Kurdish Green Line, Turkish Red Line

by Quil Lawrence | published March 11, 2005

Election day on January 30 was a day of celebration for the Kurds in Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city just below the Zagros Mountains in northern Iraq. Despite the threat of car bombs, Kurds stood in long lines for hours awaiting their chance to cast a vote. A teenager was killed by a solitary mortar attack on a soccer stadium full of Kurds displaced by the “Arabization” campaigns of the former Iraqi regime—but his death did not deter even the boy’s family from voting. They buried him and went to the polls. The two main Kurdish parties swept the local elections and won a kingmaking role in national politics, with 75 seats in the transitional national assembly.

Before the elections, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) pushed through the registration of about 60,000 extra Kurdish voters they said were returnees to Kirkuk—like the ones in the stadium. The parties called this number the bare minimum to compensate for the hundreds of thousands of Kurds killed or driven out of Kirkuk and surrounding villages by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Successive central governments in Baghdad had long sought to alter the demographic balance in the oil-rich region by expelling Kurdish and Turkoman residents, settling Arabs from the south and redrawing the provincial borders to include a larger proportion of Arabs. According to Human Rights Watch and the US Committee for Refugees, intensified “Arabization” after the 1991 Gulf war forcibly displaced over 120,000 Kurds and other non-Arabs from the Kirkuk region.

If the Kurdish parties saw the extra registrations as redressing a historic injustice, Arabs and Turkomans in Kirkuk saw them as aiming to stack the electoral deck. The sweep for the Kurdish parties strengthened their hand in pressing their perennial demand that Kirkuk be annexed to one of the three majority-Kurdish provinces in the north. Perhaps the only people more angry about the Kurdish parties’ maneuver were the Turks.

Dark Suspicions

The dream that may be coming true for the Kurds of Iraq—making Kirkuk an official part of Kurdistan—is a nightmare for the Turkish government. Deeply protective of the Iraqi Turkomans and ever fearful of separatist sentiment among the substantial Kurdish population in Turkey, the Turks now also fear that the Kurds of Iraq have the support of the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to dispel those fears when she visited Ankara, the Turkish capital, in February. Rice assured the Turks of “the commitment of the United States to a unified Iraq which is at peace with its neighbors.” She mentioned the separatist PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that recently renamed itself Kongra-Gel) in the same breath as the number one enemy in the US war on terrorism, al-Qaeda. Her words should have been music to Ankara’s ears, but the Turks are not in a terribly trusting mood.

A surprising range of politicians and intellectuals in Turkey are voicing dark suspicions about the shape of Iraqi Kurdistan to come. “The US is creating a puppet state in northern Iraq and it is a very serious problem,” said Turan Ozlu, sitting in the Istanbul office of the leftist-nationalist Isci party. "And the Kurds—they’re calling it ‘Southern Kurdistan.’” An ex-military man would not normally find himself in the same camp as Isci, but these are interesting times in Turkey. After a 20-minute preamble about the proud history of US-Turkish relations, Mesut Hakki Casin, a former Turkish air force officer now at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University, explained his concerns. “The main problem is how [the Kurds] use their oil,” he said. “Within ten years the Kurds will have an army and air force, same as the Israel model, and they will request some of the territorial parts from Turkey. The US says, ‘Don’t worry.’” With hurt and anger on his face, he added, “But now we have a confidence problem with the US. Do you want the Turks as allies or as enemies?”

Casin thinks that, at some point, Turkey will be forced to make a preemptive strike into northern Iraq to prevent the rise of an independent Kurdish state bolstered by revenue from the Kirkuk region’s petroleum. With ten million barrels of proven reserves, the area’s oil fields are the second largest in Iraq. Many Turks consider the scenario of military intervention farfetched, but it has brought together an array of leftists and nationalists. Intervention over Kirkuk is the subject of “Metal Storm,’ a Turkish-language novel that wraps up with an all-out war between Turkey and the United States. The book, by first-time authors Burak Turna and Orkun Ucar, is a bestseller.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Perhaps the biggest fly in the ointment Rice was peddling in Ankara is the PKK, which fought a bitter separatist war with the Turkish military in the 1990s. On June 1, 2004, the group called off a five-year ceasefire that Turkey had never recognized. The PKK remains on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, as Rice sought to underline when tacitly equating it with al-Qaeda. But the US military has something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the several thousand PKK fighters who are living and training in the mountains inside northern Iraq. “If we ran into them, one of the terps [interpreters] would let us know and we would look the other way,” one former US military officer in northern Iraq confided. As long as the PKK was not carrying out terrorist acts in Iraq, he continued, they would not be a priority for the US military.

It galls Ankara that Washington’s emissaries condemn the PKK in such sharp language and then US soldiers merely watch as journalists hike up into the hills to visit the party’s guerrillas outside Ranya in northern Iraq. The PKK has blasted deep caves into the hills, just in case the Turkish or US air forces bombard their camp. In the fall of 2003, months after US forces moved into the area, young men and women were conducting weapons drills and learning PKK doctrine, dressed in the traditional Kurdish trousers and sash, living on rice and beans and revolutionary zeal. Osman Ocalan, brother of the captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, was resident in the camp.

In February 2005, Osman Ocalan had left the PKK, reportedly to live in the city of Mosul. He is still among Turkey’s most wanted men, but Iraqi Kurdish officials said US forces know that Ocalan is there. With the chaos of insurgency in Mosul, it is not clear whether the US lacks the will or the resources to apprehend him.

The PKK volunteers who remain in the camp are Kurds from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. At the base of the trail leading to their training facility, they tend a cemetery for the movement’s martyrs. Though most of the gravestones date from a war they fought with Iraqi Kurdish militias in the late 1990s, there were nine fresh burial mounds this winter. The guerrillas said five of the dead perished in skirmishes with Iranian border guards. They said the other four were killed in Mosul, but they would not specify how.

As much as their presence in Iraq enrages Ankara, the PKK do not seem to pose a great threat at the moment. There have been a few clashes between militants and Turkish security forces, both inside Turkey and along the country's borders with Syria and Iraq, but the PKK leadership is in flux. Many of the volunteers seem to be trying to return home and enter the political system—some demobilized Iraqi PKK members even ran for local posts in the January 30 elections.

Entering and leaving the area where the PKK camp is located is like crossing a border. The peshmerga of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, dressed now in their Iraqi National Guard uniforms, check all the cars coming in and out. There is even a customs official. The border there is just one of the many green lines that mark what the Kurds plan will become an autonomous Kurdistan. They may not be on the maps, but they are on the ground.

Kurdish Borders

Northern Iraq is one of the only places where one can buy maps of “Kurdistan.” At the bazaars in Suleimaniya and Erbil, merchants display a small poster-sized copy that shows an area spanning mountains and plateaus from Iran to the Mediterranean. On the map, southeastern Turkey, western Iran, northern Iraq and eastern Syria are labeled as Northern, Eastern, Southern and “little South” Kurdistan, respectively.

When the great powers carved up the region after World War I, they left the Kurdish homeland divided such that Kurds were a minority in Iran, Turkey and the two majority-Arab proto-nations defined by the new borders. After Iraq and Syria became independent of colonial rule, their governments suppressed Kurdish nationalism, as did Iran and Turkey. The ethnic gerrymandering practiced by Iraqi governments—most violently by the regime of Saddam Hussein—was an attempt to dilute Kurdish political strength further.

Since 1991, the Kurds have enjoyed a de facto state in northern Iraq protected by a superpower with a guilty conscience. When the elder President George Bush told the Kurds and Shiite rebels in the south to “take matters into their own hands,” the peshmerga rose up against Saddam Hussein’s regime, only to be mowed down when the US army stopped short of Baghdad. A wave of refugees overwhelmed Turkey, and the Gulf war coalition commenced a major humanitarian operation in the northwest of Iraq. In April 1991, the US, Britain and France started patrolling a no-fly zone north of the thirty-sixth parallel. That was an arbitrary line as well—in fact the Kurds set up fortifications along more natural borders like mountain ridges and rivers. In October, the Iraqi army withdrew entirely from the three northern provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Suleimaniya.

When Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003, the 12-year old de facto Kurdish border seemed obsolete. Since 1991, the Kurds had patrolled a green line corresponding to the boundaries of the provinces the Iraqi army had left. April 10 was a day of euphoria. Kurdish refugees, peshmerga and happy looters rushed across the green line into Kirkuk, where they replayed the now infamous scene in Baghdad’s Firdous Square—except that in Kirkuk, the Kurds knocked over Saddam’s statue without the assistance of a US tank.

The Kurdish parties kept up much lighter patrols along the green line until eid al-adha (the Muslim feast of the sacrifice) on February 1, 2004. On that day, two suicide bombers killed about 110 people in the city of Erbil. The next day the green line was up again. That night, unaccompanied Arabs were being arrested in Erbil. Outside the city toward the town of Makhmur, journalists saw peshmerga at a checkpoint rough up an Iraqi Arab journalist who had become indignant with them. The green line had never extended as far south as Makhmur, but the Kurds had decided that if they were going to set it up, they might as well move it out a few dozen kilometers first.

Now the green line may be here to stay. The formerly warring Kurdish parties have cut a deal among themselves and with the United Iraqi Alliance, which holds 140 seats in the new national assembly, whereby the PUK’s Jalal Talabani will go to Baghdad in the ceremonial post of president, and the KDP’s Masoud Barzani will run the autonomous provinces of Kurdistan. The president’s job may appear more prestigious, but many Kurds say all they want Talabani to do in Baghdad is defend their right to ignore the chaotic mess to the south of their green line. As president, Talabani also will have a say in where that line is finally drawn.

Redrawing the Lines

Having tasted autonomy since 1991, the Kurds living behind the old green line certainly will not give it up. But Kirkuk is not the only place where the parties are feeling pressure to extend the line southward. Another is the town of Kifri in what the Kurds call “warm country” at the southernmost tip of the Kurdish area. Since the 1970s, Kifri has been part of the province of Diyala, a mostly Arab region lying between Baghdad and the Iranian border and administered by a Sunni Arab governor. But 14 years of de facto Kurdish rule has made the town reluctant to change its ways.

Kurds in Kifri see no reason to be part of a province that includes trouble spots like the city of Baquba—where numerous US soldiers and members of the nascent Iraqi National Guard have been killed by insurgents. Even the Arabs in town tell reporters they would be happy to be permanently absorbed into the north. Nazha Hussein came to answer the door with her daughter. They have lived in Kifri for 20 years. They own another property south of here, but Hussein doesn’t want to leave. “My husband says we should go, but I still say no. Here is a better and calmer place,” she said. Her teenage daughter Iman listened modestly from the hallway a few steps back into the house. She shook her head when asked if she had ever traveled to central or southern Iraq, saying simply “infijar”—the Arabic word for explosion.

The governor of Diyala has been to Kifri a few times to assert his jurisdiction. At one point, he came to town accompanied by US soldiers who nearly ended up in a shootout with Kurdish fighters. The town has been quiet since then, but the atmosphere remains tense. Peshmerga at the city limits insisted on escorting visiting journalists to the mayor’s office. Kifri might be Kurdish on the ground, but it could be a fight in Baghdad to get any of the provincial lines redrawn.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of Kurdish families fleeing Hawija, west of Kirkuk near Tikrit, since 2004. The town is dominated by Sunni Arabs. Haybad Rostam and her 12 children fled Hawija in January, after graffiti appeared around town that read, “Kill the Kurds first, then the Americans.” “They threw threatening letters into our houses telling us to leave. Otherwise, we could be killed. At the end, when they killed my nephew and his friends, we decided to leave,” she said. Rostam says eight other Kurdish men were also killed. Along with hundreds of other Kurdish families, Rostam took her family to Kirkuk. Kurdish officials in Kirkuk corroborated Rostam’s version of events.

Rostam’s new house is in a neighborhood that in April 2003 was full of poor Shiite Arab families who, having been “imported” to Kirkuk by the old regime, were nervous that vengeful Kurds would evict them or worse. When asked who had lived in her house before she fled here from Hawija, Rostam said she did not know.

With their success at the polls on January 30, the Kurdish parties were able to drive a hard bargain with the United Iraqi Alliance, composed mainly of Shiite religious parties and their supporters. According to press reports on March 10, the Kurds have agreed to back the alliance's candidate, Ibrahim Jaafari of the Dawa Party, for prime minister in the new transitional government. In exchange, Talabani will assume the presidency, but the Kurds also claim to have wrung a territorial concession from the Shiite parties. “Regarding Kirkuk, we agreed that the first phase will be normalization,” PUK spokesman Azad Jundiyan told the Associated Press. “Normalization” is the word the Kurdish parties use to refer to returning displaced Kurds to their areas of origin. “As for annexation of the city, that will be discussed after the government is formed, while writing the constitution.”

Any official redrawing of provincial boundaries will have to be approved as part of the slated referendum on a permanent Iraqi constitution. But since PUK peshmerga rushed into Kirkuk in 2003, the Kurds have been creating facts on the ground in the disputed city. Kurdish businessmen from prosperous Suleimaniya and Erbil have carried out most of the reconstruction. With peshmerga now wearing uniforms of the Iraqi National Guard, it would not be difficult for the Kurdish parties to extend their green line down around Kirkuk—exactly what Turkey maintains is unacceptable.

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