mahabad (Iran, 1946-1947), has this nation managed to build a State like the one that exists today “de facto” in Northern Iraq.
Since the 1991 Golf War, the Kurdish Government, with headquarters in the former Arbela, has put the administrative machinery back into working order in three provinces: Arbil, that gives its name to the capital, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah, situated next to the Turkish and Iranian borders. This political self-governing region covers an area of approximately 40,000 square kilometres, where over three and a half million people live. It has its own “army”, security forces, legal system and, above all, a Parliament, which was established after the democratic elections held in May 1992.
These elections confirmed that the two main Kurdish groups had almost the same popular support: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) gained 45.26% of the votes and 51 of the 105 seats at stake, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (KDP) obtained 43.81% and 49 Members of Parliament. The five remaining Members of Parliament were reserved for the Christian minority and corresponded, in particular to the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM).
The 1992 elections also revealed the existence of a new political force, that had hardly any previous tradition in Iraqi Kurdistan: Osman Abdulaziz’s Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), that gained 5% of the votes, but didn’t manage to reach the minimum percentage required for parliamentary representation. Likewise, another surprise was that the PASOK socialists -with 2.57%- outdid the veteran Communist Party, which, in spite of its prestige, only managed to obtain 2.18% of the popular backing. “Sami” Abdulrahman’s Popular Democratic Party was left in fifth position with 1.23% of the votes.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the main political-military force in Iraqi Kurdistan, was founded in 1946 by General Mustafa Barzani following the KDP model in Iran, which in turn was influenced by the “popular democratic movements” promoted by the Soviet Union. In spite of its reputation of reflecting the traditional bonds of the clans in Kurdish society, even in its origins it didn’t precisely reflect the tribal structure. To a certain extent, under the Barzani leadership, the KDP fulfilled an agglutinative function for all the nationalist elements until it was defeated in 1975. In fact, at the beginning of the fifties it absorbed the Kurdish Rizgari groups –extreme left– and the Hewa ideological group, it declared it was “Marxist-Leninist” and disputed the social and political basis with the Kurdish faction of the then powerful Iraq Communist Party, the oldest party in the country, founded in 1934.
Although the influence of the Barzani and their “family board” on the leadership of the KDP is indisputable, currently only two members of the Executive Committee belong to the family: Masud Barzani, son of the founder and Nachirvan Barzani, his cousin. This leading organisation and its Central Committee both include members of families that, like the Zibari, were in conflict with the Barzani, or prominent representatives of the Christian minority, which is the case of Franso Hariri, the Arbil Governor, who was murdered by an Islamic commando group last year.
The KDP represents a political model that is more moderate and autonomous than the PUK model and is differentiated from the latter by its profound respect for traditions, its exceptional presence in rural areas and as it enjoys greater internal democracy. On the other hand, the PUK is a fervent defender of “the right to self-determination” for the Kurdish people and it tends to be more left-wing. The PUK is still influenced on the way it acts and on its internal organisation by the Jacobin heritage of “democratic centralism” that characterised the two organisations –the Socialist Movement (revolutionary Marxist) and the Maoist orientated group, Komala– which in 1977 joined the division of the KDP division, led in 1975 by Jalal Talabani.
Made up of young people from the lowest levels of society, middle class nationalist intellectuals and professionals, the PUK comes across better in large urban centres such as Arbil, Sulaymaniyah and Koisanjak and attracts religious minority leaders, like the Yazidis or Kakais, who feel more comfortable in a profoundly secular party. The differences between the two parties can even be seen in the physical appearance of their activists. On the one hand, the KDP militiamen tend to dress impeccably in the traditional style, with a red turban headdress, that is characteristic to the Islamic heterodox tendency of the “naqsbandi”, the Barzani are the spiritual leaders of this tendency; and on the other hand, the PUK activists generally tend to dress in a more slapdash and carefree manner, sometimes in a European style, and do not cover their heads, or if they do so, they wear hats or Korean caps.
The PUK held their last congress, attended by 1,247 delegates, at the beginning of February 2001. Jalal Talabani was re-elected party president by acclaim and the ten offices he proposed to renew at the Central Committee were also elected unanimously. The importance of this congress lies in its conclusions, the PUK admitted, as self-criticism, that it was partly responsible for the armed confrontations between the two main parties between 1994 and 1997. At the congress, the PUK declared that it “would not be fair to blame everything on the KDP”. The final resolution of the congress stated specifically that “under no circumstances should we have resorted to arms” and championed that conflicts should be resolved by means of talks and negotiations.
The PUK has a reputation of strengthening its political power by relying on its brave and disciplined “peshmergas” (Kurdish guerrillas) and this is what sparked off the civil war that cost 3,000 lives until a cease-fire was declared in November 1997. The break between the two parties, who equally shared ministerial responsibilities in the Arbil Government, originated over the control of some towns and, above all, about the substantial income that the customs on the Habur river contributed to the Kurdish treasury. Here the KDP collect taxes from lorries coming from Turkey, which enter loaded with consumer goods and leave transporting large petrol tanks.
Madeleine Albright managed to sit the two parties down in Washington to sign an agreement mechanism on the 27th of September 1998. Slowly both parties began to apply the so-called “Washington Agreements” through sectorial committees and in the summer of 2001, before the Afghanistan crisis broke out, great progress had already been made on the road to reconciliation. The preparations to overthrow Saddam Hussein have accelerated the application of the agreements and, on the 4th of October last, they managed to reunite Parliament in a solemn act presided by Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani.
Some critical opinions, such as the Kurdistan Communist Party and the Communist Workers Party –small groups, but with a basis similar to European culture-, feel that this reunification “has not been finalised properly” as it was not the result of work carried out by the different “reunification” committees and that, in short, it is the result of diplomatic pressure from the United States. In any case, peace between the KDP and the PUK is most likely to be consolidated when the Kurdish self-governing region is integrated and backed by a new Iraqi federalist persuasion constitutional framework.
The two Kurdish Communist Parties and the Social Democrat party –the heritage of the former PASOK– oppose these agreements, made by the KDP and the PUK with the USA to topple Saddam Hussein, with the same strength. The other existing forces –the Islamic League Integrationists in the area controlled by the Barzani and the Islamic Movement in the area governed by the Talabani– follow, respectively and in this matter, the footsteps of the KDP and the PUK. Finally, the radical Islamic factions that make up the Ansar al Islam movement (Islam supporters) –cornered in the mountains along the border with Iran– coincide with Saddam Hussein’s regime in that they want to destabilise the Kurdish Government, which they accuse of having “anti-Islamic and pro-Israel” policies.
During these ten years of “independence”, the Kurdish Government has managed to reconstruct the majority of the towns destroyed by the army during the eighties, it has recuperated the main infrastructures, relaunched agriculture, set up some industries and renewed the education system; all this has been done thanks to the 13% of Iraqi income from oil exports that corresponds to the Kurdish region, as stipulated in the United Nations Resolution 986, more commonly known under the name of “Oil for Food Programme” (over 3,000 million euros since 1996).
President George Bush’s decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein from power and the plans designed by the Pentagon to achieve their intention, has given the Kurdish forces an unexpected importance in the new Iraq crisis. The Kurdish opposition is the only group within Iraqi territory that has a significant military capacity, comprising around 50,000 militiamen with combat experience. Likewise, the mountainous territory that they control makes their collaboration essential if a territorial offence towards Baghdad takes place, as this is the only region in Iraq that, due to its rugged mountain formation, would enable the Iraqi army to set up an appropriate defence system.
Initially, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre on the 11th of September, when Bush announced his determination to put a stop to Saddam Hussein, the two main Kurdish parties openly voiced their opposition to a new attack on Iraq. The reason was very simple, as the Kurdish leaders asked themselves: Why should we risk everything we have achieved in Iraqi Kurdistan in a new military “adventure”?
In addition, the Kurds still have George Bush Senior’s “betrayal” fresh in their minds, as the remainder of the Republican Guards had chased them through the mountains along the Turkish and Iranian border, while the US troops remained in Basra, arms crossed. The Kurds know perfectly well that they will be the first to suffer from Saddam Hussein’s fury and that they will endanger themselves to being victims of new chemical bomb attacks, which would unleash a wave of panic among the civilian population and a new mass exodus.
Today, no one doubts that, in the plans drawn up by the United States, the Kurds –like the Shiites in the south– will play an important role, in both the military operation itself as well as in the political design of post-Saddam Iraq. This is why the Middle East specialists in the Department of State, at the Pentagon and in the CIA have restored contacts with the Kurdish parties, even at the price of irritating some faithful allies –such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia– who would prefer to have Saddam Hussein as a neighbour rather than a government in which the federalist Kurds and pro-Iranian Shiites will have very significant power.
KDP and PUK representatives have maintained repeated contacts with the North American administration and with other opposition groups to coordinate their positions and to prepare a combined government programme, as required by Washington, before launching into the expected operation to oust Saddam Hussein from power. The first serious contacts between these Kurdish parties and US representatives, after the 11th of September, were established during an “observation” visit carried out by a US military delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan in December 2001. According to explanations given by Greg Sullivan, the Department of State’s spokesman, the objective of this trip was to check the self-defence capabilities of the Kurdish forces.
On the 20th of April this year, representatives from both parties prepared a “top level summit” that was held in mid-May. According to some sources, it took place at a US Military base in Frankfurt but, if we take notice of the information provided by the Al Sark al Ausat newspaper, the Kurdish delegation was transported secretly by plane to a base located in the State of Virginia (USA).
This meeting was attended by Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, their sons Mazrur Barzani and Bafil Talabani and the respective “number twos” from the KDP and the PUK: Hushyar Zibari and Barham Salih. The US were represented by George Tenet (CIA), several experts from the Operations Department at the Pentagon and one of the Secretary of Defence’s advisors, in addition to members of the National Security Council who specialise in Iraqi affairs.
From the information leaked from these conversations, the Kurdish delegation, before committing itself to the North American plans, set out the following conditions:
They want a guarantee that the civilian population will continue to be protected in the hypothetical event of a counter-attack by the Iraqi army, even if the Americans “pull out” of the operation to overthrow Saddam Hussein or should the operation fail.
That the political system to be established in Iraq is based on federal, pluralistic and democratic approaches and will respect the ethnic and religious minorities.
That the future Kurdish self-governing region recovers the town of Kirkuk –one of the major oil empires in Iraq, mainly inhabited by Kurds– and the Sinjar region, that runs from the town of Mosul –also partially Kurdish– to the Syrian border.
That there are guarantees that neither Turkey nor Iran will make the most of the situation to intervene in Iraq’s internal affairs.
This last demand is motivated by the continual warnings that have been made over the last few years from Ankara, Teheran and Damascus, stating that they will not permit the creation of a Kurdish State, or that doubts are raised regarding the unity of Iraq. These three countries have important Kurdish minorities in their territories, and the rise of a Kurdish political entity in Iraq would cause a sympathy effect in such territories, reviving their cultural and political demands. More specifically, the Turkish army has made explicit threats to intervene directly if the towns of Mosul and Kirkuk fall into Kurdish hands and, thus, endanger the rights of the Turkoman minorities.
The Iraqi Kurdistan dominant forces –the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)-, that have been fighting a civil war since 1994, have left their disputes to one side to join George Bush’s plans against Saddam Hussein’s regime. However these two parties, who learnt their lesson from the US “betrayal” after the Golf War, have put forward several conditions before they get involved in a military operation, among these conditions special emphasis is placed on the need to protect the civilian population in the event of new chemical bomb attacks and that the future political system in Iraq will be based on federalist approaches.
Journalist, Specialist on Kurdistan