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Once again, the Kurdish wild card

Iraqi Kurdish Sunni Muslims kneel during Friday prayers last autumn at the Salaheddin Mosque in Dahuk, northern Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdish Sunni Muslims kneel during Friday prayers last autumn at the Salaheddin Mosque in Dahuk, northern Iraq.
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As U.S. forces fight their way into Baghdad, many wonder why the front lines in northern Iraq remain so relatively quiet. But given the tightrope the United States must walk among Kurds, Turks, Iraqis and others, the relative quiet should be viewed as a victory in itself.

As a new Iraq emerges, it is fully expected that an integral part of the post-Saddam nation will be a true autonomous region for the Kurds. The United States, which has helped coordinate military moves by Kurdish forces in the north since the war began, knows it will have to ensure that a postwar Kurdish autonomous region does not take on the trappings of a state, a development that Turkey fears may ignite nationalist sentiments among the huge population of Kurds there who fought a decades-long guerrilla war against Turkish rule that ended only five years ago. Complicating it all is Kirkuk’s large ethnic Turkomen minority. Defending the future of this minority group is regarded by Turks to be a kind of sacred national obligation. A tightrope walk, to be sure.

Operation Iraqi Freedom has strained numerous facets of U.S.-Turkish relations. From a U.S. standpoint, the most obvious friction emerged when the Turks refused to allow the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division to traverse Turkish territory to open up a northern front against Iraq.

But Turkey’s unwillingness to countenance a U.S. invasion from its territory was about more than public opinion. Turkey is deeply concerned about events in northern Iraq, and indeed, reports of Kurdish forces advancing toward northern Iraq’s largest cities, Kirkuk and Mosul, are greeted with alarm. Turkey has threatened to intervene in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq should the Kurds attempt to establish an independent state or impose Kurdish rule on the Turkomen population of Kirkuk. Such an intervention would upset the fragile relationship between the United States and two major Kurdish political factions in Iraq — themselves prone to violent clashes. This is a wrinkle the United States can ill afford at a time when Kurdish cooperation is essential to U.S. military operations in the oil-rich areas of Kirkuk and Mosul.


The Kurds, ethnically distinct from Arabs, Persians, Turks and their cousins, the Turkomen, inhabit the area where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet, and extend west into northeastern Syria and north into the former Soviet republics. Despite their desires and efforts, there has never been an independent Kurdistan, and there is unlikely to be one in the foreseeable future.

As far back as the 16th century, Kurds were allowed to exist in virtual autonomy, serving as a buffer between the Ottoman Turkish and Persian empires. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, borders creating new nations were drawn without consideration for the Kurds, formalizing their absorption into the new countries.

Interestingly, the Kurds were divided along Kurdish language dialect lines — the Sorani-speaking tribes were in Iran and Iraq, while the Khurmanji-speakers were mostly in Turkey. While both groups are Kurds, they maintain separate identities based on the language groups.

Turkey and Iraq tried to assimilate the Kurds into their societies, or to at least bring them under some sort of control. The Turks refuse to even use the name Kurds and instead refer to them as “mountain Turks,” an attitude that helped foment an extremely violent guerrilla war inside Turkey. In Iraq, the Kurds staged periodic uprisings against the central government in Baghdad, including in the 1970s with support from the United States and Iran.

The Baath Party promised autonomy to the Kurds as early as 1974. This was formalized when Saddam Hussein came to power. In 1980, he created — on paper — the Kurdish Autonomous Region. But this arrangement was short-lived as he later began an “Arabization” program — transplanting entire Arab villages from the south and replacing them with Kurdish villages from the north. Despite this, the Iraqi Kurds — who number 4.5 million to 5 million — have preserved their cultural heritage and ethnic identity through their language.


There are two major Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, most often at odds — if not conflict — with each other:

Kurdistan Democratic Party: The party was formed after World War II as a nationalist group seeking an independent homeland for the Kurds. The party is currently led by Masoud Barzani, the son of the group’s legendary founder, the late Mullah Mustafa Barzani. The group governs a little more than half of the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq, along the Turkish and Syrian borders.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party has worked both with and against Saddam’s regime. Although it would prefer an independent Kurdistan, the party is pragmatic enough to realize that there is little chance of this happening. It favors the existence of a Kurdish autonomous region. The party has a well-trained military force that has caused problems for the Iraqi army in the past.

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan: The group was formed in the 1960s by its current leader, Jalal Talabani, as a breakaway from the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The union governs just less than half of the Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, along the Iranian border. It is made up of urban, educated Kurds who envision an independent homeland. Although Talabani has said he is willing to accept a Kurdish autonomous region inside Iraq, this may be to appease the United States, whence much of his financial support comes. In the end, Talabani will likely continue to struggle for a separate Kurdistan.

While the Kurds possess substantial military capability, they do not have an organized, mechanized military force like the Iraqi army and cannot be expected to take on the Iraqi armed forces without substantial U.S. airpower. Although fighters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were not able to defeat the Al-Qaida-linked Ansar Al-Islam, they were successful with the addition of U.S. missiles and precision-guided munitions.


Despite the best efforts of the United States, the divisions among the Iraqi Kurds remain deep. However, both parties have pledged to cooperate on their common goal of removing Saddam’s regime. In return for substantial funding, both have agreed they will respect the “territorial integrity of Iraq” — in other words, not try to form a Kurdish state.

But Kurds have bitter experience with past “pledges” made by superpowers and empires. Whether their own pledge to remain inside a postwar Iraq is a lasting one may depend on the shape Iraq takes after the war, and on internal Kurdish dynamics, which have proven tremendously resistant to outside influence for centuries.

(Rick Francona, a CNBC military analyst, served as U.S. military attaché in Baghdad during the 1980s and with U.S. intelligence in northern Iraq during the Clinton administration.)