Out of Iraq’s ashes, Kurdistan grows

Dreaming of home

Ayub Nuri’s mother hid her tears as she wept for her dead son and daughter. 

Two of her children and husband had been in Halabja, a city in Iraq’s Kurdish north, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s air force attacked it with chemical weapons on March 16, 1988.

Saddam’s soldiers had already slaughtered tens of thousands of Kurds before the attack on Halabja. Some died in poison gas attacks. Others were lined up and shot into pits in scenes that, but for the desert sand in place of forest and steppe, might have been lifted from the Nazis’ killing fields of Eastern Europe.

Iraq was then in the final year of a long and crushing war with Iran. The country’s Kurdish minority was simultaneously rebelling, sometimes in cooperation with Iran. Saddam’s response was genocidal. His army razed hundreds of Kurdish villages and murdered some 100,000 Kurdish non-combatants. The campaign was named “al-Anfal,” after a chapter in the Quran about the spoils of war.

I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them!” Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, the architect of Anfal who came to be known as “Chemical Ali,” said in a recorded meeting with officials from Saddam’s Ba’ath Party.

The chemical attack on Halabja was carried out with similar casual brutality. Entire families perished cowering in the basements of their homes, trying to shelter and protect one another as the heavier-than-air vapours—likely mustard gas and nerve agents—seeped ever lower.

Nuri, his mother and six of his eight siblings were refugees in Iran when it happened. His father, along with a brother and sister, were back in Halabja, the family’s home. His mother assumed all three died. But then Nuri’s father walked across the mountains and knocked on their door.

“We were happy, but not quite,” Nuri says. Nuri’s brother and sister were still missing: a tragic loss, but less devastating than what other families suffered. “We were basically mourning secretly. My mother was not allowed to cry in the open because she knew that 5,000 other people had died,” he says. 

Iranian army trucks brought survivors to the village in Iran where Nuri was living and unloaded them on the street.

“My mother and I fed many of the victims. I remember giving them tea and bread,” he says. “I was too young to know why, but my mother told me: ‘Don’t touch these people.’ She said just leave the food on the ground, because they were all contaminated with the chemical gas. We couldn’t invite them into the house for a shower or a meal, which is against our culture.”

A week or so later, Nuri’s missing brother arrived at the family’s temporary home in Iran. Then, against all odds, they found his sister alive in a nearby refugee camp. She had been evacuated from Halabja by helicopter. Nuri’s mother’s grief was misplaced. Her immediate family had survived.

Now a Canadian and the editor of Rudaw English, an online news site that is part of an Iraqi Kurdish media network, Nuri says the massacre would not have occurred had Iraqi Kurdistan been an independent country, one able to defend itself and with a government that did not view its own citizens as enemies.

"We are dragged against our will into almost every trouble in the region."

And when he considers the state of Iraq—the sectarian tension between Sunni and Shia Arabs, and the rampages of the so-called Islamic State jihadist group, which has slaughtered and enslaved thousands of members of the Kurdish Yazidi religious minority—he is even more convinced that Iraqi Kurds must be independent to be safe and free.

“It’s one of my biggest dreams to see an independent Kurdish state,” he says. “I think independence will save us many troubles, because many of the wars and massacres that we have faced are because we were not independent. We are dragged against our will into almost every trouble in the region.”

Independence is a longstanding dream for many Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. Numbering 30 to 40 million, they live in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. They had a country once, for less than a year. The Republic of Mahabad was declared in what is now northwestern Iran in January 1946, and crushed by Iranian forces that December.

The Kurds of northern Iraq carved out some autonomy following the Gulf War of 1991, when Saddam’s forces were expelled from Iraqi Kurdistan and kept out by an American-, British- and French-enforced no-fly zone. Their autonomy increased when Saddam was finally toppled in 2003.

Then the Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS, swept through much of Iraq in 2014, capturing its second-largest city, Mosul. The Iraqi army disintegrated and fled before it. But Kurdish armed forces—the Peshmerga, meaning those who face death—held firm. And when an American-led coalition that included Canada began a campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State, it was the Kurds who were the coalition’s most effective allies on the ground. They soon received Western arms and training. Canada’s new Liberal government put a stop to Canadian airstrikes earlier this year, but is increasing the number of special forces training the Peshmerga from about 70 to more than 200.

kurds2

“Before ISIS was approaching Kurdistan, we did not have such support from the international community,” says Sara Mustafa, a lecturer at the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “Now everyone knows Kurds are on the frontlines fighting on behalf of the whole world. They cannot deny that fact, which is good for the Kurdish people.”

This support is good for the Kurds’ fight against Islamic State, but for many Kurdish nationalists their fortune doesn’t end there. ISIS has exposed Iraq’s frailty while underlining the nation-building that has been going on in Iraqi Kurdistan. And this is a boost to the Kurdish independence project.

“We can separate from Iraq either if we are very strong or the Iraqi government is very weak,” says Mustafa. “This is the right time.”

Mustafa is not alone in her optimism. Masoud Barzani, born in that doomed Republic of Mahabad to Kurdish nationalist hero Mustafa Barzani, is now president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Earlier this year he revived a pledge to hold a non-binding referendum on Kurdish independence before the U.S. presidential election in November.

“If the people of Kurdistan are waiting for someone else to present the right of self-determination as a gift, independence will never be obtained,” he said in a statement on his website, comparing the Kurds’ right to self-determination to that of Quebecers, Scots and Catalans. His goal, he told the news website Al-Monitor, is to establish an independent Kurdish state and then retire.

Canada, whether it likes it or not, is implicated in what unfolds, because of its close alliance with Iraq’s Kurds. Ottawa is arming and training Kurdish forces to fight the Islamic Stateand the Kurds have pushed the group back along a 1,000-kilometre frontier.

But when those Peshmerga crouching in bunkers and sandbagged dugouts a few hundred metres from the jihadists of the Islamic State are asked what they’re fighting for—Iraq or another, as yet imagined nation—they will invariably respond: “Kurdistan.”

Fighting ISIS, dividing Iraq

“Canada is committed to the unity and territorial integrity of the Republic of Iraq,” says Joe Pickerill, spokesman for Canadian Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, “and that position is well known to our Iraqi interlocutors, including in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.”

Most of Canada’s allies, including those in the anti-Islamic State coalition, take the same position. Mustafa says it’s illogical.  

“I don’t understand the meaning of a united Iraq. Iraq has fallen apart,” she says. “There is no fixed territory of the Iraqi state. Shias are controlling the south. ISIS is in the middle.”

Mustafa and other Kurdish nationalists interpret the rise of the Islamic State in a fundamentally different way than does Canada. For Ottawa, Washington and other Western powers, the Islamic State is a threat to an Iraqi state that must be preserved. For many Kurds, it is proof that Iraq is irredeemably broken. “We always say that ISIS is not the illness of Iraq or this region,” says Mustafa. “ISIS is a symptom of the illness that we have here.”

Such different perspectives aren’t an obvious issue when all sides are focused on defeating the Islamic State. But they can’t be put aside forever.

“Definitely, if your short-term goals are to get rid of ISIS, you need to work with the Peshmerga,” says Renad Mansour, an El-Erian fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “But long-term, one needs to recognize that providing weapons, providing money, helping build the Peshmerga is effectively a form of state-building. These guys are fighting for the KRG, not for Iraq as a country.”  

Nuri says Kurdish military efforts are directed solely at the Islamic State, rather than achieving independence. “The Kurds are not going to betray the international community by using ISIS as an excuse. We are sincerely fighting ISIS for our own survival and for our own security.”

gunner

But Canada and its coalition partners appear to be calibrating their support. Arms are delivered through Baghdad. And Kurdish leaders say the Peshmerga are not receiving the sort of heavy weaponry they want. In an interview, Brig.-Gen. Hazhar Ismail of the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga said the Kurds specifically need armoured personnel carriers. He’d also like to send Peshmerga officers to be trained in Canada.

But according to Denise Natali, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington, Western aid to Iraqi Kurds is already too free-flowing and may be encouraging their antagonism toward Iraq’s central government.

“We are enabling the Kurds in a way that dissuades them from making compromises with partners on the ground, by putting no conditions on any support we give them,” she says, adding that those conditions should include a greater commitment to transparency and democracy inside the KRG.

“Why should they negotiate with Baghdad?” she says. “Why should they feel they are pressured, when they can just skip over and appeal to the international community?” 

The Kurdish cause does increasingly resonate in Western capitals, including Ottawa.

"The Kurds and the KRG region deserve our support. What it leads to in the end, only the Kurds can decide that."

Tom Kmiec, a Conservative MP, chairs the “Parliamentary Friends of the Kurds,” a group whose members include MPs from the Liberals, Conservatives and the New Democratic Party. He says he’d support Kurdish independence, subject to a number of conditions—including a clear referendum question, a vote held during peacetime and monitored by international observers and negotiations with Baghdad.

He’s unconcerned that Canadian military support to the Kurds might fuel moves toward independence.

“What would you like us to do on the other side? Just sit by and watch as Southern Kurdistan is overrun by ISIS forces and 50,000 people are put to the sword?” he saysreferring to Iraqi Kurdistan. “That’s the other side of the argument: ‘Well, it could lead to independence so we should do nothing.’ The Kurds and the KRG region deserve our support. What it leads to in the end, only the Kurds can decide that.”

Natali counters that the fight against the Islamic State cannot be detached from Iraqi politics, and she believes the West’s fulsome support for the KRG is alienating other Iraqis and ultimately weakening the campaign against ISIS.

“To defeat Daesh, you have to have Sunni Arab engagement,” she says, using an Arabic term for ISIS. The Islamic State’s professed ideology is Sunni Islam; some Sunnis support it because they fear discrimination and abuse from Iraq’s Shia-dominated central government and various Shia militias. 

“If you need Sunni Arab buy-in, then the policies that we’re doing with the Kurds are undermining that strategic objective. What we’re doing is infuriating Sunni Arab communities who will one day get back at the Kurds.” 

The potential for violence is not limited to confrontations involving Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Earlier this year, at least 10 people reportedly died in clashes between Peshmerga and Shia militiamen in Tuz Khurmatu, a multi-ethnic town 160 kilometres north of Baghdad.

“This is definitely a battle that will continue, and it could potentially come to some form of military contest,” says Mansour. “That’s the worst-case scenario.”

Negotiating the ‘inevitable’

If there is major conflict in the disputed territories straddling Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, it will almost certainly take place in Najmaldin Karim’s home city and the province he governs.

Karim is a former Peshmerga who left Iraq decades ago for America, where he built a career as a neurosurgeon while remaining an activist, as he puts it, for “the Kurdish cause and for the Iraqi opposition.” He returned to Iraq and a life in politics a few years after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, first winning a seat in parliament, and then the post of governor for Kirkuk province in 2011.

Kirkuk has been described as the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and like Jerusalem, its patrimony and rightful ownership are contested. It has long been a heterogeneous mosaic—home to Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and Arabs. Saddam expelled hundreds of thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk and its environs, replacing them with Arabs. Kurds flooded back once Saddam was gone. 

Article 140 of the post-Saddam Iraqi Constitution stipulates a referendum must be held to determine whether areas in Kirkuk previously inhabited by Kurds and then “Arabized” will be formally joined to the KRG.

But most of Kirkuk province, including the city, is under Kurdish control. Peshmerga occupied the area when Iraqi regular forces abandoned their posts and ran from the Islamic State. Kurdish leaders have said they will never relinquish Kirkuk—making the city a potential trigger for conflict between Baghdad and the KRG.

“At the moment, Baghdad is weak and cannot impose its will. But whether they would accept Kurdistan having Kirkuk as a province—I really doubt it,” says Kawa Hassan, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the EastWest Institute’s Brussels office. He says that if the KRG attempts to unilaterally secede with Kirkuk, “there will definitely be war.”

Karim, however, is hopeful. Members of Kirkuk’s various ethnic and religious communities get on well, he says. If its citizens are given a vote on their future, he predicts most will choose incorporation into the KRG. And the future of Kirkuk, and Kurdistan, he says, will not be decided by force.

“Regardless of whether Kirkuk is going to be included in the Kurdistan region or outside, anything that has to be done, has to be done peacefully through negotiations. If we go to war on anything, we will all end up losers,” he says.

Karim personally believes Kurdish independence is now inevitable, but says it didn’t have to be this way. He compares Iraq to Canada, and says that if Iraqi Kurds enjoyed the sort of autonomy and cultural and linguistic protection French Canadians have in Canada, they might have been more willing to support a united, federal Iraq.

“It’s never too late, but the tensions between both sides are becoming more and more. So I’m not very optimistic,” he says.

Karim says an independent Kurdistan must prioritize good relations with Baghdad above its ties to any other state. “Because after all, we have lived together despite our difficulties for decades.” 

This may prove tricky if the split is not amicable. The new state will also struggle if it doesn’t have functional relations with at least one of the countries surrounding it. So far, neither Turkey, Iran nor Syria support Iraqi Kurdish independence.

“It will be tough, because it will be a state that will depend on the export of oil for its economy, and because of its landlocked nature, it will probably be under severe influence from whichever way it wants to export its oil,” says Mansour.

"If we go to war on anything, we will all end up losers."

All of the KRG’s neighbours have Kurdish minorities, which may make them reluctant to deal with an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, despite the oil on offer. “The moment of a declaration of independence would probably make every neighbour hostile,” says Mansour.

Nuri disagrees. He thinks the financial incentives of trade with Kurdistan will motivate surrounding states. “These days, money speaks louder than politics,” he says. 

But an independent Kurdistan would be entering into economic relations with its neighbours from a position of relative weakness, says Hassan. “If tomorrow an independent Kurdistan will be declared, it will be independent of Baghdad but dependent on Ankara.” 

The KRG’s economy is already struggling because of falling oil prices and a dispute with the central government over the KRG’s oil exports, which resulted in Baghdad slashing funding to it. Peshmerga have not been paid for months.

At the same time, the KRG is in the midst of political upheaval. Barzani’s (extended) presidential term expired in August, but he is yet to step down. In October, the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party expelled four members of the Gorran party from cabinet, accusing them of inciting violence. The parliament’s speaker, from Gorran, was also refused entry to Erbil. Now Gorran has signed a cooperation agreement with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, traditional rivals of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Some analysts, including Hassan, accuse Barzani of talking up independence to divert public attention from his own domestic troubles.   

When that charge was put to him in an interview with Al-Monitor earlier this year, Barzani scoffed. “I have come to this decision after all the very bitter experiences of these long and hard years because there is no other path. I ask you: What other way do we have?”

The missing piece — international endorsement

kurds3

If Kurds and others in northern Iraq are asked to answer that question in a referendum this year, a vote in favour of independence will not necessarily start the process toward declaring it. The referendum is to gauge public mood. A similar one was held in 2005.

This time, however, there appears to be momentum that didn’t exist a decade ago. The Kurds have “de-facto” statehood already, says Mansour, referring to their existing political autonomy from Baghdad. What’s missing, he says, is for the rest of the world to accept the legitimacy of their desire for independence.

“The only way that last step will be reached is if major foreign capitals are on board,” he says. “They’re not there yet.” But Mansour says this could change—especially if Iraq collapses again following a post-Islamic State recovery. 

Karim recalls George H. W. Bush’s August 1991 speech in Ukraine, shortly before it voted on whether to withdraw from the Soviet Union. Bush warned against “suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” Ukrainians went on to vote for independence, and America accepted their choice.

America and the European Community also opposed moves that year to declare independence by Croatia and Slovenia. Now both are members of the European Union.

An independent Iraqi Kurdistan would similarly tilt westward, says Nuri. “Support it, and you will have a genuine and sincere ally in the future. When Canada says Kurdistan is an important ally, there will be no lies in that line.”

There is a persuasive moral case for Kurdish independence. In the past three decades, Iraq’s Kurds—including the Kurdish Yazidis—have been tormented by two acts of genocide. “There has to be an end to all this suffering,” says Nuri. 

But if suffering were enough to guarantee the Kurds a country, they would have had one long ago. They are closer to achieving statehood today because their suffering—so often ignored in the past—now comes from an enemy that has also declared war on much of the world, and because the Kurds have proven far more resilient against it than has Iraq itself.

This has deepened Iraqi Kurds’ alliances with countries that wish to see the Islamic State defeated, resulting in recognition and respect, military and political cooperation, money, development aid and arms.

All these things aid the Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State. They are also foundation stones of statehood—and Canada is providing them. Ottawa may not endorse the creation of a Kurdish state, but it is helping to build one.


Illustrations by Simon Prades