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

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

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

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


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