IRAQ: US opposes Kurdish self-determination

November 17, 1993

Rohan Pearce

When US President George Bush made his "case" for invading Iraq, he didn't only cite Iraq's (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction as a justification. The White House warmongers, and their British and Australian collaborators, also tried to make a moral case for war.

Foremost among the moral justifications cited were the atrocities committed against Iraq's Kurdish population by Saddam Hussein's regime — particularly the genocidal campaigns of slaughter unleashed on the Kurds from 1987 to 1989, which included the use of chemical weapons against dozens of villages, among which the infamous Halajba massacre was the most notorious.

In a January 2003 lecture at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, Kani Xulam, head of the American Kurdish Information Network, responded: "President Bush has made a new discovery at the White House: Surprise, surprise, the dead of Halajba, and trumpets them constantly to drum up support for the war. What do the Kurds think of this?

"Speaking for myself, I resent the use of our dead, for a war aim that will bring the surviving Kurds nothing good... Our dead got more coverage in your media in ... 2002 than all the previous 14 years combined."

Kurds have little cause to miss Hussein's tyrannical regime. However, like Hussein, their new overlords in the White House will never accept any form of national self-determination that challenges the US economic and political interests. The Bush administration fears that self-determination for the Kurds of northern Iraq could lead to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state and seriously challenge US control of the oil resources of northern Iraq.

Washington has been happy to cynically use the struggle of the Kurds in Iraq for its own ends. Since Hussein lost favour with the US in 1990, Washington has paid lip-service to "liberating" Iraq's 5 million Kurds from Hussein's rule. However, Washington studiously ignores Ankara's continuing repression of the 10 million Kurds living in south-east Turkey. The White House has made it clear that the last thing it wants to see emerge from "regime change" in Iraq is a heightened struggle for national self-determination by Kurds within Turkey.

Turkish repression

On October 2, 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell included the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK), which led the 1984-1999 Kurdish rebellion in south-eastern Turkey, on its list of redesignated "foreign terrorist organisations" (the "terrorist" designation of the PKK would have otherwise expired on October 3). It was a signal that the US still considered criminal any challenge to its Turkish allies.

In the March/April 1999 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, photojournalist Kevin McKiernan reported on the Turkish offensive against the country's Kurdish population. According to McKiernan, US$100 billion was spent by Turkey between 1991 and 1999 to crush the Kurdish national liberation struggle.

"The war in Turkey", wrote McKiernan, "represents the single largest use of US weapons anywhere in the world by non-US forces." Some 75% of Turkey's weaponry was US made.

Between the beginning of the PKK-led uprising in 1984 and McKiernan's article, 40,000 people had died. Two million people had become refugees. McKiernan noted that despite this, "the civil strife in Turkey has received comparatively little coverage in the US media...

"Television news rarely mentions the Kurds, unless the story relates to the Iraqi Kurds. It is almost as though there are two sets of Kurds — the Kurds in Iraq, who seem to be viewed as the 'good' Kurds because they oppose Saddam, and the Kurds in Turkey, who are 'bad' because they oppose a US ally. It doesn't seem to matter that there are four times as many Kurds in Turkey, or that both populations have suffered repression from their respective governments."

After Turkey captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the party abandoned armed struggle.

Since 1999, Turkey has attempted to paper over its genocidal policies to meet human-rights standards that prevent it joining the European Union. For example, in January the justice ministry presented Turkey's parliament with a draft bill to compensate people who suffered "both from acts of terrorist organisations and from measures taken by the state in the struggle against terror".

But does this mark a real shift in Ankara's attitude towards the Kurds? In October 2002, the US Human Rights Watch organisation accused Turkey of obstructing the return of displaced Kurdish villagers to their homes. More recently, on January 5, Turkey arrested two leaders of the pro-Kurd Democratic People's Party (DEHAP) merely for referring to Ocalan as "Mr Ocalan" in a press release and denouncing the prison conditions of the PKK leader.

The Bush administration has shown little concern at Ankara's policies. Instead, White House mouthpieces refer to Turkey as a "sterling example of a Muslim country that has embraced secular democracy" (deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz on January 29).

Iraqi 'territorial unity'

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the US government signalled to Ankara that it would not allow any independent Kurdish political entity to emerge. Testifying before the Senate foreign relations committee on February 11, 2003, defence undersecretary Douglas Feith said Washington intended to "safeguard the territorial unity of Iraq".

Similarly, Wolfowitz told a February 23, 2003, meeting of Iraqi Americans: "Obviously Turkey has very big interests in what takes place and they're nervous, but we are telling Turkey a democratic Iraq which will be unified and preserves its territorial integrity will be good for a democratic Turkey."

Wolfowitz is still singing the same tune today. "I think the United States and Turkey have a common vision about the future of Iraq which is that it has to remain a single country, that the national government has to be in charge of the foreign policy and in charge of the army and in control of the borders", he told CNN-Turk in a January 28 interview.

Wolfowitz went on to say that "federalism or federation is probably going to be inevitable, but that should be based on administrative and geographic lines, not on ethnic lines. Our message to the Kurds is your future doesn't lie in separating yourselves."

An independent Kurdish state is "not going to work", he stressed later in the interview.

Wolfowitz also made it clear that the US, and whatever Iraqi puppet regime emerges after the July 1 "handover of sovereignty", is willing to aid Turkey in a crack-down on pro-independence Kurdish forces, singling out the PKK (which, in 2002 became the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress and in November 2003 became part of a broader body, KONGRA-GEL).

Wolfowitz explained that Washington has "been working closely with Turkey for years now including with the capture of Ocalan, we understand [the PKK is] a terrorist organisation... there's complete agreement [between the US and Turkey] on the need to eliminate northern Iraq as a sanctuary."

Wolfowitz's reference to not basing federalism on "ethnic lines" indicates that the White House is not willing to allow a Kurdish semi-autonomous entity to be strong enough to threaten US or Turkish interests. In particular, Washington is unlikely to tolerate Kurdish control of Kirkuk, since it sits on top of about 40% of Iraq's oil reserves.

Until the late 1970s, Kirkuk was mostly inhabited by Kurds. However, Hussein's regime carried out a program of ethnic cleansing, expelling up to 300,000 Kurds from the area and resettling it with Arabs from southern Iraq. The city is outside of the semi-autonomous area of northern Iraq, which has been controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under the protection of the US since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

During the US-led invasion of Iraq last March, Kurdish forces took control of the Kirkuk. "I cannot see how things will be stable", a US official in Kirkuk told the January 26 Los Angeles Times. The official argued that Washington "ought to draw a circle around Kirkuk and keep it separate" from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

A statement issued by Xulam on April 5, soon after the US invasion began, noted: "There are some Kurds who are hopeful that America will shed the blood of its sons and daughters for the freedom of the Kurds... They forget that 280 million Arabs and 40 million Turks mean more to Washington than five million Kurds of southern Kurdistan."

While the PUK and the KDP have been firm allies of US imperialism since the 1991 Gulf War, even they will have trouble acquiescing to a plan for Iraq that doesn't include significant concessions to the Kurdish right to national self-determination. On January 28, Associated Press reported that Neschirwan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region and nephew of KDP leader Massoud Barzani, said no Iraqi Kurdish political party has the right to accept anything less than federalism "because the Kurdish public ... will not accept it".

From Green Left Weekly, February 11, 2004.
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