Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East
April 22, 2008
JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome our members and guests, and to thank you for joining us as we welcome Quil Lawrence, author of Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East.
There have been very few histories written about the Kurds. This narrative is especially poignant, as it prompts our admiration for a very resilient people. For almost a century, the Kurds have struggled to attain statehood and often describe themselves as orphans of history and geography. With a population of approximately 25 million, the Kurds remain the largest ethnic group in the world without their own nation.
After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the Kurds thought they had a chance at statehood. However, it wasn't long before they found themselves betrayed. The map of the Middle East was redrawn and the Kurds were welded to northern Iraq, stuck in the toughest of neighborhoods. Their population was divided among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, whose rulers reacted with fear and repression to their national aspirations.
In recent years, their lot has been particularly wretched in Iraq, where large numbers were massacred by Saddam Hussein's army in 1988, and in Turkey, where the military has burned hundreds of villages in its attempt to wipe out the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Looking for support, the Kurds have often turned to the West, and even though their relationship with America has been somewhat complex, they have sought encouragement from our country, hoping that we would help them to realize their ambitions. Although the West did come to their rescue in 1991 by setting up a no-fly zone in northern Iraq, each time America's promises have fallen short, while the Kurds have been left holding the bag.
Regardless of this past history, today the Iraqi Kurds have emerged as one of the few successes of this current war. Now sensing that one of the accidental outcomes of the U.S. invasion of Iraq may be that a dream for a Kurdistan is finally within their reach, while at the same knowing that they will need U.S. backing to realize this goal, it is no surprise that the Kurds may be the only ethnic group in the country that doesn't want American troops to leave Iraq.
But the question remains whether the United States will continue to promote their success and stand behind the Kurds' quest for statehood. Or will we once again fail the Kurds as we promote our own self-interest?
Invisible Nation draws on seven years of Quil's reporting from Iraq and observing the Kurds among other ethnic groups. With each disaster that has befallen Iraq, he has witnessed the determination of the Kurds and retells their story in a lucid and comprehensive way. By doing so, he hopes to explain the vital role that the Kurds have played in the dream unfolding in the new, volatile Middle East.
Mr. Lawrence is a Middle Eastern correspondent for the BBC/PRI's The World. He has reported for National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and The Christian Science Monitor. In recognition of his outstanding journalism, he has won various awards, including the Harry Chapin Media Judges' Award and the Judges' Award from the National Conference of Community Broadcasters.
We are delighted to welcome Quil Lawrence, who has brought the Kurds' plight to our attention in such a compelling manner. In the end, perhaps Mr. Lawrence can tell us whether or not the Kurds will get their way.
Thank you for joining us.
QUIL LAWRENCE: I want to just tell you some stories and talk about some issues that are all in the book. Then I'm really looking forward to taking your questions, because I think it's always more interesting when we can have a dialogue.
On my first trip to Kurdistan, I certainly didn't know very much about the Kurds or about Iraq. It was the second time I had been to Iraq in the spring of the year 2000, still under the government of Saddam Hussein. I was driving north from Baghdad in a beat-up orange and white taxicab with two low-level Baathist spies, who were minding me. As we left the dry wasteland around Baghdad and moved up north, you could see the land changing, getting greener, getting hillier, and finally, a long single ridge rising up in view north of the city of Kirkuk. It seemed to me almost as if the Kurds had somehow bulldozed a big earth berm, made the mountains their line so they could say, "We're just not part of that country down there."
As we crested the ridge and left the last Iraqi Army government checkpoint, my driver and translator got even more nervous as we rolled up to the first checkpoint of the Kurdish militia, who promptly arrested us and took us to jail, which didn't make me that nervous, because I knew that, generally, the Kurds wanted reporters from the outside to be coming in. It did make the two gentlemen I was with very nervous. As they sat around the corner, the Kurdish security officer from the jail asked me, in his good Arabic (and I answered in my bad Arabic), if the men I was with were spies. Knowing that they were within earshot, and said, "I don't know." [Lawrence nods his head in the affirmative as he says this.]
But I should start at the beginning. The invasion of Iraq is a success for Kurdistan. At the moment, it has everything that the Bush administration promised that they would do when they came to Iraq. It's not a perfect democracy by any means, but it is heading in that direction. It's pro-democratic, it's pro-America, and it even doesn't have much trouble with Israel. The question is, in such a dearth of good news, why the Bush administration, among others, isn't making more noise about this great success story.
The answer is that they are afraid that Kurdistan could be too successful and get the opportunity to form its own country. That, like no other event since the 1948 creation of Israel, would unite the region in opposition. Turkey has a large Kurdish population. As you all know, it has been very restive over the last few decades. They are very worried that an independent Kurdistan or even a strong autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq would inspire their Kurds to join. Syria has a small Kurdish population as well, with similar problems, as well as Iran.
The Kurds understand better than anyone at the moment that crossing that line and declaring a state is too far right now. They have been willing to limit themselves to statehood in everything but name. They have managed to use this invasion to get almost everything they wanted but the right to say they are an independent state.
In the book I talk about how this independent Kurdistan was created by two accidents, by two presidents named Bush. The first one was in 1991, the First Gulf War, we call it; the Second Gulf War, they call it there. George Bush, Sr. never intended to engender the creation of a Kurdish state—not even a safe-haven zone there. But at the end of the First Gulf War, by his own admission, he went off-script a bit. He said, musing in several public speeches, that this war could end a different way. Saddam had been driven out of Kuwait. There was some question about whether the United States would go all the way to Baghdad. He said, there's a different way for this to end. The Iraqi people can rise up.
He and the realists in the Bush administration meant that they wanted somebody to take out Saddam. It was the beginning of what they called "the one-bullet policy." They wanted another Sunni Arab, much like Saddam, but a different name—someone they could shake hands with—to put a bullet in Saddam's head and then go on with business as usual. Iraq could export its oil, et cetera.
But the Kurds in the north and the Shiite Arabs in the south heard a different message, and they rose up against the dictator, thinking that they had the American army at their backs. It took less than a few weeks for them to realize this wasn't the case. As soon as Saddam Hussein realized that he had a free hand, that no one was going to stop him, he slaughtered them in the tens of thousands. The Kurds began to flee across the border. About a million fled to Iran. They had had a bitter experience in the 1980s with the regime. Saddam Hussein's regime carried out a campaign that most people considered genocidal, razing thousands of villages to the ground, using poison gas—in one day in 1988, killing 5,000 people with poison gas in the city of Halabja.
In 1991, when they realized America wasn't coming to their aid, they decided that "anywhere but here" would be the right place to go. I have talked to witnesses who saw people leaving hospitals carrying IV bags, barefoot, and walking out into what was a late winter that year, walking across the mountains to Turkey, about a half million of them. At one point, they were dying at a rate of 100 a day.
At that point—and it's interesting; this is one of the reasons I became a journalist, actually, in 1991. The press was instrumental, and the Kurds had already been working on mechanisms for how to get themselves into the press. They managed to shame the government of the United States and the government of Britain and Prime Minister John Major, as well as the government of France, to do something. What they did was the first humanitarian intervention in history. They reinvaded Iraq and created a small safe haven in the north, which planted the seed of a de facto Kurdistan. It quickly expanded. The United States, for a while, France, and Britain protected it with air support. It provided a laboratory for the Kurds to start developing their own government.
It wasn't pretty. In some ways, it's very similar to what is happening in Iraq now, with a lot of different parties vying for power, some violently, some through politics, people trying to eliminate players they think they can eliminate through military means. The two Kurdish parties quickly fell into a pointless civil war, which never really gained either one a whole lot of territory, killing about 6,000 of their people.
By the end of the 1990s, the Kurds had had, I guess, some political maturation. With some outside help, they stopped fighting amongst themselves as much. Then they waited, in this sort of a limbo of de facto statehood, for the second President Bush to come along, to make his accidental contribution to the creation of a Kurdish state.
President George W. Bush didn't intend to go in there to save the Kurds either. In fact, he was hoping to send his troops through Turkey and was willing to make a deal with the Turkish government by which they would be able to send up to 60,000 troops of their own into northern Iraq with the invading force. The Kurds were pretty sure that these troops were not going to be friendly to them.
But on March 1, 2003, the Kurds had a stroke of luck, which was a vote in the Turkish Parliament which might as well be called "the Kurdish battle for independence." The Turkish Parliament decided not to let the American army through, as you all know. As a result, the U.S. army in the north, some Special Forces teams that went in there, became the only element of the northern front. Their only friends were the Kurds waiting there with open arms, about 60,000 of them in a well-organized militia that was more than happy to help the Americans with their battles against Ansar al-Islam, which was an Islamist group in the north, and also against the regime.
The bad relations with Turkey that began with that vote and continued throughout the summer have been an incredible blessing to the Kurds. It gave them a lot of breathing room.
But there were also ties being made between the Kurdish leadership and American leadership, and also Kurdish fighters on the ground and American soldiers.
I remember watching from a ridge in March of 2003, with a few American Special Forces soldiers alongside Kurds, as they battled with this Islamist group that was up in the mountains, calling in air strikes, and seeing the cooperation between these two groups and seeing some real chemistry form there.
I was speaking with one Special Forces soldier. He said that that morning they had had their first wounded man come back from the front. He was a Kurdish fighter. At first they had been making fun of him as they saw him from a distance, because he seemed to be limping, and they thought maybe he had twisted his ankle and had run back to the rear of the action. When he got closer, they realized he had been shot through the chest.
He said to me, "We couldn't believe it." These Kurdish fighters don't have medevac; they don't have any sort of medical care up at the front. They are taught that if you get shot, you are going to have to hoof it back to get medical care. They were very impressed by these guys.
At the same time, I saw this American soldier, who had never been there before, looking across the hills. Kurdistan is beautiful. You wouldn't think you were in Iraq. Especially in the spring, it's gorgeous—as green as Ireland, and flowers all over the hillsides. He just said to me, "You know, if you lived here, wouldn't you want to own it?"
I could tell at that point that some of these American soldiers had been drinking the Kurdish Kool-Aid.
I think those ties continue to today.
The relationship between Kurds and Americans, as Joanne mentioned, has not always been so happy. I think Kurds certainly know Americans better than we know them. They know much more about us.
Way back in 1919, when Iraq was new, one of the first Kurdish rebels against the government of Iraq—the Kurdish rebellion started as soon as Iraq was formed—was a wild-eyed man with a big, bushy walrus mustache, always pictured with a ceremonial dagger. His name was Shaikh Mahmud. He is said to have carried around on his arm pages of the Qur'an and also a copy of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points of self-determination. It was like a talisman. He really believed that America was going to be bringing this sort of self-determination and democracy to his corner of the world. He was disappointed.
The most immediate example that comes to mind is in 1975. I don't know how many American teenagers today would know who Henry Kissinger is, but I went to a playground in Kurdistan in the winter of 2003 and staged a little poll with—I don't know, they must have been 12- or 15-year-olds. I was trying to make trouble. I was asking them, "Are you Iraqi or are you Kurdish?"
Very quickly I got answers, some of them in English, and they said, "Of course we're Kurdish. We'll never forget that Great Britain ruined our chance to have a country at the end of World War I, and we will never forgive Henry Kissinger for betraying us in 1975." These guys knew their history.
The story in 1975 was that maybe the greatest and most famous of the Kurdish rebel fighters, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, could actually claim to have been weaned in a Turkish prison, even though it sounds sort of mythical. He had been fighting since he was a teenager. In 1975, he was fighting against the government of Iraq, at the behest of the Shah of Iran and Israel and the United States, getting aid from them. But in 1975, the Shah made a deal with Saddam Hussein, a deal with the government of Iraq, and instantly the aid stopped.
The Kurds blamed the U.S. government, specifically Kissinger, for this betrayal, which sent again thousands of them streaming over the mountains, thousands of them killed in government repression.
They saw these betrayals coming again and again. With the gassing in Halabja, they wondered why no one was coming to their aid. At that point the United States was providing assistance to Iraq in the war against Iran. In 1991, a betrayal again.
But the Kurdish leadership was making contacts. They were becoming lobbyists. They were getting good at this business of going to Washington. Some of these contacts turned out to be very important. The list of names of people who were involved in protecting the Kurds in 1991 later became very familiar people—General Jay Garner, General John Abizaid, General Tony Zinni. All these people were involved in that operation.
Likewise, on the diplomatic side, a little-known undersecretary in the Pentagon back in 1991 was the only one who really took an interest in the Kurds. His name was Zalmay Khalilzad. We all know that he went on to do very important things in Iraq.
At the moment, the Kurds have done fairly well. They have had a roller-coaster ride since even 2003. At first they thought they had died and gone to heaven. They saw that the Americans had indeed come; the Turks had stayed out. The people in charge of the American occupation were their old friend, Jay Garner, whom they considered a national Kurdish hero, and Zalmay Khalilzad.
Things turned sour very quickly for them, with the arrival of Paul Bremer, about whom they knew very little, only that he had been an assistant at one point to Henry Kissinger, their least favorite historical figure. Bremer knew probably less about them than even they knew about him. In fact, in his first trip to the north, he famously was wondering who these portraits of this warrior were on all the walls and asked Masoud Barzani, the son of the great Kurdish warrior Mulla Mustafa Barzani, in a very casual American sort of way, "Who's that?"
He looks very much like his father. It's not hard to guess that this would be the most famous figure in Kurdish history. You could have read a book or a magazine article or maybe a newspaper clipping about it to find out who these people were.
As much as they disliked Bremer personally, they loved the way he ran the occupation. The now-prime minister of the Kurdish region in the north, Nechirvan Barzani, loves to tell a joke. He says, with a smile, "Everybody hates Mr. Bremer. I love Mr. Bremer. If Mr. Bremer hadn't been here, Iraq wouldn't be in the state it is today. It would be so much better."
He says this with a smile, and it brings up the fact that the Kurds don't really know how well they want Iraq to turn out. There are quite a few people, who in my book I call the believers, who really do want to be part of a successful federal democratic new Iraq. They are people who, when the statue of Saddam fell, went south to Baghdad as soon as they could. Some of their politicians—Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister, has the talent to be a foreign minister of the great country that Iraq deserves to be, a powerful, rich country. He certainly wanted this experiment to succeed. Barham Salih, another well-known Kurd—he's the deputy prime minister now—certainly wanted to be part of building a new government in Baghdad.
Others went south looking for their history. One fellow I profile in the book named Muhammad Ihsan was looking for the gravesite of 7,000 members of the Barzani family, who disappeared in the 1980s into a mass grave somewhere in the desert.
Some of these people still believe that Iraq can be a success and that the Kurds can be a successful part of it, keeping their autonomous rights. The fellow I mentioned, Muhammad Ihsan, who went looking for the bodies, changed his mind very quickly. He went looking for old agents in Saddam's Mukhabarat, the secret service, thinking, "I'll be able to find them. We'll be able to talk. I'm not here for revenge. I just want to know where these 7,000 people disappeared to."
He went posing as a reporter. He found some of these people, the former members of the security services. The conversation he had surprised him. They weren't repentant, he said. They didn't think Saddam had ever made any mistakes, except for pulling out of Kuwait. It seemed to him that if they had had the chance, they would do it all over again.
When he finally found it impossible to get cooperation from local Sunni tribesmen to tell him where the bodies were buried, he decided that it wasn't going to work. Many people within the Kurdistan region are really only working for Kurdistan to succeed. They would be probably just as happy to see the rest of Iraq fall into civil war, unfortunately.
There are still hard bargains being fought at the moment. The Kurds did very well towards the end of 2005 in the drafting of the Iraqi constitution. They got everything they wanted in that document, which is probably a good sign that it wasn't really an equal compromise with all of the factions in Iraq. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq have a legitimate gripe, that they weren't really involved in drafting that document.
The Kurds at the moment are insisting on what they consider some minimums for them, which are to keep their autonomy, keep a federal system, have a fixed share of the oil revenues, and a bunch of other compromises they have made. Some of these are red lines for the other side. The Kurds keeping saying, "What we're doing is in line with the constitution." They are the only people I have ever heard cite the constitution, in fact. That's probably because they wrote most of it.
They would get responses sometimes from Baghdad, for example, in the negotiation of this oil law, where the Kurds say, "Everything we have done is in line with the law, with the constitution," and the response is, "We're trying to keep these new laws in harmony with the constitution as we're going to write it when we change it later." I'm not a lawyer, but…
At the moment, there is some temporary unity, it seems, forming around opposition to Muqtada al-Sadr and the faction that he leads. That might bring Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds together in opposition, especially if they see it as an influence of Iran. But I would suspect that those alliances will be temporary. Perhaps they will give some breathing room for some political growth.
But it's still an ongoing story, the sort of thing where you certainly want to check the news before you come out and speak to a well-informed audience like yourselves. You will let me know if anything has happened this afternoon.
I think I'll leave it there and take your questions, if that's all right.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Apparently, the Kurdish government is negotiating with some foreign oil companies to develop oil in Kurdistan. I gather the Baghdad government is very much opposed to the Kurdish government negotiating these things separately. I wonder if you could elaborate on that. Exactly what is happening in Kurdistan with regard to oil?
QUIL LAWRENCE: Sure. The Kurdistan region of Iraq right now is the three Kurdish provinces in the north. There's not a lot of oil there. The big oil is in the city of Kirkuk. The Kurds claim they would like to have a referendum which would make it part of their region. That's another question we can talk about.
A lot of small oil companies, a Norwegian company, one American company called Hunt Oil, some Canadian companies have been in there. I think there's even an Indian company in there. A few of them are ready to start pumping. They are small operations, but with oil at $116 a barrel, even small amounts of oil are quite interesting.
The question is whether these contracts will be valid later. The Baghdad government, as you say, is opposed to these deals. The Kurds have a lot of international consultants working on this, interpreting the constitution, and saying, "Look, we've got a deal." The deal that they inserted into the constitution was that all old oil wells still belong to the central government and the revenues will be shared. Any new discoveries—the oil will still go into the central pool and the revenue will be distributed, but the administration of these contracts—and the corruption involved around them, et cetera, but also the legitimate proceeds—would go to the region.
So there is a big question about whether this oil will be able to get out. Kurdistan is landlocked. Turkey is unfriendly to the idea of Kurdish independence. The current pipeline, the Jehan pipeline, goes up through Turkey, and the question is whether the Turks will allow it to come out.
The Kurds are building their own pipeline, which they hope, again, with the price of oil going up, that no one will be able to resist.
The argument over the oil law, which they have recently spent several months arguing about getting it back to the agreement that they made in February of 2007—that's the sort of progress we are making on that—the argument about that is whether they have the right to be doing this. The oil minister in Baghdad has threatened to blacklist any company that's working in Kurdistan. It's all tied in as well to what people think the fortunes of Iraq are going to be. If they think it's going to be impossible to get oil of the center and south for the next ten years, then even some of the big companies are looking at buying out some of these smaller companies that are in there.
So it's a huge issue. The Kurds won't say it much, but certainly their enemies would say it for them: If Kurdistan gets oil, then they'll be independent. Certainly the Turks have a fear that if the Kurds get the oil in Kirkuk, then suddenly you are talking about a reserve the size of something that, say, the country of Qatar has. The Turks would say that means that then they will be able to buy an air force and start biting off chunks of Turkey. That's their fear.
QUESTION: You described really well how the Kurds tried to have it both ways, how they have really taken every advantage of autonomy, while also having a strong hand in the central government. In your talks to people, did anyone explain a strategy where they consciously pursued that—for instance, the amount of infiltration of the Peshmerga into the military units that were formed ad hoc? How much of that was actually coordinated and planned?
QUIL LAWRENCE: I think it has been mostly by opportunity. I don't think they ever planned to send troops to Baghdad in a surge. They had offered assistance in the past and it had been rejected. But suddenly the opportunity to do that—I wouldn't say it's a specific plan, but, yes, it's definitely a strategy. They wanted to be as close to the Americans as possible and as helpful as possible, because they see the Americans, of course, as their only guarantor of safety—although not from within, because at the moment the Kurds can hold their own against any other faction in Iraq. They have the best-trained military and they are the second-largest contingent of troops in Iraq after the Americans, but larger than the British. What they are afraid of are armies that have helicopters and tanks, like the Turks and the Iranians. They need America there to keep the neighbors out.
I would say it's more of a strategy, where they have taken every opportunity they can to use that. But they have certainly said they wanted the maximum when it came to constitutional negotiations. They didn't easily give up any of these concessions.
I think the one major concession that might be in the works right now is about the city of Kirkuk. In the constitution of Iraq, there was a provision that there would be a referendum by the end of 2007 to decide whether Kirkuk would join the Kurdistan region. That passed, of course, last December, and it was quietly kicked down the road to a new deadline in June.
I think as the Kurds are realizing that they can't really take Kirkuk on their own, they might be willing to barter that away. But they would sell it very high.
QUESTION: I'd appreciate a little background, a little history as to how the Kurds established themselves as a distinct ethnic entity. Is it the religion, the culture? Not being too conversant with the Kurds, I would appreciate it.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Sure. I think I was supposed to mention that earlier, so thank you.
It's really hard to say, what is a Kurd. I tend to define a Kurd as someone who speaks Kurdish and says he or she is a Kurd. Kurds don't fit in a box easily for a foreign audience. That's the reason we know not very much about them. They are Muslims, but they are not Arabs, which I think is the first stumbling block for us in America. They are not Turks. Their physical features are sometimes distinct. You can sometimes tell who's a Kurd and who's an Arab. But I have also spoken with Kurds who told stories of escaping from security services or getting out of the country, and not even realizing themselves that they were in a taxi full of Kurds, until they heard the Kurdish language spoken.
They are sort of defined as this geographic area, southeast Turkey, northwest Iran, the north of Iraq, and sort of the northeastern tip of Syria.
Their history goes back to biblical times. Some people say that one of the Three Wise Men was a Kurd. They are linked back to the Medes.
I didn't focus so much on ancient history in my book. I'm not an expert on that.
The most famous Kurd, probably the only famous Kurd, in history—nobody knows he's a Kurd—is Saladin, who was the great Muslim conqueror. The problem for the Kurds there is that he responded to—I don't know if you would say "a higher calling." He wasn't fighting for Kurdish national rights; he was fighting for Islam. Although he kept Kurdish warriors close to him and used them for his most trusted tasks—and there was tension even then between the ethnic groups—that wasn't what he was fighting for.
As a result, the Kurds have a very funny relationship with their one local boy-made-good. Every time you have an article—I think when Time magazine did their "People of the Millennium," of course, they included Saladin. Any time his name comes up, you can get 1,000 letters to the editor saying, "You didn't emphasize the fact that Saladin was a Kurd," et cetera, et cetera.
But at the same time, they don't really like him. They wish that he had been fighting for them, many of them, instead of fighting for Islam, because such a great warrior, perhaps, would have been able to create a Kurdistan Empire and we would all know who they were, like we know about the Persian Empire or the Ottoman Empire.
I hope I answered your question. I'm already skating on thin ice, because I didn't do that much ancient history.
QUESTION: You have spoken a lot about the Kurdish situation inside Iraq and a bit with Turkey. But there is some growing concern internationally about the Kurdish nationalist movement's impact, not just on Turkey, but on bordering Iran. The two Kurdish groups in the north of Iraq, both PJAK and the MEK—the MEK is considered by our State Department as a terrorist organization; PJAK, by the German government as a terrorist organization—have been in armed conflict with Iran, and, according to interviews by the German press, with the active support of the American CIA and military, who is arming them.
The Iranian response, perhaps understandably, is that the United States is running a proxy war through the Kurds against Iran, with the potential of really destabilizing an area which is already very unstable. Could you say a bit about how this vision of Kurdish nationalism actually plays out on armed secessionist movements of already recognized states?
QUIL LAWRENCE: Just to be clear—and it probably just got lost in the alphabet soup—it's the PKK, not the MEK. MEK is another interesting and dubious group that the United States has an interesting relationship with—but that's another story.
The PKK—and the PJAK is essentially the Iranian wing of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party from Turkey—is a group that, as you said, the United States and most of Europe classifies as a terrorist group. They have fought a decades-long war against Turkey, with the aim of uniting a greater Kurdistan, bringing all of Kurdistan together. That lends them quite a lot of sympathy.
Every time I go to see the PKK guerillas up in the hills, my Iraqi Kurdish driver goes up and gives them a big hug, which always makes me sort of scratch my head. The PKK's ideology isn't terribly clear. They seem to just follow the whims of their leader, who is in prison in Turkey. But they have captured some of the imagination of Kurds everywhere, because they are the only ones who really talk about a greater Kurdistan.
There is this complication. People from Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran have all joined the PKK over the years—a lot from Iran. They have recently separated into subgroups, including the PJAK, which is the Iranian PKK, essentially.
There isn't all that much clear evidence, but it's very curious that the United States classifies the PKK as a terrorist organization and not the PJAK. They won't do it. They won't classify them as terrorist. It makes you wonder if somewhere there's a lawyer in there saying, "Well, we can't covertly fund them if we classify them as terrorists."
That was speculation, of course.
It's a situation that might be driving Turkey and Iran together. Over the last year, there has been a lot of concern about that, especially with anti-American feeling growing in Turkey. This lack of clarity on that issue might indeed be driving an ally together with an enemy.
QUESTIONER: Just to follow up, if you were the government of Iran—to expand it a little bit beyond Iraq here—how would you respond to clear evidence that the U.S. government is funding a military organization that's trying to secede, and in armed combat against your own country? What happens legally here?
QUIL LAWRENCE: I don't know, legally. Everyone in the area strives to keep a guerilla resistance movement going in each of the neighboring countries. It's sort of a tradition. Iran has relations with all of the Shiite parties. The question is whether it's stirring up attacks on Americans by some of them. There is no ironclad evidence on that yet, but it would be sort of, as I said, traditional. Everyone sort of keeps one of these parties so that it can stir up its neighbor's troubles with in that region.
Whether the United States should be playing that game is another question. They are getting involved with some interesting people. The group you mentioned before, the MEK, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which is an Iranian dissident group, has gotten quite a lot of infamy for doing—in exchange for being sheltered by Saddam for many years, they did a lot of dirty work for him. But the United States also seems—well, they have them in a canton in the center of Iraq, and they seem to be sort of reserving them, just in case.
It's problematic. It's not unusual. It's probably not going to stop.
QUESTION: I want to ask about the raids into eastern Turkey by, I presume, the PKK. What is the purpose of these raids? It seems to me that, given the antipathy between the Turks and the Kurds, which goes back a long way, stirring the pot at this time would be very counterproductive for them.
QUIL LAWRENCE: It follows very neatly with the other question. There is some value in being able to cause trouble for a neighbor. First, to be clear, the PKK is a primarily Turkish Kurdish separatist movement. There are no formal contacts between them and the Iraqi Kurds. There is a lot of competition. Many times in recent history, they have killed each other; they have fought. They have also occasionally been allied.
At the moment, it looks like U.S. pressure, in response to Turkish pressure, has shut down most of the tolerance for the PKK bases in the mountains of northern Iraq. That is to say, the pressure has mostly stopped the Iraqi Kurds from allowing the PKK to move as freely as they were before.
But these mountains are impenetrable. These are the places where the Iraqi Kurds hid out when Saddam was gassing them to death. If Saddam Hussein can't wipe you out with poison gas, it's unlikely that the Turkish government, which already has made at least 24 cross-border incursions in the last 20 years to wipe out the PKK—it's unlikely that they are going to be able to do that.
I find the PKK itself to be lost in the mountains. They declared a unilateral ceasefire. It didn't seem to have much of an effect. The Turks rejected offers of negotiation out of hand. At some point later on, they decided within their leadership that it would be a better idea to start provoking Turkey. Perhaps they are trying to draw Turkey into northern Iraq, where they know they would be in a quagmire and it would screw up their relations with the Americans. They have done that, to some extent.
But just to be clear, the Kurdistan regional government of northern Iraq is emphatic that they aren't helping the PKK. They are afraid that the Turks' incursions into the north are not actually to hit the PKK, but rather to strike at them and to keep them from getting further along the road towards independence, autonomy.
QUESTION: Could you tell us whether the Kurds are generally Sunni or Shia?
QUIL LAWRENCE: The Kurds are generally Sunni Muslims. There is a small minority—Fayli Kurds, they are called—who are Shiite Muslims. Being Shiite and a Kurd under Saddam Hussein's government was a double curse. Many of them were exported to Iran, with just the change in their pockets.
They don't usually self-identify so much along lines of religion. There is an old saying in the region that Kurds are only Muslims when compared to infidels. Even early on, their leadership wasn't always so stringent and didn't practice in the same way as people down further in the Gulf. In Iraqi Kurdistan now, you very rarely see a woman wearing a full abaya, as you would see in the south. For example, in the city of Sulaymaniyah, you can happily sip a beer on the sidewalk outside a restaurant.
Another issue is, I think one of the reasons maybe the Kurds don't identify so much by their religion is that during all of the 1980s—and this is something that they have now said to the Arab League—their coreligionists didn't really come and help them when they were being gassed to death by Saddam Hussein. None of the countries in the Gulf said, "Our fellow Sunnis are being slaughtered. We have to do something about it."
Strangely, it was the Shiites—some of the grand ayatollahs made fatwas against putting down some of the Kurdish rebels. As a result, they probably saved thousands of Kurdish lives, because many Shiite conscript soldiers fired over the heads of Kurdish rebels when they were supposed to be putting down the rebellions.
QUESTION: In the way you describe, it seems to me, things are kind of set right now, with fighting between the Kurds and Turkey. I have a two-part question.
Are there voices there saying, "Let's get along with Turkey"? I know they are developing economically. Are they making relationships with the European Union? How much of a force is there saying, "Enough of this. Let's make money. Let's get along with the world"? How much of a movement is that?
QUIL LAWRENCE: I think there's a big and growing current, exactly in the way you are describing. I think a good sign of that was—the last time I was in Iraq was in October, when it looked like the Turks were going to cross the border and invade. They did, later, in the winter. But even when things were at their worst, when the rhetoric coming out of the Kurdish leadership and the Turkish leadership was really fiery, I was still able to drive across the one border point and drive from Iraqi Kurdistan into Turkey, and there were still trucks lined up importing and exporting.
The Turks are doing billions of dollars of business in northern Iraq. I guess it would be optimistic to say that maybe that current will eventually be able to outweigh some of the nationalist voices in the military, for example. The fact that they were able to keep that border open maybe shows that these businessmen are getting some clout.
You see Turkish companies all over Iraqi Kurdistan. We talk about problems in Iraq. I think the biggest problem in the north of Iraq is urban sprawl. They are just building and building, concrete buildings everywhere. It's all these Turkish companies. A lot of the people they send down to manage these companies are Turkish Kurds, who have an easier time with the language, even though it's a different dialect, and aren't quite so afraid of going into wildest Kurdistan and doing business.
So, yes, there is that force.
I should say, in 1991, the president of Turkey, President Ozal, was the first one to actually say, "You know, there's some oil up there. We're in a pretty good position to be the ones to export it. Maybe this could work out." Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack, and there hasn't really been a Turkish leader since who has been able to say that. It's a very controversial thing to say. Turkey is still very scarred by its war with the Kurdish separatists.
QUESTION: You concentrated in your presentation—and I assume also in your book—on the plight of Kurds in the northern part of Iraq. You touched in a limited way on the separatist group in Turkey. Also you indicated that there is a honeymoon between the Kurds in Iraq and the United States. You did not say anything about the Kurds in Iran.
Of course, we know the relationship between the United States and Iran. We know also, historically—at least I know—that Kurds at certain times in Iran and in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Syria, especially during the time of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party representation among the Kurds in these three areas, they used to collaborate and advance more or less similar programs in these regions.
I don't know, maybe for the benefit of adding another component to the subject, if you can share with us some of the plans and ideas of groups and movement among the Kurds in Iran, and also some of the maybe attractive ideas in the minds of some American strategists vis-à-vis using the connection between the Kurds in Iraq and in Iran for whatever ideas that the United States has in its mind vis-à-vis Iran.
I say that because the Kurds have been accused throughout history for not being successful in accomplishing their national rights, as being extremely used by external forces.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Yes, I think that last point is true. A lot of the concern is that if Iraq's civil strife turns into a full-blown civil war with regional powers, one of the first things they would try to do would be to peel off Kurdish factions, play them against one another, use them as proxies, as has been done in the past. I don't know if it's as likely this time around, because they seem to be more cohesive than in the past.
I have a chapter in the book—and you are right, I don't focus very much on the other Kurdish populations. I found it pretty difficult to report on them. I have been through Iranian Kurdistan, sneaking into Iraq before the invasion. I went home for dinner—typical Kurdish and typical Middle Eastern hospitality—with some young Kurds I met around the lake. When they brought me back to the hotel I was staying in, the security forces were waiting for them.
The chapter in the book is called "Something That Does Not Love a Wall." The idea, mostly expressed by Turkey, that this seed of Kurdish independence can spread—it's already spreading. People are most worried about Turkey, but, in fact, the first signs were at a riot at a soccer stadium in Syria. An Arab team was playing a Kurdish team. The Arabs started chanting in favor of Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish side responded, chanting in favor of George Bush and America. A riot ensued and it was put down with typical violence by the Syrian security forces.
Riots spread across the country among Kurds, who in Syria complain, among many other things, because they aren't given official documents. So they are non-persons, many of them. They have no passport of any country.
Many of them have decided at this point that, with this relatively thriving Kurdish enclave next-door in Iraq, if they were going to be stateless, they might as well do it in a place where everyone speaks their language and they can send their kids to school in Kurdish. As a matter of fact, they can send them to free university as well, because both of the Kurdish leaders have made it known that they will let any Kurd from Iran, Syria, Turkey, as well as Iraq, have a free education there.
If you want to, you can go to Sulaimaniya, one of the major Kurdish cities—it's near the Iranian side—and talk to any number of Iranian Kurdish students there, ask them what they are doing, and they will tell you, "I'm studying here so that I can learn an ideology and go home and overthrow my government."
There were many disturbances in Iranian Kurdistan that were also linked to commemorating the massacre at Halabja, this sort of thing.
So it's already catching on throughout the region. In the north of Iraq, you can buy a map of Kurdistan, which spreads all the way from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean—a slight exaggeration, I think, even by the most generous estimates.
In explaining this, I think mostly in terms of PJAK. There's also the Iranian branch of the KDP. There are several factions. I have been curious sometimes to see that the Americans weren't involved more with them.
I was in Mosul in 2005, and I was asking an intelligence officer from the brigade there—I had heard that there were PKK units inside Mosul, specifically that the brother of Abdullah Ocalan was there. I asked this intelligence officer, thinking I was being quite sly, "So are there any PKK?"
He said, "Oh, yeah."
I said, "Really?"
He said, "Yeah. You want to see them?"
I said, "Yeah, I want to see the PKK in Mosul. Can we go?"
He said, "They have nests all over the city. We stop by and say hey to them, but we don't bother them or anything like that."
I'm shaking with excitement at my potential scoop, and then he says, "Oh, KDP, I meant KDP," which is the Iraqi Kurdish faction. It's very natural that this would be happening. It is a bit difficult to keep them straight.
QUESTION: Could you talk about the movement of people inside Iraq and the correspondence of ethnic boundaries or borders, geographic borders, internal borders, and then the long-term political future for Iraq, given what has happened with those changes?
QUIL LAWRENCE: Good last question.
There has been a lot of movement. I think before we all caught on that there was such an insurgency going on in Iraq and it was going to be so terrible and that the insurgency was going to turn into sort of a civil war, people sensed it and started to move. Very early on, you would meet Shiites who had moved from the northern part of the Sunni triangle, as it goes up from Baghdad towards Mosul, and they were living in camps in the south.
There was always sort of a myth that there were a million Kurds living in Baghdad. That may have been true at some point, but the voters in the elections in Baghdad seem to suggest—and this is the closest we can get to an Iraqi census right now—that there aren't so many Kurds living there. Many have moved to the north, if they can.
There are also a lot of Christians moving to the north and a lot of Arab day laborers coming to the north. I met some of them asleep on the steps of the mosque in Sulaimaniya on one of my recent trips to Kurdistan. They were quite puzzled to be put in the position of being a racial minority in Kurdistan, which has always been the most underdeveloped, devastated part of Iraq. Many of them, knowing where they were, said, "Oh, well, the Kurds treat us fine. There are no problems at all." But a few of them hinted that it was not so happy. One of them, who I think was a little bit drunk, said, "The Kurds treat us like Jews. Can you imagine?"
So there is this movement. In a lot of ways, I think one of the causes of some of the slowdown in violence is because so much ethnic cleansing was already done and people moved away.
In terms of the long-term, I think the Kurds are very excited about people who suggest—they wouldn't call it a three-state solution; they wouldn't call it soft partition. They would say just federalism. In the constitution, which the Kurds mostly wrote, they have the right, perfectly legally, to form these regions. At the moment, most of the Shiite parties, with the exception—a very important exception—of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, also want this right to form a huge federal region in the south.
The Kurds and the Shiites don't have much in common, other than the fact that they both want to be able to do their own thing. The Kurds would be very happy to see the Shiite super-region form in the south. There is a possibility that a central government in Baghdad can still offer enough to these three regions in order to make them want to stay together. But the Shiite super-region in the south would probably be viewed as an Iranian satellite. The Sunni region would have support from around the Gulf. The Kurds really are depending on the Americans to stick around.
I talked to a Kurdish exile in Sweden, who had come back, with some optimism, and had moved his whole family back from a prosperous life in Sweden to come home. First, he told me, without a trace of irony, that if he had another son, he would name him Bush. Then he said, "Things are going fine now. I like the way the Kurdish leadership has been strong in Baghdad, although I don't really like them much personally. But," he said, "I'm only safe here and my family is only safe here as long as the U.S. Army is here. I'm leaving with the last American."
That, of course, brings up a lot of questions, as our candidates for president bandy about plans for what they might or might not do.
JOANNE MYERS: Just as the Kurds are depending on the Americans to stick around, we're depending on you to stay with us and answer more questions and continue with the conversation. Thank you for joining us.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Thank you all very much.