In Search of a Homeland

Kevin McKiernan Discusses the Future of the Kurds

They are a Middle Eastern people, 30 million strong, who share a common language and culture. They have been without a State for thousands of years, and have been at various times conquered, ruled, and persecuted by their more powerful neighbors. They are secular, democratic, and they share a particular affinity for the United States. They have been routinely denied their right to self-determination by hostile nations on all sides.

They are not the Israeli Jews, but the Kurds — a secular strain of Sunni Muslims who have for at least 2,000 years inhabited a mountainous, oil-rich ellipse of land that intersects the borders of modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. They have never had a country of their own, although they are a distinct ethno-linguistic group with a history in the Middle East that stretches back to ancient Mesopotamia. As the Santa Barbara-based journalist Kevin McKiernan notes in his new book The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland, they are today the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state.

McKiernan, a longtime Santa Barbara resident, has spent the better part of the past 15 years traveling among the Kurds and reporting on their condition. He first became acquainted with their story in 1991, when he covered the Gulf War for ABC News. Since then he has journeyed extensively through the Kurdistan region, producing articles and photographs documenting the Kurds for publications around the country, as well as an award-winning documentary, Good Kurds, Bad Kurds.

With the publication of his new book, McKiernan provides valuable new insight into the Kurds at a time when they are emerging onto the international stage as a vitally important geo-political player. For the first time since World War I, when the region known as Kurdistan was parceled out to Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, the Kurds are tantalizingly close to realizing their historical dream of national self-determination. As Iraq teeters on the brink of civil war — a conflagration, McKiernan warns, that could ensnare the neighboring nations of Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia — the possibility of an independent Kurdistan being carved from northern Iraq seems ever more likely. Will that happen? And if so, at what cost? Recently, I spoke with McKiernan about these and other Middle East issues from his spacious office on upper State Street.

Can you give me a snapshot of the Kurds today? There are between 25 and 30 million Kurds in the Middle East. Politically, there never really was a country called Kurdistan. Nationalists today will talk about “reclaiming” a Kurdish homeland, but that’s inaccurate; there never was a homeland. A lot of people — when they think of the Kurds —think of Iraq, because of all the attention brought by the war in Iraq. But in terms of population, Turkey has 15 million Kurds, Iran has seven or eight million, and Iraq a little more than four million. Syria has 300,000 or so. The 800-pound gorilla, really, is in Turkey. And that’s why it’s so significant that in the last week, 16 civilian protesters were killed in Turkey, demonstrating for the kind of autonomy and civil rights they see in Iraq. The Kurds in Iraq very much wanted this war, and have so far profited from it politically; Kurds in these other countries would like the same for themselves, and that is a problem for their respective countries, where they’re seen as a threat.

Given the opposition from Turkey, Syria, and Iran, do you think a fully independent Kurdistan in Iraq is possible in the near future? In the near future, no. I think it would be suicide for the Kurds to declare independence. Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region, has said they will declare independence if there’s full-scale civil war, and they would adopt the doctrine of self-survival. [The Kurds] would pull the drawbridges up into the castle and go into a bunker mentality. But Turkey has already indicated that it would intervene if this happens.

What kind of intervention are we talking about? Turkey recently moved a large number of soldiers to the Iraqi border; they now have [roughly] 50,000 troops on the border. Turkey is increasingly angry about what’s going on — there have been a number of bombings in Turkey, and not just in the Kurdish areas but in Ankara and Istanbul as well. A couple of people have been killed and several dozen injured — a clear attempt by a PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) splinter group to damage the coming tourist season in Turkey. … So, they’re angry. This is coupled with the fact that there is more anti-American sentiment in Turkey now than ever, and there’s rising anti-Semitism, too. One of the bestselling books in Turkey now is Mein Kampf … Throw into the mix the dispute [regarding] oil-rich Kirkuk, where there are Turkmen, and where Turkey believes the Kurds are abusing the Turkmen and the Arabs, and you’ve got an explosive situation. I don’t know what it would take for Turkey to invade, but it’s serious enough that Iraqi President [Jalal] Talabani — who is a Kurd — noted the other day that there’s been a lot of border activity with Iran and Turkey, and he reminded both countries very pointedly that Iraq is a sovereign nation.

The U.S. has a longstanding strategic alliance with Turkey, while Iraqi Kurdistan is a secular democracy success story. Would the White House allow Turkey to invade? If the Kurds unilaterally declared their independence, against the wishes of the United States, I would be surprised if the U.S. prevented Turkey from invading. On the other hand, I think if things get so bad with the civil war in the south that, in terms of self-preservation, the Kurds have no choice but to declare independence from the rest of the country — if that happened, [Turkey’s wishes] may be regarded in a different light.

How do the Kurds see the situation? The interesting thing in all of this is that the U.S. and the Kurds are friends. The Kurds would very much like to have a similar situation to Israel’s in the Middle East. They would like to continue as a close American ally. … In Iraqi Kurdistan, there’s a disconnect between what the Kurdish government says publicly and what the rank-and-file Kurds say. The rank-and-file Kurds say, “We want total separation, total independence — Kurds and Arabs are oil and water, we hate the theocracy of the Shiite-controlled government, and we don’t want any part of it.” Meanwhile, the Kurdish leaders, including Talabani, mouth political platitudes. “We are Iraqis first and Kurds second,” they say. So, there’s a tug-of-war between those two realities.

You’ve said the Kurds view oil-rich Kirkuk as their Jerusalem. How will that issue be resolved? Kirkuk is such a flashpoint — it’s the real potential for civil war in the north. Barzani has said very directly: “We will go to war over Kirkuk. We will accept nothing less than complete control of the city.” If the Kurds have exclusive control of the city, without some sort of multinational solution there, or where there is a divided city like Jerusalem — if there isn’t some plan for that, Turkey has already said it will intervene. So, Kirkuk is the red line.

The L.A. Times and Human Rights Watch reported that despite being a bastion of secularity, Iraqi Kurdistan is not open to divergent political movements. Well, no … There are two opposing political factions in Iraqi Kurdistan, and they both operate as a single-party system in their own territory. And both are intolerant of dissent.

Will that improve? It’s the old thing about the trains running on time in Italy. Some people liked it very much that [under Mussolini] things were so orderly. I’m not suggesting that Iraqi Kurdistan is a fascist state by any means, but there are always tradeoffs for stability. The question in any democracy is where do you cross the line, when is stability too costly?

Is an independent Kurdistan on Iraqi soil desirable for the rest of Iraq? Iraq has turned out to be a black hole that gets worse and worse, more dangerous and more dangerous. And the American policy objective continues to fail. So, what’s left but the three-state solution? The Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia — these peoples, and their territories, were stitched together by British imperialists in the 1920s. Iraq was a fabricated country put together for the geo-political interests of Westerners. So, considering what a failure the effort has been to unify Iraq, which now seems to be going the way of the former Yugoslavia, why not have a three-state solution? If a full-scale civil war does break out, Saudi Arabia will become involved, as will Jordan, Iran, and Turkey. There will be dire consequences for American policy, and the whole balance of the region will change. That’s what we’re flirting with. So given that that’s becoming more and more likely each day, why not do something proactive like talk about a regional solution?

A big problem with a three-state solution in Iraq seems to be that the Shiites and the Kurds both have access to natural resources — namely oil — that the Sunnis of central Iraq don’t. Right. In the center of Iraq there is natural gas, but there’s not enough water and there’s not enough oil. There’s a lot of natural gas around Baghdad. So in any regional solution, attention would have to be paid to sharing those resources somehow.

Are you suggesting a loose federation, with some sort of apparatus for revenue sharing, while each government is relatively autonomous? Well, the big thing they’re fighting about now is control of security. In the last month the Kurdish-Shiite alliance was broken, and now there’s a budding Kurdish-Sunni alliance. The Sunnis say, “We want to control the ministry of the interior.” That’s the key demand. The ministry of the interior [in Iraq] is the FBI, the internal security apparatus, and the Sunnis want to control that; they want to root out these Shiite death squads, these uniformed police officers leaving dozens of handcuffed people shot in the head when the sun comes up. The other question is, who will be minister of the army? That’s important because now the loyalties are based only on ethnic loyalties. The Shia have 60 battalions, the Sunnis have 45 battalions, while the Kurds have nine. In the event of all-out civil war, the loyalty is not to central Baghdad, not to a federal system — the loyalty of those battalions is to their respective groups. And in the event of an all-out civil war, those nine Kurdish battalions are going to be rushing to Kirkuk to secure the oil fields. They don’t think in terms of national unity. They are tribal.

So in other words, a loose federation might be problematic, but a unified Iraq could be worse? What we’re seeing right now is de facto partition. The groups are separated, and we’re pretending they’re not. We keep saying there’s a chance for a unified government. British imperialists put the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds together some 90 years ago and made them live together. A series of repressive governments acted as the glue. Now suddenly the glue is gone, and we’re trying to say that democracy is enough for everybody to stick together. And clearly, it isn’t. Each of these groups is tribal — they don’t identify with this artificial, abstract notion of a central Baghdad and a unified Iraq. And when the shit goes down, they are going to go back home to the tribes.

How are the Iraqi Kurds faring currently? The Kurds have it pretty well right now because of the dreadful failure of American policy, and the chaos that has ensued in most of Iraq. The Kurds are up there in the north polishing this little [secular democracy] experiment they’ve got going, which they have a 12-year head start on. In other areas, people are talking about the mosque that got blown up and that their electricity doesn’t work: “It’s 120 degrees and the air conditioning won’t come on. We don’t have jobs, and we don’t want to work for the police because we’ll get killed.” And on, and on. In the Kurdish areas they’re talking about new laws for seatbelts, and wondering, “How come we only have one cappuccino machine in this building?” It’s a vastly different scene. No American soldiers have been killed in the north. There have been a few instances of bombing, but very, very few by comparison to the rest of the country. Iraqi Kurdistan is a relatively stable area, it’s able to protect itself, and so far Uncle Sam won’t permit interference by Iran and Turkey. If that changes, then everything is up for grabs.

You first went to Kurdish territory in ’91. How do things compare now? The first Kurdish home I slept in was a tent in the mountains. The water was dirty and I was taking iodine tablets to quench my thirst. People had very little food. They were up against the wall, they were running from Saddam, and at one point the Kurds were dying at a rate of 1,000 per day. They were blown up in landmines, they were succumbing to typhoid, and there was unspeakable agony. That was 1991. Now it’s 2006, and there’s a Kurd who’s president of Iraq. In 15 years, the Kurds have gone from hiding in mountains to walking the corridors of power in the Green Zone [in Baghdad]. That’s a big, big change. They’ve become a household story in the West. The gassing of the Kurds in 1988 has become a [retroactive] justification for this war; a terrible catastrophe was taken out of cold storage when a use was found for it 15 years later. And suddenly the Kurds are an above-the-fold story. So, it’s been a wonderful success story for the Kurds, but I think there’s a lot of bloodletting ahead. But if you were to freeze the frame right now, I think the Kurds of Iraq have made magnificent strides, and they are very happy, while the Kurds in Turkey and Iran are very happy for the Kurds of Iraq, and they’d like a little piece of that good luck themselves.

4·1·1 Kevin McKiernan discusses The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland, on Tuesday, May 9, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Tickets are $10 general, $8 UCSB students. Call 893-3535.

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