A dispatch from Kurdistan
Erbil, Iraq/Hawler, Kurdistan (Depending on who you ask)—In a Turkish border guard’s office on the Iraq-Turkey line, a young soldier examines my assignment letter from the Brooklyn Rail, which says I’ll be reporting from “Kurdistan”.
“Where is this Kurdistan? I have never heard of this,” he says. I point across a short bridge to the Kurdish customs office, flying a large Kurdish flag, as it has since 1991.
“You mean Iraq? I only know the Republic of Iraq.” He hands me the letter with a look of disgust. “There is no Kurdistan,” he says, then waves a colleague and me through to the Kurdistan border. The Kurds stamp us through—no Iraqi visa needed.
With the U.S. press offering little reporting from the ground in Kurdistan, I went there with two questions: First, did the U.S. invasion of Iraq actually bring freedom and democracy to Kurdistan, the one region that is not currently in flames? And, more broadly, What’s going on there? What I found was not a newly free and democratic region, but a locked-down, corrupt police state run by gangsters with militias who took power following the Kurdish uprising in ’91. And these thugs—Bush’s democratic darlings—may be on the brink of tearing the country apart, and with it the dream of a stable Republic of Iraq.
A lot is riding on the Kurds. For centuries, the Kurdish people have been pawns for colonial powers from Alexander to George W. Bush. Each time, their expectations of independence have been teased along, then squashed. Yet these Kurds have never had as much power as they do today, and an independent Kurdistan has never seemed so close. If the Kurds do decide to declare independence—and there’s little in their way—any number of hellish scenarios could break loose. Without a doubt, at minimum, civil war would erupt over control of the fabulously oil-rich Kirkuk, which is steadily being populated by Kurdish civilians and pesh merga soldiers—militia-members both independent, and under the nominal control, of the Iraqi Army. Many Kurds don’t see civil war in terms of if, but when.
An often cited consequence of Kurdish independence is a Turkish invasion. That scenario, though, ignores the reality of the Kurd’s 60,000 strong militia, and Turkey’s desire to join the EU. Recently, Turkey has begun accepting flights from Kurdistan Airlines—with the caveat that the Kurdish flag can’t be displayed on the outside of the plane. A pipeline that runs through Turkey, however, is still closed; gas and oil trucks line up for miles at the Turkey/Kurdistan border, and lines at Kurdish gas stations can go hundreds of cars long. In any event, the threat of Turkish troops pouring across the border, or a lack of a working pipeline, did not dissuade the Kurds from announcing a deal in late November with a Norwegian company to explore for oil near the Turkish border, a move seen as a bold step toward independence.
The Kurdish region is believed to have ample reserves—beyond those under Kirkuk—that have not been explored because of Baghdad’s long-held wish to keep the Kurd’s dependent. Government officials in Baghdad—the Arab ones, at least—reacted with genuine shock at the announcement—telling, since Iraq’s president is Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and leader of one of the two main parties. The surprise move is not out of character for a Kurdish government that gives little practical indication that it’s interested in either democracy or the fate of a greater Iraq.
Locking Down a State
Between the border and Erbil, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) capital and seat of Kurdistan’s parliament, known to Kurds as Hawler, there are eight heavily armed checkpoints, all of them guarded by Kurdish militia—the pesh merga—with Kurdish-flag patches on their arms. Each checkpoint boasts a Kurdish flag. But it’s not all oppression and tyranny in Kurdistan. At the first kabob joint we visit, about a dozen Kurds are gathered around a small television watching “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Almost immediately upon arrival, our driver insists we visit the police station so that files can be opened and we can be given our “papers,” which are demanded to be shown several times a day. Journalists must check in weekly. Upon returning to the hotel, our translator is told by the front desk that the police requested he come down to the station. He spends the rest of the night calling friends in the police force in an ultimately successful attempt to avoid a night in jail. It turns out he is wanted for suspicious parking, and the police officer he finally speaks to at the station tells him he would have been jailed had he not made those phone calls. Such corruption is an everyday part of the police state mentality in today’s Kurdistan.
Regardless of the corruption or the tyranny, it must be said that almost every Kurd I spoke to was clear that they were pleased to have Saddam in a prison cell in Baghdad. It seemed that every adult we met knew someone who had been touched in one way or another by his brutality. However, since 1991, Saddam has had precious little influence in Kurdistan – and that only when the US would silently allow it. When the two Kurdish parties battled each other in 1996, Massoud Barzani’s party asked for and received the assistance of Saddam’s army, while the US went briefly blind.
The Kurds are also pleased that the war has led to the lifting of sanctions and an increase in oil revenue. Those results, happy as they are, could easily have come about through diplomatic channels instead. Furthermore, there was much room to improve from 1991, given that their autonomy got off to a shaky start when Bush the father told Iraqis to rise up. “But there’s another way for the bloodshed to stop,” he announced in February of 1991, after pushing Saddam from Kuwait and putting his troops on the ropes. “And that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” The message was broadcast throughout Iraq in Arabic and Kurdish. The result is now well known: The Shi’a and Kurds rose up, only to be crushed by Saddam as the United States stood by and watched.
The ’91 uprising brutally suppressed, the United States finally stepped in and created the No Fly Zone, which allowed hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees to return to autonomy. Despite the self-determination, though, times were tough. Sanctions prevented the Kurds from trading most things with their neighbors, Iran and Turkey. A full blockade instituted by Saddam on their southern border made matters worse. The U.N. Oil for Food program finally brought a measure of relief to the region; Kurds were given 13 percent of the nation’s share. Nevertheless, the Kurds held elections in 1992—as they had done in 1989 to form a Legislative Council—and formed a parliament, sharing power between Barzani’s right-leaning PDK and the more liberal Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led for 40 years by current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Each party set up its own capital and formed its own cabinet, a divided situation that still exists today. The parties control virtually every aspect of Kurdish life.
For the December 15 elections, the two parties were merged together to increase their seats in parliament, and forced the small ones to do so as well. After the Kurdistan Islamic Union, a small party in PDK territory, pulled out of the coalition, their offices in five separate cities were simultaneously shot-up and torched. According to news reports, four Islamic Union party members were killed—two shot in the head.
Locking Down the Borders
Any pseudo-nation worth its sand needs its own guarded border: Kurdistan’s runs between Erbil/Hawler and Kirkuk, a small outpost with as many Kurdish flags, it seems, as soldiers. On the other side of the Khazer River are the villages of Hassan Sha and Khazer—both are ethnically mixed and sources of conflict. The soldiers refused to accompany us there, saying that whomever we visited would be at risk of reprisal for collaboration.
Most Kurdish cars heading north are paused and then sent on; I noticed that cars with Arab drivers are pulled to the side and given more strict scrutiny. The Kurds are taking no chances as the potential for a civil war between Arabs and Kurds grows by the day.
In 1991, this checkpoint was controlled by Saddam; the Kurds had only pushed as far south as the village of Kalak a few miles up the road, where a Kurdish police station now stands.
At the Khazer base, the battalion sits on old, dusty couches drinking chai and watching “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. Major Parezar Besari is holding forth on Kurdish independence. “Our leaders are not talking about independence for political reasons and the surrounding countries. But all Kurds say they want their own country.” Besari is right. The further up the political chain I went in either party, the more diplomatic and reserved was the talk of independence. The further down, the more honest it was.
Capt. Kamal Alizar has a bushy flat top, a unibrow, and a thick moustache (“one that an eagle could land on,” Kurds might admiringly say). He is not interested in either Tom or Jerry, and seems to be the resident political analyst. “Even God and Peter Galbraith are witness that Kurdistan is below Mosul and Kirkuk because the snow falls there,” he says (Galbraith has called for the division of Iraq into three sections; God has not made His specific border wishes clear.)
Between the Khazer border pass and Kirkuk, there are ten more Kurdish guard towers, but this is their last serious presence. Without Kirkuk and its oil, the Kurds could not support themselves as an independent nation. The historian David McDowall estimates that in 1974 Kirkuk accounted for 70 percent of Iraq’s oil revenue. If that number still holds true—which many experts believe it may—then Kirkuk and its surrounding fields produce more than $20B of oil revenue per year.
At the request of the United States, the Kurds have so far shown restraint in regard to Kirkuk,. But that patience is wearing thin.
“The most important place to Kurdish people is Kirkuk,” says Hamid Afandi, PDK minister of peshmerga affairs and a guerilla since 1961. Kirkuk was briefly held by Kurdish forces in 1991, but Saddam drove them from it. “We could control Kirkuk and Mosul if the US would let us. Americans don’t want us to. …We’ll do whatever the U.S. wants us to. We belong to them.” Afandi is clear, though, that the Kurds played the major part in their independence. “In 1991 we liberated our people and controlled the region of Kurdistan.”
The graying Afandi has thick leathery skin and a look, ingrained during 30 years of fighting in the mountains, that says he is to be taken seriously. He has his own ideas about how to pacify Kirkuk and Mosul. “We’d use the Saddam plan, not America’s plan. …I would send more than 10,000 peshmerga”—the force is now more than 60,000 strong, with 30 percent of those serving in the Iraqi army—“and we’d destroy them. We’d kill them in the middle of the street and make the people afraid. The U.S. should attack the families of terrorists, and knock down their houses,” he said to me in his plush office this fall. His saber-rattling is no idle boast. Knight-Ridder recently reported that Afandi has done just that.
The future of Kurdistan, like the rest of Iraq, is uncertain. Despite the pervasive rhetoric of independence, the region is as connected to the rest of the country even more closely than it was pre-invasion. Twenty-five percent of Iraq’s oil revenues
- $7B - go to Kurdistan, without which they would have no industry or revenue to speak of, says economics professor Muhammad Riouf Saeed of Sulaymaniya University in the PUK capital. Trade also ties Kurdistan to central Iraq. Saeed, an expert in transportation economics, says that 70 percent of Kurdistan’s trade comes through Iraq, 20 percent through Turkey, and 10 percent through Iran. Without this trade or oil revenue, both of which would be cut off in the event of a declaration of independence, the region has very little with which to feed itself. Unless, of course, Kurds start drilling their own oil.
Kurdistan’s corruption could also be a barrier to economic independence. Roughly half of the oil revenue that comes into Kurdistan from the central government in Baghdad is stolen outright, says Saeed, who has never been able to get a copy of the PUK or PDK budget. “They tell me it is secret,” he says. The Kurdish economy is almost completely controlled by the parties and the government, which employ 35 percent of the million-strong labor force. The parties own every local industry larger than about 50 employees, says Saeed, but there is no significant industry to speak of. The corruption is not a total loss, though. Throughout the country, major private construction projects are underway, the size and scope of which can only be explained, it seems, by massive corruption.
The PUK region sits on what Saeed and others believe to be a “sea of oil,” but it has remained undeveloped. The Taq-taq oil field, in eastern Kurdistan in PUK territory, may help pave Kurdistan’s road to independence—along with the Western fields now under contract—even without Kirkuk. In 1993, construction of two wells on this field began, and oil was flowing by 1996, but only at a mostly symbolic rate of 2,000 barrels per day. Geologists at the field, which spreads across an area of at least 27 by 11 km, say that a conservative estimate of its oil reserves is 1.8 billion barrels, and Saeed confirms this figure. The oil is extremely slick to the touch, not like the muddier, rougher crude more often found. Documents from the American Petroleum Institute are proudly displayed showing the high quality of the oil.
For now, though, like the rest of Kurdistan, the field is in a political holding pattern. A declaration of independence from Kurdistan would throw the Middle East into a tizzy, and development of that field is another step toward that declaration.
As U.S. objectives shift from a revolutionary attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East to a prayer that the entire region doesn’t erupt in violence, the Kurdish dream of independence may be the greatest wild card.
Drinking chai with the friendly group of mechanical engineers and geologists who run the infant field, they tell us many foreign companies have visited the field, but none have yet agreed to develop it. The scientists don’t seem to recognize the political difficulties involved, or they’re certain they can be overcome. They have an oil field, they figure. It will be developed.
Just the same, Kurds figure, they have a country, and soon it will be theirs. Muner K. Ali, a young Kurdish geologist, explains the difference between Kurdistan and Iraq with a smile. “The culture is different. The plants are different. The animals are different,” he says, shaking my hand as we leave. “Next time we want to see you come with a company, not alone.”
RYAN GRIM is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. He is the author of This Is Your Country on Drugs (Wiley, 2009).