Iraqi Kurds See Chance to Press for Statehood

Times Staff Writer

A cane leans on the door and the old tribal leader sits in the sun below the citadel. With a whisper, he could summon 1,000 armed men. He chooses not to.

But make no mistake, he says, the time has come for the Kurds to grab the oil fields, seal the northern mountain passes and seize their independence.

Karim Agha is a proven ally of America, but he is also part of a growing number of Kurds whose push for an independent state could splinter Iraq and undermine U.S. policy in the region. Despite a strong showing in Sunday’s election that would give them unprecedented influence in a new national government, Kurds are debating whether it’s time for them to declare their own state.


“The war against Saddam Hussein is over and everyone has their freedom except the Kurds,” Agha said, a gun resting against his wall, prayer beads lacing his fingers. “We are surrounded by enemies, and we can wait no longer for our own nation. It would be a great shame for the U.S. to abandon us.”

Fearing that a bid for independence would draw the fury of neighboring Turkey and Iran, which have their own restive Kurdish populations, the main Kurdish political parties say they are committed to a unified Iraq. But many Kurds believe the chaos across the country creates a prime opportunity for them to claim the contested oil city of Kirkuk and break away. More than 1.7 million Kurds, or about 45% of their population, signed a petition for independence that was recently delivered to the United Nations.

The struggle is between pragmatism and a centuries-old dream. It suggests that the influence held by Kurdish politicians and U.S. allies such as Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani may be diminishing. Men like Agha, chief of the Hamawand tribe, are more willing to fight than to equivocate in the face of international pressure, especially when it comes to independence and the fate of Kirkuk.

“Talabani and Barzani must not give up Kirkuk,” Agha said. “If they do, the people will split with them. We won’t accept that. We want it to be solved peacefully. But if not, we’ve already lost a lot of lives over Kirkuk, and we’re willing to lose a lot more. The oil of Kirkuk will sustain us, and we will not abandon it.”

What unfolds in Kirkuk in coming days and weeks is as crucial to the stability of Iraq as the struggle between Shiite and Sunni Muslim Arabs to the south. The Kurds’ goal has been to win a majority in Sunday’s local elections in Kirkuk and claim the multiethnic city as part of their semiautonomous state in the north. The next step, men like Agha say, would be for the Kurds to demand independence.

The Kurds are hoping that the votes of about 70,000 of them, expelled from Kirkuk under Hussein and now seeking to return, will give them the edge in a local council now balanced among Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Assyrian Christians. They appear close to that aspiration: Arab voter turnout in Kirkuk was between 25% and 40%, and Kurdish participation was more than 70%, according to local political parties.


A surge in Kurdish power would anger Turkey, which is worried that Kurdish control of Kirkuk and its oil reserves would embolden and create instability among Turkey’s disadvantaged 13 million Kurds. Such a scenario could create regional problems if Kurds in Iran and Syria also demanded more autonomy.

Washington has been pressuring Kurds not to break from Iraq. The two mainstream Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, want to avoid angering their most powerful ally. They say the political reality is simple: The U.S. will side with its NATO partner Turkey over a mountain people who have been denied independence for generations.

“It favors the Kurds to be with the Arabs in a united Iraq,” said Nesherwan Mustafa, a senior political advisor to Talabani. “The Kurds in Iraq are a small population, so it’s better for us to remain with the Arabs. Arab populations control 22 countries in the region, so it’s in our political and economic interests to stay within Iraq. But at the same time the young are asking us, ‘What is your achievement in Iraq since the fall of Hussein?’ ”

Kurdish leaders such as Talabani, who fought for decades in the mountains against Baghdad’s armies and is now a contender for president of Iraq, have made spectacular progress in the country. But strides in recent years have made other Kurds more determined to break away.

Sherko Bekas, a poet, is one of them. His cigarette ash lengthens as he speaks of his people’s history of suffering.

Bekas tells how the Kurds were forced into Iraq by the Allies after World War I, more than 80 years ago. Since then, he said, the Kurds have been politically oppressed and massacred by successive Iraqi regimes.


He is a founder of the Referendum Movement, which on Sunday placed unofficial ballot boxes outside polling stations, asking Kurds whether they supported independence.

“So now we want to remove ourselves from the attachment that is Iraq,” Bekas said, adding that Kurds had enjoyed democracy and capitalism for 12 years as they were protected from Hussein’s forces by the U.S.- and British-patrolled “no-fly zone” imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “It is an impossible fit to try and push the Kurds and Arabs together. We know geography and history are against us. But if the U.S. allowed it, we could have independence.”

Bekas and other Kurdish intellectuals once strongly backed Washington. During the U.S. invasion, the Kurds gave the U.S. land for airfields, mountain fighters for guides and use of their 50,000-strong militia. But that support is waning among many Kurds who believe the U.S. has overlooked them so as not to incite the Arab population.

“I’m disappointed in U.S. policy toward the Kurds,” Bekas said. “The U.S. is not reading Iraq accurately.”

Goat paths are scattered like threads over the winter mountains. On some hilltops are Iraqi army bunkers singed from bombing by U.S. planes two years ago. In the valley, Chamchamal, a town of grays and browns, unfolds in its everyday rhythms: gasoline boys hawking black-market diesel, the creak and thrum of donkey carts.

Agha is lean, a mountain fighter with a keen political mind. He sits in a room filled with sunlight. A black-and-white scarf tied around his head, Agha sips coffee and slices fruit. This is the room where tribal disputes are resolved, where marriages are arranged and where muffled voices pay homage and seek forgiveness. It is the room where Agha likes to talk about a new nation.


There’s a map on the wall of how he thinks an independent Kurdistan should look. The borders stretch from deep inside Turkey across northern Iraq and into western Iran. The vision would unsettle the Bush administration, but it is an old warrior’s dream. Agha says he’d like to die in such a place, leave such a land to his grandchildren.

“My grandfather fought against the Turks long ago. We’ve all fought against the Iraqi regimes,” he said. “We’ve been victimized and killed, and still we have no self-determination. Look at Kuwait: It is a small country, smaller than Kurdistan. Yet, Kuwait has a seat at the United Nations, and millions of Kurds have no seat.”

Like many clan leaders in this rugged country, Agha understands the nuance of power. Allies, he says, are more important than rash judgments. There is a time to fight, he says, but often a way not to.

“We are a small people, but we are friends of the American people, and we hope they keep their promises,” Agha said.

“We hope they don’t let us down as they did in 1991 when we rose up against Saddam and the Americans didn’t help us,” he said. “You know, it’s like we are building a house, but so far there are no doors, ceilings or gates. We’re exposed to the rain and wind.”



A yen for independence

The two main Iraqi Kurdish political factions joined to form a slate in the election, with the hope of placing many Kurdish representatives in the new national assembly to strengthen the Kurds’ political voice and help preserve at least some autonomy once a constitution is written.


Cross-border presence

Estimated number of Kurds in the countries with the most, in millions:

Turkey: 13

Iran: 5

Iraq: 3.8

Syria: 1


Iraq’s population

Arab: 80%

Kurd: 15%

Turkmen, Assyrian, other: 5%


Main Iraqi Kurd political groups

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)

More rural and tribe-based.

Leader: Massoud Barzani; took control of KDP from his father in 1975.

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)

Draws much of its support from urban areas.

Leader: Jalal Talabani; formed PUK in 1975, now contender for president of Iraq.

Sources: Brookings Institution; Center for Strategic and International Studies; “A Modern History of the Kurds”;

Washington Kurdish Institute; Dr. M. Izady, Columbia University; CIA World Factbook

Graphics reporting by Julie Sheer