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    Middle East
     Oct 16, 2009
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 anti-occupation insurgency.

Three years ago, the California public relations firm Russo Marsh & Rogers launched an advertising campaign entitled "The Other Iraq" [1] 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 mid-1990s).

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 Iraq.

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 territory.

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 stateless nation.

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 east.

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" [2] 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 [3] 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 three.

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.

1. The website of the "The Other Iraq" advertising campaign.
2. US giving Turkey intelligence on PKK in Iraq Reuters October 31, 2007.
3. Turkey's parliament renews military's mandate to hit PKK in Iraq Hurriyet, October 7, 2009.

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.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Seeds of change in Iraqi Kurdistan
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