Kurd Sellout Watch, Day 39

They went and took Kirkuk. Now what?

“The United States could still sell the Kurds out—indeed, it will likely have to sell the Kurds out—if the Kurds seize Kirkuk unilaterally….To keep the Turks out, American troops must move quickly to seize Kirkuk. If the Kurds beat them to it, war could still break out between Turkey and the Kurds. Under those circumstances, it would not be a sellout for the United States to tell the Kurds, ‘Sorry, fellas, we aren’t taking sides.’”

—”Kurd Sellout Watch, Day 32,” April 3, 2003

The Kurds have seized Kirkuk, the oil-rich city they claim as the Kurdish Jerusalem. Chatterbox told them to stay out, lest Turkey make good on its promise to invade Iraqi Kurdistan under these very circumstances. But did they listen?

It isn’t yet clear how hard the Pentagon, which has been using the Kurds as its proxy army in northern Iraq, tried to keep the Kurds out. (A press release issued today by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two ruling factions, describes the seizing of Kirkuk as a “US-PUK operation” that was “dictated by military necessity.”) But it’s clear that the rest of the U.S. government wants the Kurds out. In today’s White House press briefing, Ari Fleischer said flatly, “Kirkuk … will be under American control. At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said, “It’s the firm U.S. position that no group should control Iraqi cities and oil fields,” which probably states things too broadly. (We’ve left control of the cities in Iraqi Kurdistan to the Kurds for many years.)

The good news is that Turkey has not gone to war with the Kurds. For now, the Turks seem satisfied merely to send military observers to Kirkuk. Also, Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK, said today, “I have ordered all the peshmerga to leave the city by tomorrow morning.” According to Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Turkey that if the Kurds don’t leave Kirkuk of their own accord, “the 173rd paratroopers brigade will go to Kirkuk … and force out those who have entered.”

The bad news is that the Kurds “have already appointed their own governor, and it appears clear they intend to remain in administrative control of the city,” according to Patrick Cockburn in the April 11 Independent. (As Chatterbox writes this, it’s April 11 in London.) The further bad news is an editorial on headlined, “Kurds Must Not Move Out of Kirkuk, The Capital of Kurdistan.” It says, “The question [to] the US is this: Why Turkey, one country that refused to help the US in the war against Iraq, should have any say in the future of Iraq?” That’s a disturbingly good question.

What if Kurdish troops don’t leave Kirkuk or, more likely, the Kurdish civilians now streaming into Kirkuk don’t leave, and the Kurds maintain civil control? Chatterbox hadn’t really thought this one through. He sees two options:

  1. We let the Kurds stay, tell the Turks we’re reneging on our deal to keep the Kurds out of Kirkuk, and let them know that this is their punishment for keeping U.S. troops out of Turkey during the past month. (They can keep the $1 billion grant we just promised them.)
  2. We make the Kurds leave, reminding them that they no longer need worry about Saddam Hussein, that they’ll finally enjoy some autonomy within the larger state of Iraq and that Kirkuk’s oil wealth belongs to all of Iraq. (This last would be true even if we let the Kurds stay.)

The first option has strong emotional appeal, both because the Turks have behaved badly and because it would be nice, for once, to see someone besides the Kurds get screwed. Strategically, though, it’s a pretty bad idea. Turkey is an important, if momentarily annoying, ally in the region and a secular democracy, which is hard to come by in that neighborhood. Also, it’s bad policy to double-cross a NATO ally.

The second option makes good strategic sense. If the Kurds leave, the Turks will calm down, and we can focus on finishing the war and reconstructing Iraq. But it feels bad. The Kurds provided the only indigenous support to this war, and it doesn’t seem very nice to make their reward the sacrifice of territory, especially since that sacrifice is being demanded by a third party whose conviction that its security is at risk may be unfounded.

Chatterbox can’t decide which to choose.

Kurd Sellout Archive:
April 3, 2003: Day 32
March 26, 2003: Day 24
March 25, 2003: Day 23
March 23, 2003: Day 21
March 21, 2003: Day 19
March 20, 2003: Day 18
March 17, 2003: Day 15
March 14, 2003: Day 12
March 11, 2003: Day 9
March 6, 2003: Day 4
March 4, 2003: Day 2
March 3, 2003: “How Screwed Are the Kurds?”