For an Iraq Cut in 3, Cast a Wary Glance at
By EDWARD WONG
York Times" -- -- QARADAGH, Iraq -- -THE Kurdish
policeman’s mother died in 1988 when a boulder crushed her as she
fled to Iran after the aerial bombardment of their village. His
older brother had been killed earlier, in combat with Saddam
“But I don’t just hate Saddam,” the policeman, Lt. Ismail Ibrahim
Said, 29, said in this mountain town’s station house before the
start last week of Mr. Hussein’s trial on the charge of genocide
against the Kurdish minority. “I see it in the new government of
Iraq. When they have power, they’ll oppress us like Saddam did.”
The policeman’s sentiments, widely shared across the autonomous
Kurdish homeland, reflect a lack of will among many Iraqis to forge
a unified nation, and could herald the breakup of the country into
three self-governing regions. As Iraq writhes in the grip of
Sunni-versus-Shiite violence, a de facto partitioning is taking
place. Parts of the country are coming to look more and more like
Iraqi Kurdistan, with homogenous armed regions becoming the norm.
But if Kurdistan increasingly portends the future shape of Iraq, it
also signals the hazards inherent in a fracturing of the country.
American and Iraqi officials agree that the greatest danger to a
politically divided Iraq, or to an Iraq riven by civil war, is
hostile intervention by the country’s neighbors. The resulting
regional conflagration could remake the Middle East through mass
bloodshed. Here in Kurdistan, interference by border nations is
already happening more overtly than elsewhere in the country.
More than a week ago, Iran lobbed artillery shells for several days
at villages around Qandil Mountain in the remote north of Iraqi
Kurdistan, killing at least two civilians, wounding four and driving
scores from the area, said a senior politician, Mustafa Sayed Qadir.
Iran has been shelling the area sporadically for months, he said.
Qandil Mountain is a base for militant groups fighting for Kurdish
independence or autonomy in Turkey and Iran.
Like Iran, Turkey has been increasing the pressure against Kurds who
are pushing for self-governance. This month, Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
the Turkish prime minister, warned Tariq al-Hashemi, the Iraqi vice
president and a Sunni Arab, that the Iraqi government needed to take
“satisfactory steps” against the Kurdistan Workers Party, a
guerrilla group with hideouts in this region. Turkish officials have
also warned Iraqi Kurdistan against seizing control of the oil city
The top Kurdish politicians in Iraq officially are not pushing for
an independent Kurdistan. They are all too aware that a Kurdish
nation would draw intense hostility from Turkey, Iran and Syria,
which all have Kurdish minorities chafing to raise their own flag.
Kurds in those countries and in Iraq have long dreamed of uniting to
form the nation of greater Kurdistan, encompassing up to 30 million
people and stretching from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean to
“Both Turkey and Iran are not happy with what’s going on in Iraqi
Kurdistan — having a special region, having a government, having a
Parliament, and so on,” said Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish member
of the Iraqi Parliament. “That’s why they do those special
operations, those bombings. It’s a blow against the Kurdish
government in Kurdistan.”
“We have to be very careful, and we are very careful,” he added.
The type of cross-border disputes occurring in Kurdistan could
spread across Iraq should the country splinter. Some Shiite leaders
are working to create a nine-province autonomous Shiite region in
the south, one that would include the oil fields around Basra. If
this were to happen in the context of a large-scale civil war, Saudi
Arabia and Syria, countries with Sunni Arab majorities, could openly
back Sunni militias in Iraq against the Iranian-supported Shiite
Yet whether Iraq’s neighbors like it or not, this country’s regions
are heading toward greater autonomy, not less.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been virtually independent of the national
government since 1991, when the American military established a
no-flight zone across the region. The toppling of Mr. Hussein in
2003 only pushed the Kurds to reinforce their autonomy. Seeing that,
many Shiites in the south began clamoring for the same.
The endgame for this nation, however bloodily it may come, could be
an Iraq divided into three self-governing regions dominated
respectively by Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. (The Shiite
Arabs make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population; the other two groups
20 percent each.)
Here in Kurdistan, the people are open about their reluctance to
participate in the project of a greater Iraq. In January 2005, 98
percent of Kurds voted for independence in an unofficial referendum.
The Kurds often point out the artificial nature of Iraqi nationhood,
created when colonial powers carved up the Ottoman Empire after
World War I, and ask why the people should be expected to possess a
strong sense of Iraqi identity now when they never really had one.
“Iraq was never a unified country,” said Asos Hardi, editor in chief
of Awene, an independent Kurdish newspaper. “When you released the
only factor keeping this country together, Saddam, all the problems
came to the surface.”
In the market square of Sulaimaniya, the main city of eastern
Kurdistan, a schoolteacher said the historical enmity between Arabs
and Kurds would not disappear anytime soon.
“The Kurds and the Arabs have been like neighbors, but the Arabs
have always been occupiers on this land,” said the teacher, Anwar
Abu Bakr Muhammad, 33, as he chatted with friends before dusk.
“Being separated from them is much better.”
The drive for independence is evident simply from a glance around
the square. On one side of a building is a towering painting of
Sheik Mahmoud al-Hafid, who fought for a Kurdish homeland in the
early 20th century. The square’s center is dominated by a bust of
Piramerd, a poet best known for his writings on Kurdish nationalism.
Across Kurdistan, the Iraqi flag is almost nowhere to be seen. The
red, white and green banner of Iraqi Kurdistan, with a yellow
sunburst in the middle, flutters along streets and from government
Children are not required to learn Arabic in schools, which means an
entire generation is growing up without the ability to communicate
with other Iraqis. Arabs arriving from other parts of the country
have to register with local security forces. The Kurdish regional
government has its own militia, called the pesh merga, which is
estimated to number more than 100,000 and operates checkpoints on
the border between Kurdish Iraq and Arab Iraq.
Moreover, the rift between Arabs and Kurds could be widened rather
than healed by the trial of Mr. Hussein and six aides for their
brutal 1988 military campaign against the Kurds, called Anfal.
Survivors on the stand last week used a term that has recently
entered the Kurdish vocabulary to describe the fate of relatives
taken by government forces and never seen again: “Anfalized.”
Such memories of suffering might hinder Iraqi unity, but they serve
to reinforce the foundation of Kurdish nationhood.
“The Arab nationalists think of us as inferior to them,” said Bahman
Jabar, 30, another teacher in Sulaimaniya’s market square. “It’ll be
better for us to split from the Arabs and have our Kurdish state.”
Yerevan Adham contributed reporting from Sulaimaniya for this
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company