[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
The most well kept spot in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil is probably “Freedom Park,” which looks like a green oasis amid the otherwise dusty and rusty streets.
Freedom Park is home to a sizeable pool, a play garden, and, most important of all, the “Freedom Monument” which praises the memory of “98 patriots who gave their lives for the freedom of Kurdistan.” These “martyrs” were members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani respectively. They all died on Feb. 1, 2004, when two suicide bombers joined the religious feast celebrations in the parties’ headquarters, and, as their definition implies, blew themselves up together with dozens of others around.
It was a horrible day for Iraqi Kurds, to be sure. But it was also a landmark moment – such as, say, the Battle of the Alamo – that made the Kurds feel that they are really a nation and that they should stand united against their common enemies.
Freedom Park is not the only sign of the rapid nation-building process underway in The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (KRG), which was formed as early as 1992 and gained constitutional status with the Iraqi elections on Jan. 30, 2005. The autonomous region, which is also referred to as Iraqi Kurdistan, or simply Kurdistan, consists of three districts: Dohuk, Arbil and Suleymaniya. The population in these governorates is predominantly Kurdish, but include other groups as well, such as the Turkmens and the Christian Assyrians. Kurdistanis are also very much hoping to incorporate the oil-rich Kirkuk into their territory, but that’s a very controversial – and potentially conflictive – aspiration.
Flags and Heroes
This new little country Kurdistan is actually a part of Iraq, but there is hardly any visible evidence to prove that link. Neither the capital Arbil nor Salahaddin, the small nearby resort-like town, which hosts the residences of some top-level KDP officials, bear Iraqi flags. The only flag that flies in the skies of Kurdistan is the Kurdish one with its red, white and green stripes and bright yellow sun. The walls of not only official buildings but also virtually all restaurants and hotels are full of the portraits of national heroes: “Mullah” Mustafa Barzani (1903-1979), the godfather of Iraq’s Kurdish movement, his son and Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, and Iraq’s first Kurdish President, Jalal Talabani. The thick and high wall surrounding the parliament – also a fortified barrier against possible terror attacks – is covered with paintings of glorious Kurds defying bombs by waving flags.
It is not an accident that Arabs in Iraq are defined according to their religious affiliation — they are Shiites, Sunnis, or even Christians — whereas Kurds are simply Kurds, whatever their creed may be. Arabs, who have long been recognized as a people and who have many nation states, are not so emphatic about their ethnic identity. Kurds, on the other hand, have never had a state of their own — at least in modern history. They are latecomers to history. And they are excited about their arrival.
The Peace to End All Peace
The whole story goes back to World War I, which ended with “the peace to end all peace,” as historian David Fromkin called it. Before that, much of the modern Middle East was run by the Ottoman Empire. All Kurds, along with Turks and many Arabs, were citizens — or subjects — of the multi-ethnic empire. The so-called Great War ended the Ottoman state, and many nation states emerged from its ashes. Nations such as Turks, Albanians or Arabs, who had started to build their national identity well before the empire’s end, managed to form their nation-states. (The Arabs quite a lot.)
But Kurds, probably the least modernized among the peoples of the Empire, mainly due to their isolated geography, did not pursue a nationalist cause. A handful of Kurdish intellectuals, who did indeed try to create an independent Kurdistan with the support of the Allies, failed. Nobody turned out to be too enthusiastic about creating a Kurdish state, including most of the Kurds themselves. The majority of Turkey’s Kurds chose to remain loyal to the newly emerging Turkish Republic, which they perceived as the continuation of the Ottoman state that they had been happy to be a part of.
But Republican Turkey would not be as tolerant toward Kurds as the Ottomans were. Soon “Turkishness” became the only accepted identity and many Kurds felt suppressed and denied. Hence came successive Kurdish revolts. Moreover, as Kurds modernized, they too started to inhale modern ideas of nationalism. That is why Turkey’s most powerful and radical Kurdish nationalist organization, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was formed not by tribal leaders of the rural southeast, but left-wing Kurdish students who were studying political science in Ankara.
Problems With Catching Up
The more Kurds modernize, the more they surpass traditional identities of tribe and religion, and become open to nationalism. This is a process that European nations passed through in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Turks in the 20th, and now Kurds are trying to catch up. Yet they are doing this at an epoch in human history in which nation states are already on the decline and supra-national identities and organizations are being enhanced by constant globalization. Will this belatedness make Kurdish identity more radical or more moderate?
Both trends are possible and actually in co-existence. The newly emerging Kurdish nationalism has radical and violent offshoots, such as the PKK. There are also more reasonable versions, such as the Kurdish movements and intellectuals who denounce violence and emphasize democracy, freedom and human rights. The leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan use the latter rhetoric, which sounds constructive, but some facts on the ground point to a less pleasant picture. There is apparently a sort of tribalism in more modern forms — such as the system of patronage created under the KDP. Barzani’s party dominates every scene and people complain about failing to get contracts or work permits unless they “cooperate” with KDP officials. There is a convergence with the ruling party and the state – and this is not good news for democracy.
That might refer to the usual problems in developing countries, but Kurdistan has additional ones, such as dreams of pan-Kurdism, which ring alarm bells in the region.
Turkish Concerns and The PKK
Many Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan are optimistic about the future of their country. At present it is only an autonomous region within Iraq and they say they want to keep it that way for the foreseeable future. But many don’t hide the fact that their ultimate goal would be the creation of an independent state. Plus, they believe in the existence of a greater Kurdish nation, which surpasses their borders and extends into at least three of the neighboring countries, namely Turkey, Iran and Syria.
No wonder these countries have deep concerns about all this. Turkey, home to the largest populace of Kurdish origins on Earth, has been especially anxious about the creation of a Kurdistan in Iraq, fearing a domino effect on the northern side of the border.
Turkey has already been uneasy about its “Kurdish reality,” which it denied for many decades. The current government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), hopes to solve the problem by giving more rights and freedoms to Kurds and through integrating them further into the Turkish economy. This idea indeed appeals to many Kurds and that’s why the AKP gained an astonishing 55 percent of votes in southeastern Turkey in the general elections of July 22, 2007. But the PKK’s base also continues to exist, and the 24 percent of the southeastern vote that the “Independent” Kurdish candidates won in the same elections is seen as corresponding to that.
Recently the PKK fighters have found safe havens for themselves in the steep mountains of northern Iraq, from which they launched terrorist attacks against Turkish targets. This led Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan into a clash of words. Ankara accused Arbil for sponsoring terrorism, whereas the latter accused the former of using the PKK as a pretext for threatening their autonomous region. Hawks in Turkey called for immediate sanctions and even a military strike on Iraqi Kurdistan, whereas Erdoğan preferred the way of diplomacy. During his meeting with President Bush on Nov. 5, the Turkish prime minister convinced the United States to convince the Kurdistan government to cooperate with Turkey against the PKK. Soon, Barzani, who had infuriated many Turks with his seemingly pro-PKK remarks, softened his rhetoric and accepted Turkey’s right to self-defense in the face of PKK terrorism. Having gained the consent of the U.S., Iraqi Kurds and even Europe, Turkey started to track the PKK terrorists within Iraqi borders, and, just last weekend, starting hitting them.
Trucks, Not Tanks
Right now, Iraqi Kurds seem to be satisfied with this “limited operation” of Turkey. But they are constantly worried about a possible widening of the Turkish focus: the all-powerful Turkish military machine, they fear, might target not just the PKK, but also their “Pesmergas,” a term which means “those who face death” in Kurdish and which refers to the armed militias of Iraqi Kurdistan. They also have concerns about collateral damage. Abdussalam Rashid, a representative of President Barzani on issues relating to Turkey, recalled an incident from 1995. Then, according to him, the Turkish Armed Forces, while carrying a massive operation against the PKK in northern Iraq, accidentally killed 7 Kurdish peasants.
Fazl Mirani, general secretary of the KDP and the “second man” in the party after Barzani, places great emphasis on the fact that Turkey and Kurdistan can be good partners and help each other prosper. “We don’t like to see Turkish tanks at our border,” he says. “We rather want to see Turkish trucks.”
Mirani’s emphasis on trucks is right on track, because Turkey indeed has a great share in the construction of Kurdistan. 65 percent of the goods in Kurdistan come from Turkey via the overflowing Habur border gate. No wonder almost all the stores there are full of Turkey’s popular brands. Moreover, 80 percent of the companies that invest in Kurdistan are of Turkish origin. With a trade volume of over 5 billion dollars, Turkey is absolutely vital for this newly emerging nation.
But might this pragmatic cooperation be undermined by nationalism on both sides? That’s a potential risk that could traumatize not just Kurdistan, but all its neighbors — including, especially, Turkey.
NEXT: The (dis)united colors of northern Iraq