Kurdish Rights Advocate Wary Over War’s Outcome
By Nick Welsh
The Santa Barbara Independent
May 1-8, 2003
Vol 17, No 858
As one of the nation’s most active champions of Kurdish rights, one might think Kani Xulam would be celebrating the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Far from it. Although an outspoken critic of the Hussein regime—which gassed and killed no less than 182,000 Iraqi Kurds—Xulam remains suspicious that the Kurds—the largest ethnic minority in the world without a nation of their own—will be sold out by the United States and the international community.
A slightly built man with gentle manner and disarming smile, Xulam started the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) 10 years ago, not long after graduating from UCSB with a degree in history. Then as now, his chief focus was the wholesale abuse of Kurds living in Turkey by the Turkish government, at that time one of this country’s most reliable and strategic military allies for the past 50 years. Initially, Xulam—born in Turkey–constituted a one-man propaganda machine. He lobbied members of Congress to block multi-million dollar arms sales to the Turkish military, arguing that American guns and helicopters should not be used to attack and destroy Kurdish villages. And he sought to embarrass the Turkish government, then seeking membership into the European Union, into improving its human rights record.
Xulam’s activities did not go unnoticed. In 1996 a team of heavily armed police stormed AKIN’s Washington D.C. offices and hauled Xulam away. He was whisked across the nation in an armed train and held without bail for 40 days. The stated offense? Acquiring a United States passport under an assumed name and failure to pay off his UCSB student loans. Xulam has admitted both offenses and since paid off his loans. But the real reason, according to the Department of Justice, was that Xulam has been linked to Kurdish terrorist groups working within Turkey.
Coming to Xulam’s defense were not just the usual assemblage of human rights advocates, but prominent newspaper columnists and a few members of Congress, too. One judge was so unimpressed with the government’s case that he ordered Xulam to perform his community service sentence by working at AKIN. Today, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is seeking to send Xulam back to Turkey. “People who’ve done far less than I have been disappeared,” said Xulam, explaining his appeal for political amnesty. In fact, Xulam said Turkish authorities mistakenly seized his brother—thinking it was him—and tortured him. A final verdict in that case remains many months, if not years, away.
Out on bail since 1996, Xulam has continued to be a thorn in the side of the Turkish government. He got 153 members of Congress to sign a letter in support of human rights for the Kurds. For nine months, he maintained a vigil—in a mock Turkish prison cell—right across the street from the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in Washington D.C. After the September 11 tragedy, he claims the Turkish government asked Vice President Dick Cheney to have him extradited. One month afterwards, he ended that protest.
Since the United States made clear its intent to attack Iraq, Xulam has been much in demand as the quasi-official spokesperson for the Kurds, a group of 40 million people occupying rugged and mountainous territory about the size of Texas. The problem, says Xulam, is that they’re spread out over the borders of five separate Middle Eastern states. Given that 5 million Kurds are living in Iraq—and concentrated in some of that country’s most oil rich regions—the Kurdish question has taken on a renewed strategic urgency.
Xulam was in town this week visiting relatives when Independent reporter Nick Welsh managed to get an interview with him. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Although you have long opposed Saddam Hussein, you also opposed the United States’ war against him. I understand this position has gotten you accused of treason by some of your fellow Kurds living in this country.
It was difficult to hear these accusations, but I still stand by what I said. It was a complicated war. I opposed it. I oppose wars. I regard war as organized crime let loose. Not that I wanted Saddam to stay. I knew him. I know him. I have studied him. But I wanted the United Nations and international institutions to be strengthened rather than be set aside. And even though I was a fellow traveler with the peace activists, I wished they had come out stronger against Hussein. I guess I wanted both no war and I also wanted down with Saddam Hussein.
Some in the anti-war camp have suggested that Saddam Hussein has been unfairly accused of gassing the Kurds as part of a Bush administration propaganda effort to justify the war, when in fact it was the Iranian military that gassed the Kurds. What do you say?
I reject this. Ambassador Peter Galbraith visited the Kurdish refugees in 1988 when he worked with Senator Claiborne Pell. He talked to people from various regions of Kurdistan and he concluded that you couldn’t bring so many people from so many areas and have them say the same thing: that helicopters came and dropped a substance that smelled of rotten garlic and rotten apples and the moment it came into contact with the people they immediately dropped dead. And it happened not just in one day, but also during a campaign that lasted 18 months. Close to 182,000 Kurds were murdered in that campaign. In 281 settlements—towns, villages, and hamlets– gas was used. It wasn’t just Halabja. Even if Halapja were the work of Iranians, what would one say about 280 other places?
I’ve heard it said that the Kurds have been screwed over so many times that it’s become something of a cultural tradition. But now, it seems the Kurds have certain real opportunities: They fought along side the Americans in the North of Iraq. And Turkey—the Kurds’ longtime enemy–has alienated their American allies by refusing to cooperate in the war against Iraq. Is it possible that the Kurds are going to come out on top for once?
It just shows you how slippery the grounds are. It is true we were sold out in 1974 and 1975 by Henry Kissinger [then advising President Richard Nixon]. It is also true we were sold out in 1991 by senior Bush who urged us to rise up against the Butcher of Baghdad. In the latter instance, we did rise. For 18 days, we were totally free. For 18 days we felt like the kings of the world. But on the 19th day, Saddam was given the green light to crush us again. This time, he didn’t use chemical and biological weapons, but sent in his helicopter gun ships and dropped powdered sugar and sometimes flour on us, thinking that we would think, he was using chemical and biological weapons. It was like a cat playing with a mouse. That’s when 3 million Kurds took to the mountains.
After that, France and Britain pressured the United States and the U.N. to establish no-fly zones over northern Iraq, and in the intervening time, what kind of self-rule did the Kurds living there develop?
For the past 12 years we have been truly blessed by the Pentagon’s protection. We have enjoyed the fruits of freedom and the fruits of liberty. Peace has, for a change, visited our lands and justice, for a change, has been our lot. If you compare Iraqi Kurdistan today with the rest of Iraq, it shines.
There are no political prisoners. There are hundreds of publications. For a change people are not censored. There were free elections in 1991, close to 100 deputies were elected. There are two factions—two parties.
But until recently, these two parties were battling one another with guns and grenades?
From 1994 to 1997, they fought each other violently. I don’t want to white wash their shortcomings. But I will tell you that our adversaries have invested far more in our disunity and our misery than we’ve been able to invest in our own unity. But since 1997, the fighting has come to a halt. And things are looking good.
So now what?
Now they are talking about in the emerging central government in Baghdad, the Kurds will have a say tantamount to their numbers. That remains to be seen. I remain skeptical.
The US government has co-opted the Kurdish leaders not to step into the realm of freedom, not to step into the realm of independence. So we are on a leash. Another reason I remain skeptical is that I have talked to a number of Iraqi national Congress (INC) members. Unfortunately, in the Middle East of today, there is a culture of contempt and intolerance towards the Kurds. The idea is that the Kurd is unruly, he is good to haul your wood or your water. That’s the image. Iraq is viewed as an Arab state and the Kurds are not even considered per se. If they want to get a good job they need to Arabize themselves.
The neo-conservatives who pushed George Bush to adopt our new policy that we can unilaterally and preemptively strike other nations if we deem it in our national interest cite what Hussein did top the Kurds after the Gulf War as one of their moral inspirations. How does that make you feel?
I have to be honest. The Kurds feel secure that Saddam’s long, long shadow is gone. His gigantic sized statues do not hover over them. Having said that, I resented the use of our dead to drum up support for the war effort. In 1988, the Reagan Administration, [then in power,] didn’t even stoop to acknowledge our dead or to condemn our slaughter. No statements were issued from the state department. Then when senior Bush won the election, his transition team said, as bad as Saddam was, he should be cultivated. That the Kurds were under his control, and we should not be bothered by it. The United States dealt with Hussein. It gave him chemical and biological weapons. In the Iraq-Iran war, when he took to killing Iranians, we said `Good.’ In those administrations, [Dick] Cheney was in power, [Paul] Wolfowitz was in power. And now 12 years after the Gulf War, conveniently, all of a sudden, our dead were discovered. The dust was blown off them and then they were beautified, if you will.
There’s that expression the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But could it be that the opposite might be happening now in Iraq?
Maybe. But this is what should have been done: Reagan should have condemned Saddam Hussein. He should have been declared a war criminal. After his gassing of the Kurds in 281 places, there was no way he could have been exonerated in a court of law. These Kurds were civilian Kurds; they were his subjects. If you had applied the basics of the United Nations, you would have had him behind bars for the rest of his life. Kuwait would not have happened. 146 American soldiers who fought in the first Gulf War would not have died. 158,000 Iraqis that died there would have not have died. And the second war would not have happened either.
In the Middle East that I know, maybe three to 10 percent of the people enjoy the fruits of liberty, or are equal before the law. There are, for example, 50 families in Saudi Arabia that have $650 billion in American banks. When you cuddle somebody like Osama Bin Laden, it could come back and hit you too, the way it did on 9-11. The world is less safe. The world has more fear. This world is yours. This world is mine. If we want, really, truly, peace and order in our lives, then I think it behooves us to cultivate democratic forces in the Middle East—people who are hungry for freedom. Like the Kurds.
But isn’t that happening now?
Iraqi Kurdistan right now is, of course, a positive development. If it holds and the emerging government in Baghdad recognizes it, then that’s a gigantic step forward for the Kurds and the Middle East. We live in an age of nation states, not state nations. If you look at the map of Europe the boundaries are very crooked. That’s because that is how humans live. Humans don’t live along straight lines. If you look at the maps of the Middle East and Africa, they have straight lines. That’s because, they were put together by delirious French and British colonialists. And now, the Bush Administration thinks these borders are sacred. They are not. They are a house of cards. They are prisons for our people. Those borders are like the Berlin Wall in our land. They have brought about a system of government like South Africa’s Apartheid.
You’re suggesting this is the time to redraw the maps?
I am saying the Kurdish reality must be respected and accepted. I am saying, in the times that we live in, there is no such recognition. But we will have our day in the sun. It will come. I have no doubts about it.
Is there a Kurdish nation or is it a fragmentation of tribal fiefdoms that have less in common that they do differences?
When you use the word fragmentation relative to the Kurds, you have to say, fragmented by others. It’s not like the Kurds would love to be fragmented. We want to be free, if our neighbors live us alone, we will unite and we will opt for the mastery of our own homeland.
Is there a time the Kurds were united?
The Kurds have been living on their mountains since the dawn of recorded history. They are the original people of the land. There are references to the Kurds being there in the Old Testament. Empires have come and gone. Let’s just look at the past 1000 years. During the Ottoman Empire everyone was viewed as the children of God. Kurds– most of them Sunnis–were tolerated and accepted. Kurdish language was not banned. Kurdish culture was not prohibited. We had a province of our own. It was Kurdistan and we Kurds knew that it was ours. In 1920s, Kurdistan was carved up by the British and the French, entrusted to Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and the portion that was under the Iranian rule was ratified as theirs, and some of the former Soviet republics. Because the Kurds are deprived of a say in their affairs, the Kurdish inhabited region is a source of instability.
What role are the Kurds trying to play in the formation of a new government in Iraq?
What the Kurds want is like a California style federal state. They want a Kurdish area totally under the Kurdish rule, they want to have Kurdish drivers’ licenses, they want Kurdish tax collectors, and they want to have Kurdish police officers. They don’t want what Saddam had before, a centrally appointed Arab mayor, with Arab teachers, and Arab tax collectors.
How’s that going over?
When the opposition was in the opposition, they said fine, sometimes with reservations. But then they also said, we are all Iraqis, which to us Kurds means, forget about your Kurdish political rights. To us, that’s a cover up. It can only mean, we Kurds should forget about our rights.
One of the scary scenarios we heard about before the war started as that the Turks would invade Iraq to keep the Kurds in their own country from rebelling and after that, all hell would break loose. But that hasn’t happened.
They haven’t given up though. Members of the Turkish Special Forces did go into Iraq dressed as aid workers. American military got the intelligence that they were coming in, to aid, abet and foment the cause of Turkmen people and intercepted them. That could still happen by the way, even though the US government has asked them not to do it. The Turks are itching to move in, not just to help their Turkmen brothers, but also take over the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, which have 40 percent of the Iraqi oil wealth. But even if that doesn’t happen, there’s another mischief waiting in the wings. The Iraqi central government in Baghdad could still collude with the Turkish government and the Iranian government, because their common desire—their happiness almost—could be said to lie in the misery of the Kurds.
One of the great coincidences here is that you went to UCSB, and so did Mark Grossman, now third in command at the State Department and very influential relative to Turkey. Did you two go the same time and have you spoken since?
No. He was at UCSB before me. And I doubt he’ll want to see me now. He speaks Turkish and he’s viewed as a friend of Turkey. I met him once at a Greek gathering. I spoke to him in Turkish. He acknowledged me. He knew who I was. I extended my hand, he took it, and then he made it clear that he did not want to talk to me.
But I remain hopeful. In the short term, I have felt that 9-11 has put all of the Middle East in a bad light for the children of this country. But in the long run, I think the children of this country will pay more attention to the Middle East and the plight of the Kurds will benefit from the close scrutiny.
Listening to you, it’s easy to imagine that even though you’re Kurdish nationalist if you ever went home to live in a Kurdish village, you might not be very comfortable there.
For 23 years I haven’t been able to go back, literally. I’d like to go back. I may find it constraining, but I think I could also help lift my people up with the experiences I’ve had here. The problem we face is a very dangerous one. For example, my mom and dad don’t speak a word of Turkish. I speak both Turkish and Kurdish. None of my nephews and nieces speaks a word of Kurdish. In one generation, the Turkish government has managed to separate, in an indigenous population—not a migrant population—the grandfather from the grandson, the grandmother from the granddaughter. That is a heinous crime. It’s my duty and responsibility to remind you that on our watch, in our times, something terribly wrong is going on.