The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Iraqi Kurds:
Threatened with disaster ... once again

Dec 9, 2002

Along with George Bush's war cries against Saddam Hussein come Bush's promises of democracy for the people of Iraq. Part of the Iraqi population are the four million Kurds living in northern Iraq, whose two main leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, are often mentioned among the U.S.'s important allies in constructing a new regime in Iraq after the possible fall of Hussein.

The history of these two chiefs and the role played by the U.S. in northern Iraq, show what these promises mean – or, more exactly, don't mean.

During the Gulf War in 1991, two rebellions sprang up against the regime of Saddam Hussein, one by the Shiites in southern Iraq and one by the Kurds in the north. The U.S. gave Hussein his army back in order to keep the Iraqi population under control. U.S. troops stood by as Hussein crushed both rebellions, with much bloodshed.

The outcome was especially harsh for the Kurds. Hundreds of thousands of the Kurds had already been killed by the Hussein regime during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Fearing a repetition of this brutal repression, over a million Kurdish civilians fled north to Turkey. In the mountainous terrain, thousands of people, especially children and elderly, died from the cold, hunger and disease.

Having nowhere to go, the Kurdish refugees returned to northern Iraq where the U.S. had set up a "neutral zone" from which Hussein's troops were forced to withdraw. Barzani and Talabani, under the supervision of the U.S. and Turkey, set up a local administration. Since then, however, the situation for the population in northern Iraq has been anything but democratic or prosperous.

First of all, this is because the war in northern Iraq never ended. The U.S. and Britain continued air raids on this same Kurdish population under the pretext of enforcing a "no-fly zone" against Iraq. Turkey has also joined in, with air raids as well as periodic ground invasions, carrying out a fight against its own Kurdish population, which sometimes takes refuge in Iraq.

Secondly, together with the rest of Iraq, northern Iraq continued to suffer all the consequences of the U.S. economic embargo. Isolated and in a state of war for the past decade, northern Iraq's main economic activity has been the illegal trade of oil, smuggled goods and drugs such as heroin, carried out by the militias of Barzani and Talabani.

What about the prospects for the Kurdish people after a possible U.S. military attack on Iraq? When Barzani and Talabani raised the question of an independent Kurdistan in the areas controlled by them, the U.S. and Turkey both rushed in to object. Turkey has its own history of brutal repression against Kurds, who make up about one-fifth of the population of that country. The Turkish government began to move troops up to the frontier, to prevent refugees from crossing over into Turkey from Iraq. And the U.S. has made it clear it will not tolerate any effort by local authorities to redraw borders in the region. The two Kurdish chiefs quickly reversed themselves and said that all they wanted was to be part of a supposedly "new, democratic" Iraq.

One glance at Barzani's and Talabani's past actions is enough to see what they mean by "democracy" in the areas under their control. As wealthy heads of clans, these chiefs both have their own militias. For decades, each of them has repeatedly tried to gain advantage over the other by seeking the support of the different governments in the region, as well as the U.S. The result has been one disaster after another for Kurdish people. They have a long history of rivalry between themselves. And this rivalry several times escalated into civil war – as in 1996, for example, when thousands of Kurds were killed in the fighting between the two militias.

Quite obviously, a new U.S. attack on Iraq can only write a new episode of disaster for Iraqi Kurds, unless the Kurdish workers and poor can this time organize themselves and fight – not on behalf of the U.S. and their own chiefs, but in their own interest against them.