As If It Weren't Hard Enough Keeping the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds Together

News Abroad

Hakan Ozoglu is Ayasli Senior Lecturer in Turkish Studies, University of Chicago.

Despite the increasing frequency of suicide bombings and the general escalation of violence in Iraq, the administration and hopeful people everywhere are still optimistic that Iraq is heading towards becoming a democratic society. One reason offered in support of this hope is the relative stability and democratic traditions of the large Kurdish minority in northern Iraq, a strong U.S. ally since before the start of the war.

This optimism, however, is ill founded.

The problem of creating a united and democratic Iraq is more complicated than most appreciate. The assumption that there are three main groups in Iraq with conflicting interests -- the Kurds, the Sunni and the Shii – is not only simplistic, but dangerous. In reality the many fierce rivalries within these groups make the situation infinitely more complicated. One example of this is the Iraqi Kurds. While there is a tendency among outsiders to look at the Kurds of Iraq as one uniform body, this view does not acknowledge the numerous and significant divisions within Kurdish society. Despite the fact that the Kurds were the most loyal and reliable ally of the U.S. when both were united against Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Kurdish community is already too splintered to resist the centrifugal forces if Iraq ‘s security situation continues to deteriorate.

Two main Kurdish factions in Iraq compete for influence and power. While these factions present themselves as a united front, they are actually dominated by two rival tribes -- the Barzanis (KDP) and the Talabanis (PUK). Currently the leader of the latter, Jalal Talabani, serves as the president of Iraq, while the leader of the former, Masoud Barzani, is the president of Iraqi Kurdistan. As the American public’s support for Operation Iraqi Freedom wanes and some members of Congress begin discussing troop withdrawal from Iraq, these factions are positioning themselves for the power vacuum that would be created by an early departure of the U.S. army. Though Barzani supported Talabani’s presidency on the condition that he would control the Kurdish region, this was not a gesture of good will. It was a calculated political move aimed at benefiting from a probable power struggle in Iraq. Talabani hopes to be more visible to international powers as a choice for Kurdish leadership, knowing that Barzani commands a larger following in Iraqi Kurdistan. Barzani, on the other hand, hopes to consolidate his power not only in the region that was controlled by his tribe but beyond. If the U.S. leaves prematurely and creates a power vacuum, it is very likely that historic rivalries will re-emerge.

One should not forget that until very recently these groups and their well-armed tribal militias regularly attacked and killed each other with heavy guns and bombings. The death toll from these attacks rose to more than 4,000 Kurds from both sides. This number nearly matches the death toll registered after Saddam’s chemical attack in Halabja in 1988, which resulted in 5,000 killed. Proof of the deep distrust in the region came when Barzani’s KDP invited Saddam’s army to help crush the PUK two years prior to the Halabja massacre. Iraqi Kurdistan was far from being a tranquil place, a place that can set the example for the whole of Iraq. These events took place not in the distant past, but after the first Gulf War. Since then Barzani and Talabani have fought over sharing the $250,000 a day revenue generated by a tax Barzani levied on the Turkish trucks bringing goods to Iraq despite an embargo. One can only imagine what a conflict among the Kurdish factions would look like over sharing the billions of dollars in oil revenues that Kirkuk will surely generate.

Therefore, it is a great mistake to think of the Iraqi Kurds as one cohesive group and to ignore the internal divisions within it. Soon conflicting demands by the Kurds will require U.S, attention. Since it is impossible to please all sides, will the U.S. opt to displease them equally or support one side over the other, as was the case historically? Although Democrats are complaining about the administration’s lack of an exit strategy, it seems clear that no exit strategy can vindicate the U.S. in the eyes of many in and outside Iraq and keep a lasting balance not only among the Kurds, the Sunni and the Shii, but even among the Kurds themselves. These complications surely make the Kurdish issue a potential threat to the stability of Iraq in particular. But more importantly, since the majority of the Kurds live in other major Middle Eastern countries, such as Turkey, Iran and Syria, a possible conflict that involves the Kurds has the potential to set the region ablaze.

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