Kurd Sellout Watch, Day 310

The luck of the Kurdish.

The Kurds, once one of the unluckiest ethnic groups in the world, today look like one of the luckiest. Time and again throughout 2003, the Bush administration was poised to sell the Kurds out. But it never happened. A U.S. plan to allow Turkish troops into Iraqi Kurdistan in exchange for basing rights north of Iraq would have very likely sparked a war between Turkey and the Kurds. But at the last minute, it was averted by the Turkish parliament’s refusal to approve U.S. basing rights. (This was a rare opportunity to be grateful for President Bush’s maladroit diplomacy.) Then Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly promised the Turks could send troops in exchange for allowing U.S. military planes to fly over Turkey on their way to bombing Iraq. But if such a promise was made, Powell apparently reneged on it; the Turks continued to stay out. Then the Kurds seized the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a move that Chatterbox feared would give the Turks an obvious pretext—unchallengeable by the United States—to attack the Kurds in the name of defending the local Turkmen population. Chatterbox was wrong. The Kurds took Kirkuk and kept it, and though there was some fighting (which continues), Turkey didn’t invade. Then the Bush administration—whose rejection of multilateral governance for newly liberated Iraq left it with a severe shortage of peacekeeping manpower—asked Turkey to pitch in. The Turks assented. But the Iraqi Governing Council, the body created by the United States to run Iraq, raised holy hell about it, and both Turkey and the United States backed off. Taken together, all these events conspired to shift the cosmic balance to favor the Kurds.

Of course, it wasn’t just luck. The Kurds had been the only indigenous Iraqi group to take up arms against Saddam’s regime during the U.S. invasion, and after Baghdad fell, Iraqi Kurdistan was the only region in Iraq that had a functioning (and democratic) civil society, thanks to its protection from Saddam’s army during the previous decade by the no-fly zone. The Kurds were the only people in Iraq who were completely unguarded in expressing their gratitude to the United States for setting them free. And in Iraq right now, the United States can use every friend it’s got.

Peter Galbraith, a senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation and a longtime advocate for the Kurds, has pointed out a few additional (and less widely known) benefits the Kurds managed to reap. Kurdish fighters were “quietly exempted” from the American occupiers’ demand that Iraqi citizens disarm. They were also allowed to maintain security checkpoints along their southern border with the rest of Iraq. Most surprising of all, the Kurds got themselves exempted from laws passed by the Iraqi Governing Council; such laws take effect in Iraqi Kurdistan only if the Kurdistan Assembly approves them.

Now, Steven Weisman reports in the Jan. 5 New York Times, with Iraqi self-rule due to be established on June 30 according to a newly expedited timetable, there is “no time to change the autonomy and unity of the Kurdish stronghold of the north, as many had originally wanted.” Whatever quarrels the United States may have had with the Kurds’ current quasi-independence must be set aside in the interest of getting the rest of Iraq ready to govern itself.

America’s quick exit from Iraq may not be entirely good news for Kurdish semiautonomy. Al Jazeera, citing “a source close to the Kurdish bloc in Iraq’s Governing Council,” reports that Jalal Talabani and Massud Barzani—leaders, respectively, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party—are troubled that U.S. administrator Paul Bremer won’t approve any particular plan outlining the terms of Kurdish self-rule before he turns the reins over to the Iraqis. The Al Jazeera report has the anonymous source (very possibly Talabani or Barzani) saying that expansive opportunities for Kurdish self-rule will likely be more difficult to wrest from Iraq’s two other dominant ethnic groups, the Shiites and the Sunnis, than from the Americans.

But Galbraith says that isn’t necessarily true. “The Kurds are in the position of being king-makers,” he explained to Chatterbox earlier today, because “both sides want their support.” Indeed, Galbraith argues, the Kurds have already obtained substantial leverage from the intense political rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites. Moreover, Galbraith argued in a November essay for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Arab Reform Bulletin, the Kurds have created “facts on the ground” that the passage of time makes harder to undo. To this Chatterbox must add that every dire prediction the “Kurd Sellout Watch” has made about the fate of the Kurds has thus far proven untrue.

Kurd Sellout Watch Archive:
Nov. 8, 2003: Day 251
Oct. 24, 2003: Day 236
Oct. 20, 2003: Day 232
Oct. 7, 2003: Day 219
July 27, 2003: Day 147
July 23, 2003: Day 143
May 16, 2003: Day 75
May 1, 2003: Day 60
April 25, 2003: Day 54
April 23, 2003: Day 52
April 18, 2003: Day 47
April 10, 2003: Day 39
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?”