The Kurdish Factor

Evidence has been mounting for some time now of ‘ethnic cleansing’ type activities in Iraq’s Kurdish zone. The latest addition to the list is a piece by Washington Post reporters Steve Fainaru and Anthony Shadid. They claim to have gotten hold of a US State Department memo which states that “extra-judicial detentions” form part of a “concerted and widespread initiative” by Kurdish political parties “to exercise authority in Kirkuk in an increasingly provocative manner.

As Juan Cole argues:

Kirkuk is a powderkeg. AFter the fall of Saddam, the city of about 1 million was estimated to be about 1/3 each Turkmen, Arab and Kurdish. But many Arabs have been chased out, and many Kurds have come into the city (in many cases returning to a place from which Saddam had expelled them). Fainaru and Shadid now seem to suggest that the Kurds are about 48 percent of the population, with Turkmen and Arabs a quarter each.

The kidnapping tactics extend to Mosul and perhaps to Tel Afar.

Arab on Kurdish violence could provoke a civil war. Kurdish on Turkmen violence could bring Turkey into northern Iraq, since Ankara sees itself as a protector of Iraq’s 750,000 Turkmen.

I am finding it increasingly difficult to see how this story is going to come to an end without the disintegration of Iraq.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

14 thoughts on “The Kurdish Factor

  1. So am I. I’ve been concerned for quite a while about the increasing tendency of the provinces down south in the MND(SE) zone to cooperate on technocratic matters and set up political bodies, and I’ve suspected that the British army POLADs (Political Advisers) might be encouraging it. But now I’m beginning to think that if they are, they are right!

  2. Yeah, well I posted on this new ‘Sumer’ entity here:

    It’s difficult to read all this, but there seems little evidence that the ‘olive branch’ approach to the Sunnis is either being taken seriously at one end, or being ‘willingly’ received at the other. At which stage you have to start to think about some end game scenarios. I don’t know any better than anyone else, but I imagine the next US presidential election might be a watershed in the sense that the White House might want the troops home before this.

    Follwoing this line of reasoning, the Shiites (or at least people like Sistani) may well simply be prepared to sit it out and wait. They get the Sunnis contained by the US military presence, and meantime a Shiite army is being trained and equipped. The situation seems to be that the US is putting up the bill, but that the big beneficiary post a US exit could be Iran.

    What I think I am saying is that the only real basis for sustainable Iraqi nationalism seems to have been among the Sunnis, and now that their power and influence is effectively broken, it is difficult to see the entity surviving.

  3. I am afraid gentlemen that you’re reading this wrong.

    First, Edward is wrong on “sustainable” Iraqi nationalism. Arab Shias and Sunnis both have shared and continue to share a common Arab centered nationalism – except of course in re who should be in charge. Iraq itself is not in play in the intra-Arab game, it’s who controls Iraq. The only ethnic group in Iraq that actively puts Iraq as an entity in play is the Kurds (the largely Shia Turcomans being too small have not opted for seperatism).

    The scenario is not then an imminent break up of Iraq but civil war pure and simple, with four zones. (i) Kurdistan in the north, with a long fractured frontier; (ii) Baghdad central, multi-ethnic and ending up like Beruit, a killing zone, (iii) Sunni majority West-Central, homeland of the Sunni jihadis and others; (iv) the south starting some 60-100 k south of Baghdad down to Umm al-Qasr, safely majority Shia but subject to intra-Shia conflict.

    The Iraqi Arabs are not going to accept de jure seperation, de facto may come from civil war.

  4. “Edward is wrong on “sustainable” Iraqi nationalism”

    I’m certainly more than willing to accept you may be right here. This is *way* beyond my competence area. OTOH I keep hearing this story about “Arab Shias and Sunnis both have shared and continue to share a common Arab centered nationalism” but something doesn’t seem to fit with me. Who eg, are the Shia’s allies in this game. Syria? Hesbollah?

    I mean if they believe in an ideal, then there should be an expression of it somewhere. A lot of exiles recount this idea, but on the ground we have the badr and sadr militias. I can’t seem to make it add up.

    “Baghdad central, multi-ethnic and ending up like Beruit, a killing zone,”

    Among things which are generally very pre-occupying, this is the thing that worries me the most.

    “The Iraqi Arabs are not going to accept de jure seperation, de facto may come from civil war.”

    This would be the ‘generally worrying’ bit.

  5. “I mean if they believe in an ideal, then there should be an expression of it somewhere. A lot of exiles recount this idea, but on the ground we have the badr and sadr militias. I can?t seem to make it add up.”

    I’ll try to clarify: The Shia wants a Shia-dominated Iraq, the Sunni wants a Sunni-dominated Iraq. Neither wants a partition. Therefore: civil war.

  6. I?m certainly more than willing to accept you may be right here. This is *way* beyond my competence area. OTOH I keep hearing this story about ?Arab Shias and Sunnis both have shared and continue to share a common Arab centered nationalism? but something doesn?t seem to fit with me. Who eg, are the Shia?s allies in this game. Syria? Hesbollah?

    Syria and Hizbullah are irrelevant.

    The Shia’s allies are themselves.

    Common Arab nationalism doesn’t mean loving each other. Each believes in an Arab dominated “Iraq” as a unitary state. It’s just each set believes they should be in the driver’s seat. The Shia envision an Arab Shia dominated Iraq, the Sunni the inverse.

    As for the militias, I don’t see the relevance. Factionalism doesn’t mean they don’t express the ideal of a unified Iraq – the intra-Shia factionalism is quite simply power struggle, but within the concept of an Arab dominated and of course Shia dominated Iraq. They don’t question the unitary state, only who should get the spoils.

    It’s really quite simple, although on another level complicated. See Lebanon.

    As for the center being worrying, well, it bloody well should be. There’s simply no way around it, it is multi-ethnic, the heart of the country and will be bloodily fought over. As it is now. Look at the pattern, much of the violence is Iraqi on Iraqi, and that is swiftly taking on a dominant ethnic angle. It will never be pure (not even in Leb Land was it) but it will be dominant.

  7. “The Shia’s allies are themselves.”

    I’m not clear how viable this will be. The big question as far as I am concerned will be to see just how involved Iran becomes in all this. The Sunni’s have had the military expertise, generations of it. They have been the ‘guerreros’. Can the Iraq’s Shia stand on their own. I think only time will tell.

  8. Yes, the Kurds have been courting better links with Israel for some time now. Obviously, they decided that positioning themselves as US allies was their best chance of getting the kind of federation they want, in which the basis for an economically viable Kurdistan could be built. Now they?re taking it to its logical conclusion. Condemnations of anti-semitism have become a regular feature of Kurdish material.

    So the question is ? what kind of federation? The Kurds are after something very loose, more a confederation. The Kurdish statelet would effectively have full control of its own institutions ? notably education and the military – and the Kurds actually want to see a right to secession effectively built right into the constitution.

    I guess the major issue in the other part of Iraq ? let?s call it Arabistan ? is whether it becomes a theocratic state. In troubled times, Arab nationalism is a force defined by having one kind of ?other?, while Islamism uses a different set.

  9. Corrections:

    While the Sunnis certainly dominated the military, don’t think there were not Shia in the military, even up the ranks. Not religious types, to be sure, but contra later day recasting of Iraq as an Apartheid state, Baath were not *that* Sunni centric.

    The real difference was in intel ops. Secret Police. Of course, in re the nasty dirty war ongoing that is relevant.

    Regardless, the Shia have the demographics to win by sheer weight, so long as their backdoor is stable. They have Iran as a friend, the US as quasi friend.

    As for Kurdish positioning as friends of Israel, incredibly stupid of them. Only bound to piss off everyone else in the region with little gain for them (ex some dubious support among gullible Westerners).

    In the end “economically viable” is mere khayali nonsense. There is going to be a nasty multi-sided civil war a la Lebanon, partially funded by petrol, and only when much nastiness has been done will something emerge. What that something is, anyone’s guess. I would not bet on an indpendant Kurdistan, however. Nobody but the Kurds like that idea, and lots of the other folks in the neighborhood (i) have lots of guns, (ii) can play dirty.

  10. Coll, I wouldn?t bet on an independent Kurdistan either. But as Turkey seeks rapprochement with the Arab world, the Kurds are, as usual, caught in the middle. I don?t think pissing people off is really a variable ? it?s a given already. Perhaps their pronouncements are meant as a deposit with what they might see as an influence in the US media, a forward precaution against the day when the only thing that might save them from their opponents is US public opinion? Na?ve, very probably, but beggars can?t be choosers.

    Their only hope is that the US decides that a reasonably autonomous Kurdistan, protected from the air, is part of the exit strategy. The US could end up looking at a serious foreign-policy write-off if the theocrats win, as all the old State Department (and FO) hands warned. Eagleton knows the Kurds well ? it?s up to them to convince him that they are sufficiently united to be useful and reliable proxies.

    You predict an inevitable civil war ? and I?m not disagreeing. What I don?t have a clue about is if the Kurds can stand aside from the conflict to any extent. Any views?

  11. First, there are degrees of irritation. The Kurds have to be careful not to motivate the Iranians and the Turks to do a deal, for example. Kurds go to far, Turkish and Iranian interests will coincide around squashing them. Bad for the Kurds. A moderate degree of irritation, fine. A quasi independent state that doesn’t push the envelope too far, e.g., in de jure independence and plays nice with the neighbours.

    As to the Kurds standing aside while the Sunni and Shiite Arabs go to town, I don’t see it happening because of the border region. Shia solidarity with Shia Arabs in the area and Shia Turcomans will tend to pull them into the nasty border region disputes – which overlap with the oil. Same for the Sunni. Probably limited to the border areas like Mosul and Kirkuk, but has potential in my opinion to be a very Bosnian kind of situ.

    Strange in the end, a mere few centuries ago, a Kurdish dynasty ruled the region. Salah ed-Dine al-Ayoubi (Saladin) was a Kurd, after all.

  12. If turkey and iran don’t intervene, and there is civil war, the kurds will probably take kirkuk.

    As for saladin, most arabs and many non-arab muslims (like several pakistanis I have met), don’t accept that he was notan arab.

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