By Kani Xulam
August 18, 1999
When the news of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait reached the exiled Kurdish communities in America on August 2, 1990, an air of uneasiness was palpable on their faces. If Saddam Hussein got away with the annexation of his so called 19th province, his amalgamated power would put an end to any hopes of reviving the Kurdish struggle for political rights for decades to come. But that pessimism soon gave way to some sort of hope when the United States decided to expose the Mr. Hussein for what he was: a diabolical person who had now decided to become a modern day Hitler by gobbling Kuwait.
The readers of these pages know well how Mr. Hussein’s forces were routed out of Kuwait in the early months of 1991 and how he almost lost control of Iraq proper to the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south. But Mr. Hussein, despite his stupendous defeat, managed to cling to power and with the approval of President Bush put down the rebellions with ease. One of the unplanned upshots of the war, however, was the mass exodus of millions of Kurds to Turkey and Iran to be out of reach of Mr. Hussein.
The war for the liberation of Kuwait had been a nonevent. Pentagon had managed to wage it with the precision of a clock. Aerial bombardment, the so-called “clean” violence, was inflicted on Iraq and its troops non-stop. The news reporters were kept away from the war scenes for the most part and had become the clients of warring sides for their news by default. The American casualties were at minimum. The Iraqi Republican Guards suffering major losses left Kuwait in a matter of weeks. The marching orders for Baghdad were suddenly called off. An agreement was signed with Mr. Hussein’s envoys leaving him in charge of Iraq.
Conveniently forgotten were the promises made to the Kurds and the Iraqis who were urged to rise up against the tyrant of Baghdad. The Kurds listening to the Voice of America’s Arabic service had taken the exhortations of President Bush to heart and put to rout the Iraqi soldiers who were stationed in their midst. If only for a few weeks, the Kurdish tri-color flew high and free over the liberated part Iraqi Kurdistan. The dream that had cost so much blood and treasure was finally at hand. Or so thought millions of unbelieving Kurds throughout the Middle East and the world.
In addition to the Kurds and Shiites, Mr. Hussein and his cronies too had listened to the seditious pronouncements emanating from Washington, DC. Kuwait lost, Americans happy, Mr. Hussein began his conquest of the south and the north to subdue the Shiites and the Kurds. Some Shiites fled to Saudi Arabia to escape the wrath of Mr. Hussein. Others resigned to their fate and folly for trusting America in good faith. The Kurds, on the other hand, having been the guinea pigs of the biological and chemical weapons only months before, left nothing to chance. They fled to live anywhere but under the rule of Baghdad.
The clean war that had denied the major news networks their gory pictures of war suddenly unfolded in the north on the beautiful mountains of Kurdistan with all the trappings of a full tragedy with somewhat reluctant access from the Turkish side. Millions of Kurds were on the move providing pictures of pain and suffering to, at first, a bewildered world. Those who had shed crocodile tears for the rape of Kuwait were now found fishing in spite of the sufferings of the Kurds. As the deaths mounted, the worldwide public outcry forced these reluctant liberators of Kuwait to take action through the United Nations Resolution 688 to move into northern Iraq to keep Mr. Hussein beyond the reach of the Kurds.
For the first time in sixteen years, Mr. Hussein’s grip over the lives of close to 5 million Kurds was loosened paving the way for the establishments of fledgling Kurdish institutions. On May 19, 1992, the Kurds held their first elections. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly became rights over night. Confiscated Iraqi government documents provided the Kurds the depth to which the Iraqi agents had gone to torture, imprison, gas and kill suspecting and unsuspecting Kurds. Thousands of them would line up to see not the Star Wars series but the footage of Iraq’s gas attack on Halapja where thousands of their fellow Kurds had dropped dead like dry leaves in the fall.
Freedom proved to be fleeting, however. To be sure, the American led force kept Mr. Hussein and his forces at bay, below the 36th parallel line, as its mandate dictated for most of the time. What the Kurds did not see and had neither the power nor the experience to handle was the self appointed role Turkey assumed for itself as the new power broker in their affairs. Ankara viewed the Kurdish experiment with democracy as a dangerous thing. God forbid, if the Kurds of Turkey learned of such a thing. The Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkish rulers concluded, should go back eventually to the fold of Mr. Hussein. In the meantime, Ankara thought, some mishap could be in order for both the “good” Kurds of Iraq and the “bad” ones of Turkey.
So began the plans for the so called Sandwich Operation of November 1992 where the Kurdish fighters of Iraq from the south and Turkish armed forces from the north attacked simultaneously the Turkish Kurds, the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who had their bases high in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Just as Iraqi Kurds are impatient to throw away the yoke of central government in Baghdad, the Kurds of Turkey have the same hatred for their oppressors, the rulers in Ankara. But now, the Kurds of Iraq were allowing themselves to be used as mercenaries of the Turkish army. It was a dark moment in the history of the Kurds, pleasing their adversaries and shaming their friends.
As if this was not enough, the Kurds of Iraq began fighting one another on May 1, 1994. What began as an isolated land dispute, soon divided the Iraqi Kurdistan into two halves, Behdinan and Soran and pitting the fighters of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) under the leadership of Mesud Barzani against those of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under the leadership of Celal Talabani respectively. The intermittent fighting continued for years and thousands died from both sides. Mr. Barzani on the defensive, called on Mr. Hussein to help him withstand Mr. Talabani. He did and Mr. Talabani was routed out of Soran region in a matter of days. Washington expressing shock attacked Iraq in the south. This time, it was Mr. Barzani who would give the Americans a taste of their own medicine, by saying one thing to them and doing something else for himself.
Washington had its own prestige at stake to bid instant farewell to Iraqi Kurdistan. The architect of dual containment policy had competing clients and their discordant interests. President Bush had said that he did not want to see the dismemberment of Iraq. President Clinton, despite his campaign rhetoric to the contrary, would follow suit. Besides, Turkey, an ally, did not want that. Iran, a foe, might be the beneficiary of it. The Kurds, well, were used by Kissinger and Nixon in the past. Albright and Clinton would do the same.
So last September, the Kurdish leaders, Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani, were hosted by Secretary of State Madeliene Albright at the top floor of the State Department for the expressed purpose of ending their enmities. The handshakes were in order as were their agreement that Mr. Hussein would be kept at bay irrespective of Mr. Barzani’s recent transgression. The Turks who were a party to the talks wanted the high contracting parties to commit themselves to fighting the PKK again this time without the help of a coordinated effort. America, on its part, would do what it could, i.e. behind closed doors, to put an end to the sanctuary of Mr. Ocalan in Damascus.
In October, the Turkish troops began maneuvering along the Syrian border with bravado that if they crossed the border in the morning, they would make it to Damascus for lunch. The Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan who had enjoyed a refuge in Syria for the last nineteen years became a persona non grata all at once. On October 9, he bid farewell to his fighters and began a search for a place that would accept him as a political figure in three different continents. His adversaries on the chase, his so-called friends shunned him. The tradition of offering refuge to political leaders as old as the times of prophets was suspended in the case of Kurdish leader and he was eventually handed over to his oppressors in a four-wheel drive, courtesy of the Kenyan police.
In the mean time, back in Iraqi Kurdistan, life goes on, with Turkey, Iran, Iraq and the United States looking on. If these states can be compared to wolves, Iraqi Kurdistan can only be described as a newborn lamb. The challenge for the lamb is to transform itself into a porcupine to deny the carnivores the pleasures of a feast. That remains to be seen but one thing is for sure: freedom has caught up with the Kurds and no power on earth is going to succeed in enslaving them again. So hope is alive. The dream endures. The promise captivates the Kurds all over the world.