The 'other' Kurdistan seethes with rage
By Derek Henry Flood
QANDIL MOUNTAINS - Iraqi Kurdistan has maintained a reputation for
relative tranquility and stability in a diagonal belt across northern Iraq
while much of the rest of the country has burned with sectarian nihilism and
Three years ago, the California public relations firm Russo Marsh & Rogers
launched an advertising campaign entitled "The Other Iraq"  which showed
Kurds at peace and thankful for the removal of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The campaign was intended to lure American and British private investment to
Iraqi Kurdistan and to let the world know that at least part of the war was an
outright success at a time when the Iraqi insurgency was at its worst.
All this glossed over the fact that Iraq's Kurds had been operating as a de
facto state for quite some time - since the implementation
of Operation Northern Watch in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War (though this
process of democratization was interrupted by the Kurdish civil war of the
Iraqi Kurdistan is a stable statelet that is remarkably secular in its outlook.
The area suffers from only the rare suicide attack, and it even has an army of
trash trucks providing regular rubbish pick-ups.
This unusual serenity is run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its
President and "CEO" Massoud Barzani. Indeed, the three KRG governorates of
Duhok, Irbil and Sulaimaniyah are for the most part oases of relative calm in
According to a source in the General Security Directorate, known locally in
Kurdish as the Asayish, all of the territory held by the KRG is
admittedly not under its control. Very recently, Asia Times Online made a
clandestine trip to the notorious Qandil Mountains along the Iraq-Iran border
region where the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), from southeastern Turkey, and
the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), from northwestern Iran, control
As, over time, the KRG fuses with the once-rival ruling parties, the Kurdistan
Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and trade
increases rapidly with Turkey and, to a lesser degree, with Iran and Syria, the
notion of a sovereign Iraqi Kurdish state becomes more plausible while making
the fantasy of reunification of "Greater Kurdistan" much less so.
Kurdistan cannot escape its landlocked geography quadrisected in the ashes of
World War I. The roughly 35 million ethnic Kurds are the world's largest ethnic
group without their own country. Iraqi Kurdistan's ruling politicians and their
corresponding corporate interests are now shuttling between the central
government in Baghdad and various regional capitals to feel out which way the
winds of change are blowing.
The Kurds have been caught in a web of wildly varying, intolerant nationalisms
for most of the post-Ottoman era from which they have not been able to escape.
The most significant of these is Turkey's secular and militarist Kemalism.
Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk the "Father of Turks", replaced the unifying
Islam of the dying Ottoman caliphate with so-called "Turkishness".
Millions of Kurds, in what would become the Turkish Republic, were to be
absurdly labeled "Mountain Turks". Ataturk insisted on doing away with any
cultural practice related to the caliphate, including the tolerance of
linguistic and religious minorities under its jurisdiction.
The newly created Turkey, forged in 1923, left no room for "Kurdishness" and
Turkey's Kurds began rebelling almost at once. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in
neighboring Iran did away with the enforced secularism of the Pahlavi dynasty
and enshrined a form of Shi'itism as the state ideology around which the
nascent Islamic Republic was formed.
The then-new Iranian regime presented itself to the outside world as a pious
Persian Shi'ite monolith, leaving little room for Iran's restive, mostly Sunni
Kurdish minority. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's unorthodox interpretation of
traditional Shi'itism and the creation of the velayat-e-faqih ("The rule
of the jurisprudent" - considered an unwelcome innovation by much of the
Shi'ite clerical establishment) left the Kurds of Iran's Kordestan and Western
Azerbaijan provinces disaffected even more so.
The takeover of Iraq and Syria by Ba'athists in the 1960s led to the rise of a
myopic pan-Arabism in Baghdad and Damascus that left no room for the Kurds'
distinct language, culture and traditions. The Cold War Arab socialism of the
Ba'ath party was, for the Kurds, simply more ethno-chauvinist demagoguery,
that, as in Turkey and Iran, was bent on the destruction of their massive
One of the only identifying factors that these highly divergent ideologies of
Kemalism, Khomenism and Ba'athism had in common was their policy of constant
Kurdish repression. Internal jingoistic state policies being carried out in
their respective Kurdish-majority regions in the name of law and order over the
decades have now morphed across borders into external forces of political
expediency unifying Turkey, Syria and Iran on the suppression of their
respective "Kurdish questions".
Along with all of the external historic forces allied against them, the Kurds
themselves are also internally divided by dialect, tribe and clan. In the case
of Iraqi Kurdistan, these divisions translated into political allegiances that
have now formed the backbone of the KRG.
Save for the very short-lived, Soviet-backed Republic of Mahabad in 1946, the
Irbil-based KRG is the closest thing any of the Kurds in Kurdistan's four
sectors have to an independent state. As Turkey's hopes for full-scale European
Union accession have been fading into the background, Turkey's relations with
Iran, Iraq and Syria have greatly improved.
Syria, which for a time once supported PKK insurgents in a petty proxy struggle
with Turkey regarding disputes over water usage rights, has long since dropped
all known tolerance of Turkish Kurd fighters operating from Syrian territory.
Turkey has come to the realization that as much as it has looked Westward from
Ataturk's secularist revolution onward, it has no choice but to integrate a
higher level of cooperation with its less stable borderlands to the south and
Oil flowing north into Turkey from Iraq, and water flowing south into Syria and
Iraq, defies Turkey's past isolation from Middle Eastern issues and may slow
its Europeanization. Syria's realization that it needs Turkish cooperation on
water caused the Bashar al-Assad regime to quickly snuff out its support of the
PKK in Syrian Kurdistan, espoused by his late father. In so doing, Damascus has
produced a remarkable thaw in Turkish-Syrian relations.
The KRG security source told Asia Times Online that no representative from his
organization had been to the Qandil area since 2006, due either to its physical
inaccessibility or, much more likely, to the increasing political inconvenience
of hosting brotherly violent dissident movements in KRG territory.
This correspondent, when asking for permission from the head of the General
Security Directorate to enter the Qandil region, was met with a stern phone
call the following day strictly advising against such an endeavor.
While the PKK has been active in the area for decades, the formation of the
PJAK in the spring of 2004 led to much speculation from both Americans and
Iranians of alleged external support for the PJAK.
Asia Times Online met with a group of PJAK guerrillas recently who emphatically
denied any rumored US Central Intelligence Agency linkages or support from any
European Union intelligence services. This correspondent was secreted to a PJAK
installation in the shadow of the Iraqi side of the Qandil range.
A series of switchback roads avoiding Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga checkpoints led
me to their remote outpost. After a vegetarian lunch, top-ranking PJAK
commander Agiri Rojhilat admitted that the PJAK was invited to Kirkuk shortly
after its formation, but that the PJAK denied US officials' demands that they
abandon the ideology of the founder of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, and allegiance
to the PKK in exchange for covert US support.
Many press accounts have described the PJAK as simply an offshoot of the PKK.
To further cloud the issue, several PKK members have made this association as
well. But the PJAK tells it a bit differently.
Rojhilat explained that the PJAK is without question an independent
organization defending the interests of Iran's Kurds who happen to follow
Ocalan's personality driven ideology, (sometimes referred to as Apoism)
identical to the PKK. It is difficult for the outside observer (and apparently
the KRG) to understand the transnational dynamics occurring in the Qandil
Mountains, he said.
Turkish warplanes are striking PKK positions from above while Iran is firing
Katuysha batteries at PJAK positions over the ridgeline from the Iranian side
of the border. The Turkish and Iranian goals in the area appear to be the same
and it seems to serve both Ankara and Tehran to conflate the two groups. The
PKK rebels have also made statements in the press contradicting what was
recently told to this correspondent by the PJAK regarding its operational
independence from the PKK.
The United States government has been supplying Turkey with "actionable
intelligence"  to target PKK outposts in Iraqi territory which the PJAK told
Asia Times Online was being shared with the Iranians. Allegations that Turkey
is passing on classified US intelligence to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard
Corps cannot be going down well at the Pentagon.
Turkey and Iran, at odds since Iran's revolution in 1979 collided with Turkey's
rigid secularism, have a common foe in their shared attacks on Kurdish
irredentists sheltering in Iraq.
Rojhilat told Asia Times Online that for the two opposing state ideologies,
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend", in reference to their dislike of the
Kurds in their midst.
Last week, Turkey's parliament ratified a renewal of the mandate allowing its
military to continue to strike Iraqi territory  and further coordination
with Tehran may become the norm. The PJAK states that it seeks to topple the
Islamic Republic to replace it with an inclusive, federal democracy - but the
group does not maintain secessionist sentiments in the immediate term. The PJAK
claims to have broad support among the Kurds of northwestern Iran and the EU's
Kurdish diaspora. At least one of the men I met had arrived in Qandil from
Finland to take up arms against Iran.
For now, the PKK and the PJAK maintain their hearty guerrilla bases in the
Qandil Mountains, while Irbil continues to look the other way. For the
stateless Kurdish revolutionaries launching operations out of Iraq's
hinterlands, the tolerance of their bases could evaporate as the Kurds of Iraq
assert themselves and Baghdad's unstable politics continue to evolve.
The prospect of an internationally recognized Kurdish state carved out of
northern Iraq may seem far-fetched at present to many, but Iraqi Kurdish elites
are harboring contingencies for such an eventuality. This scenario would make
quite a bitter pill for Turkey, Iran and Syria to swallow and the independence
of one sector may forever negate the potential for secession of the other
So while Iraqi Kurdistan elects its own parliament, forges oil contracts
independent of Baghdad and prepares for its future, the "other" Kurdistan still
seethes with repression and rage from nation-states that have refused to accept
the Kurdish realities existing within their borders.
Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in
analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through
traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.