By Clive Bradley
In Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish semi-independent enclave in northern Iraq, thousands demonstrated on 2 March against the prospect not of an American invasion, but a Turkish one. The Turkish parliament, where moderate Islamists recently swept to power, has voted against allowing American troops to attack Iraq from its territory. But Turkey remains an American ally and member of NATO, and there is much talk of Turkey moving into the areas established under US protection after the last Gulf war. Part of their aim, at least, would be to attack Turkish Kurdish guerrillas there. More, Turkey wants to prevent any chance of the Kurdish capture, while war is waged on Baghdad to the south, of the city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk, a mainly Kurdish city still under Baghdad's control, is at the heart of the country's oil production. If a Kurdish state had Kirkuk, it could be viable as an independent entity. This would threaten Turkish control of its own Kurdish area.
Kurds in Iraq are terrified of what the Turkish army might do. In the 1990s, according to some reports, as the Turkish government waged war on the Kurds, refugees from Kurdish towns and villages - flooding nearby cities rather than crossing borders - peaked three million. In 1993 and 1994, "mystery killings" of Kurds, assumed to be by death squads, were in excess of three thousand. Total casualties were in the tens of thousands. Though there has been "peace" since, the Kurdish people have good reason not to welcome Turkish troops with open arms.
In fact there are Turkish soldiers there already. Twenty Turkish tanks are parked in a military base in Zewa in northern Iraq. They have been there for more than five years as part of a campaign against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) - the main Kurdish party in Turkey.
The Kurds are a large minority in Iraq (4 million), Turkey (13 million), and Iran (6 million) - and are scattered elsewhere in the region, especially Syria and the ex-USSR. The three main Kurdish territories tend to be sharply separated, including their opposition movements, in particular with a distinction between the Kurds in Turkey on the one hand and those in Iraq and Iran on the other. The Kurdish parties in Iraq and Iran have a long history of stabbing each other in the back, and making alliances with each other's governments. In 1975, the Ba'athist government in Iraq was able to crush the Kurdish revolt because it did a deal with the Shah of Iran. Since the Shah (and through him the US) was supporting the Kurdish "peshmergers" (guerrillas), this left the latter high and dry - and free to be slaughtered by the Iraqi army.
More recently still - in 1996 - one Iraqi Kurdish party struck a deal with Saddam Hussein, partly for reasons of self-preservation, which allowed them to drive their rivals out of their strongholds in the north, with Baghdad's support.
There are Kurdish cities, and historically in Iraq many workers in the strategically vital oil industry were Kurdish; but in the main Kurdish society remains that of a mountain tribespeople. The dominant political groups in Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, are more like tribal fiefdoms than modern political parties (and face rivals who are yet more traditionalist).
At the end of the 1991 Gulf war, as an uprising seized cities in the south of Iraq, the Kurdish forces launched an offensive from the north. Whole sections of the Iraqi army defected to them. But, as in the south, they did not receive the support from the Americans they expected; Saddam's regime regrouped and counter-attacked, and perhaps hundreds of thousands fled in terror. A US-protected zone was established in the north of Iraq, where the KDP and PUK have vied for power ever since, generally controlling different areas, but more recently coming to closer agreement. Now there is a parliament (the KDP holds 51 seats, the PUK 49), which has proposed a draft constitution for a post-Saddam Iraq - to be federal, democratic and parliamentary.
Both Kurdish parties are affiliated to the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and support US military intervention to remove Saddam. Connections between the Kurds and the CIA go way back, and especially, inevitably, since the establishment of the no fly zone at the end of the last Gulf war. Relations have always been fraught. Today there is an open rift between the CIA and the State Department (considered the moderate wing of the Bush administration), who have been badly burned in the last decade by their relations with the INC, and have effectively disowned them, and the Pentagon and the hawks in government, who still support them. Perversely, therefore, the Kurdish parties, along with the Iraqi opposition as a whole, have got more support from the right wing in Washington.
The cracks are showing now, though. The "official" Iraqi opposition, including the KDP and PUK, recently met in Salaheddin (the base, since the early 90s, for the INC) and unanimously declared their insistence on self-government, as opposed to the US plans for a military government.
Bush's special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, lobbied unsuccessfully to appoint a six-member group to serve as the nucleus of a post-Hussein government. The conference reiterated their opposition to the presence of Turkish troops.
The Bush-Blair war on Iraq will not be for democracy, and even their allies are starting to express, with some vigour, their concern about this. Indeed, when Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya (closely associated with INC boss Ahmed Chalabi) met Bush at the Oval office in January, apparently he had to spend some time explaining basic facts about Iraq to the president (like the difference between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims). Confidence in what US military action will bring is rapidly declining. And the memories of the betrayal in 1991 will be clear in many Kurdish peshmergas' minds.
That the Kurdish people's representatives have chosen to ally with Bush, for now, and have had support from the CIA in the past, should not determine socialists' view of them. Compared to life under Saddam's rule - entailing as it did the mass gassing of Kurds in the closing stages of the war with Iran - those living in the northern enclave have enjoyed, relatively speaking, some freedom and security in the past decade. The history of Kurdish struggle against Baghdad is one of being abandoned at crucial moments to a terrible fate; it is not surprising if they feel that their best chance lies with the world's superpower (which has pumped money and guns to them).
The anti-war movement should declare unambiguously its support for the self-determination of the Kurdish people - in Iraq, and in Iran and Turkey. We should join with the thousands of demonstrators in Arbil in opposing Turkish invasion of northern Iraq. If war leads to uprisings against Saddam, as it did last time, the US and its allies will see this as a threat to the "integrity" of Iraq - meaning, they oppose the establishment of a Kurdish state.
In fact, historically, the Kurds in Iraq have demanded autonomy rather than independence (unlike those in Turkey). The programme proposed by the Kurdish parliament is for a federal relationship with Baghdad. Even if they want full independence, though, they should get our support and solidarity.