Iraq Fear of Betrayal
The Kurds suspect that Baghdad is trying to force them onto the sidelines, and are threatening to secede. They have apparently found an ally in Israel, of all countries.
Statistics is anything but an exact science, at least when it comes to ethnic standing.
According to Jalal Aziz, 50, mathematician and provincial head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the population of the northern Iraqi oil center of Kirkuk numbers exactly 520,000. Aziz also claims that exactly 43 percent of the city's inhabitants are Kurds.
Sheikh Jalil al-Kaissi, 52, a member of the party of the new Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Alawi, prefers not to specify exact percentages. However, he claims that his ethnic group, Arabs, undoubtedly make up two-thirds of the population of Kirkuk. Undoubtedly.
Türkez Muhtar, 38, general secretary of the Turkmen Front, believes that the clear majority in the city goes to ethnic Turks. He claims that 70 percent of Kirkuk's inhabitants are Turkmen.
Simeli Nishre, a 22-year-old student, is somewhat more modest. She estimates that her ethnic minority, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, make up no more than five percent of Kirkuk inhabitants. "Why should we artificially inflate this number?" she asks. "After all, there are fewer and fewer of us every day."
The heat has been intolerable for the past few weeks in this oil-producing city 250 kilometers north of Baghdad. The streets are practically devoid of people during the day. As evening approaches, merchants and their customers sluggishly drag themselves to the bazaar.
There is nothing in the exterior appearance of this city of four ethnic groups to suggest the unrest that has taken hold of party and militia leaders, except for the bloody attacks that have become a daily occurrence. Almost every day, giant columns of smoke rise from pipelines and pump stations in the immediate surroundings. Four people died in a rocket attack just last Thursday. The governor of the nearby city of Mossul was assassinated on the previous day.
But even if terrorist attacks were to come to an end, the outlook for the future is not rosy. The Kurds have taken control in Kirkuk and, in doing so, have taken their Arab, Turkmen and Christian neighbors by surprise. If Kurdish political leaders have their way, mathematician Aziz's 43 percent figure is unlikely to apply much longer.
According to veiled statements made in Arbil and Suleimania, the two capitals of the Kurdish Autonomous Zone, Kirkuk must be "normalized." What this really means is that at least 300,000 Kurds, who were once driven out of the city by Saddam Hussein, are to return to Kirkuk to reestablish "the historical truth." An as yet unspecified number of Arabs who were once forcefully settled here are to leave the city and district, voluntarily or not.
"We will not make any compromises," says Massud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the second largest Kurdish party after Jalal Talabani's PUK: "Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan."
Barzani and Talabani are running out time. According to UN Resolution 1546, Iraq's elections are to take place by no later than January 2005. Whatever the outcome of the election, the Kurds know that it will determine their claim to Kirkuk's oil wealth, their political influence in the new Iraq and, finally, their long-term national goal: an independent Kurdish state.
Officially, the leaders of both parties still support the interim constitution, which was signed by the former Governing Council in March. According to Article 4 of this constitution, which was essentially drafted by the UN Security Council in June, Iraq is a "federal, democratic, pluralistic and single state." Federalism is non-negotiable for the Kurds. Only in an Iraqi federal state can they maintain the level of autonomy they have enjoyed since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
But their trust in assurances from Baghdad and Washington has disappeared. Just days before ratification of the Iraq resolution, influential Shiite leader Ayatollah Sistani warned the Security Council against incorporating the interim constitution into the document, and he was successful in his efforts. Since then, the Kurds have alternately threatened to withdraw from the central government in Baghdad, boycott the elections in January, or simply secede. "If federalism cannot be assured, Iraq will not remain one state," says Massud Barzani.
This warning is not just intended for the transitional government in Baghdad, but also, and particularly, for Washington, the power that has protected the Kurds since Saddam's defeat in 1991. High-ranking Kurds have indicated that America, which at the time imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, thereby establishing Kurdistan's de facto independence, is about to be faced with an historic betrayal.
"We are concerned," says Omad Sayid Ali, director of the PUK's political office in Suleimania: "America's proximity to Ayatollah Sistani holds great risks for us." According to Ali, the Kurds have no choice but to return all displaced Kurds to Kirkuk as quickly as possible, because Sistani is pushing for earlier elections so that he can establish his own statistics.
Mohammed Sadik, president of Saladin University in the KDP capital of Arbil, also believes that Washington is taking outrageous liberties. Halfway between Arbil and Kirkuk, at the former border between the region controlled by Saddam and the Autonomous Zone, the Kurds have constructed a highway rest stop. The facility is called the "Kurdistan Restaurant," and the red, yellow and green colors of the Kurdish flag flying over the building are visible from afar.
"Every morning," reports Sadik, "our people raise the flag there, and every night US soldiers arrive and force us to take it down again." For years, he says, the Kurds helped the Americans fight Saddam. But now, says Sadik, Washington is bending to the will of the powerful Shiite cleric: "The relationship with America will bring us misfortune."
Pressured by the central government, abandoned by their greatest supporter, and surrounded by neighbors such as Turkey, Iran and Syria, all exceptionally hostile to their own Kurdish minorities, Iraq's Kurds can use any friends they get. According to well-known US journalist Seymour Hersh, they may have already found one: Israel.
In a startling article in The New Yorker, Hersh has written that the government in Jerusalem views the situation in Iraq with deep skepticism. The country's borders, writes Hersh, are open and the constantly increasing threat of terrorism is now beginning to jeopardize Israel's security.
According to Hersh, because Israel's warnings to Washington have fallen on deaf ears, Jerusalem has been implementing a "plan B" for months: an alliance with the Kurds, whose 75,000-man Peshmerga militia is to be developed into a formidable military force, with Israel's help. Together with Kurdish commandos, Mossad agents are even reported to have crossed the border into Iran to gather intelligence on its nuclear facilities.
Hersh' story was quickly denied. PUK director Talabani called it "total fabrication," and KDP director Barzani offered to "invite anyone to Kurdistan to see for themselves that these claims are false." Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, also denied the report, saying that there are "no Israeli activities in northern Iraq."
Hersh, who recently played a key role in uncovering the torture scandal at the US prison at Abu Ghraib, bases his claims on primarily anonymous statements by Israeli, American and even German intelligence officials, for whom Jerusalem's involvement in Kurdistan is apparently everything but a secret. According to Hersh, Israel was already supporting the Kurdish resistance against Baghdad in the sixties and seventies, and the alliance between the Middle East's two non-Arab peoples certainly seems plausible.
Of course, the strategic consequences of more recent cooperation would be dramatic. Not only would cooperation with Israel undermine the position of the Kurds in the new Iraq, but it would also upset the entire balance of power in the Middle East.
There are signs that this is already taking place. Turkey, which has maintained a military treaty with Israel since 1996, has already noticeably cooled its relations with Jerusalem. Last week, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan cancelled a meeting with Olmert for "scheduling reasons," and promptly met with Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Utri.
Israel is "playing with fire," warn Turkish newspapers, most of which believe in Hersh' theory. According to these newspapers, Israel's actions are driving Ankara, Jerusalem's only friend in the region, toward conflict, and are strengthening Turkish ties with Israel's arch-enemies, Syria and Iran.
Damascus and Tehran, and particularly Ankara, are vehemently opposed to strengthening the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, and what they fear is what many Kurds secretly hope for: the establishment of an independent state in northern Iraq, which may one day encompass the Kurdish regions of present-day Iran, Syria and Turkey.
This is why everything should remain the same in the oil city of Kirkuk, says Turkmen leader Türkez Muhtar. "Whoever wants to return should return, and whoever wants to leave should leave." Muhtar believes that no one should be forced out. Kirkuk, with its Sunni mosques and Shiite Husseiniyas, its Assyrian churches and its Turkmen cultural centers, is "a microcosm of Iraq," says Muhtar. No one, he believes, should dare to change the status quo.
A machine pistol leans against the wall behind his desk chair - purely a precaution.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan