It has been a long and tortuous journey for Iraq’s Kurdish minority. Formerly holding positions far exceeding their estimated 17 percent of the country’s 23 million population, the Kurds had a rocky relationship with Saddam Hussein. Their national impact was further weakened by sharp conflict between two distinct Kurdish camps, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic party.
Major efforts to resolve intra-communal differences and a strongly shared desire for democracy expressed at the London conference of opposition groups in January point to removal of the ethnic enmity effectively created by the Baathist regime and a corresponding renewal of mutual respect of the various communities for each other. It appears that their lonely winter of discontent is coming to an end.
Since the country’s creation 80 years ago, Iraq’s ethnic, religious and tribal groups in the country existed in relative peace until the Baath regime adopted a divide and rule approach to governance Sabdul Karim Kassem, president following the military coup that deposed King Faisal in 1958, was the son of Kurd and Sunni parents, not an irregular situation prior to the first Baath government takeover in 1963.
Efforts to sow division among the country’s many ethnic and religious groupings, and to create inter-tribal rivalry, succeeded in pitting group against group, with the Kurds dividing into contending camps. War between the PUK and KDP effectively drained the Kurdish position, as well as the ability either to retain a viable position with Iraqi society or to create an independent Kurdistan.
Pragmatism drove the PUK led by Jalal Talabani and the KDP of Masoud Barzani to agree to an American-sponsored peace accord in September 1998, and the two sides have progressively brought their organizations together in a demonstration of unity that has surprised none more than the Kurds themselves. There has been a marked decrease in strife between the two groups, despite serious economic problems, although tangible steps like election of a parliament and revenue sharing remain to be accomplished.
Most encouraging to Iraqi opposition groups have been the evidently sincere calls by Kurdish leaders to maintain the nation’s territorial integrity at Washington’s urging, simultaneously foregoing earlier calls for independence, a reassuring move to neighboring Iran, Syria, and Turkey, countries with large Kurd minorities. At the same time, virtually all Iraqi entities are concerned with Turkey’s intentions about the country’s northern area, particularly following Turkish army units moving into the Suleimaniya area during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In fact, it appears Turkey feared that its 12 million Kurdish minority would be attracted to join any move to independence by Iraq’s 4 million Kurds.
Both Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani have given assurances that their stated objective of a federated Iraq reflects their desire for a degree of devolved authority for the Kurdish community, and is not a veiled move towards an independent state. Ultimate acceptance of the Kurd leaders’ explanation is a measure of all opposition groups’ desire for establishment of a democratic, representative government.
— Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian and journalist who currently serves as editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat and journalist. He has lived in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh, and reported extensively during and after the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War. This was originally written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.