The impending withdrawal of US troops is raising a series of problems regarding future Kurdo-Arab relations and their still unresolved tensions.
In Kirkuk, the Combined Security Force (CSF), composed of American, Kurdish and Arab troops, which was formed to ensure the Province’s security, will gradually lose its American components to become solely composed of Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish Peshmergas by the end of 2011.
Drawing up a balance sheet of the CSF’s results, the US colonel Michael Bowers, responsible for advising the central government on North Iraqi strategy, considered that its effectiveness in the field was positive, as was the cohabitation of the Arab and Kurdish troops. However, there are logistic and financial problems that cast a shadow over the future of this multi-ethnic force.
So far cohabitation between Kurds and Arabs in this unit has, so far, been “overseen” by the United States. However, many fear that, after the departure of US troops, conflict between Irbil and Baghdad over Kirkuk and the other provinces claimed by the Kurds could undermine this cohesion.
Thus, at the end of August, Peshmerga units were deployed in the districts mainly inhabited by Kurds of Diyala Province, 55 Km North of Baghdad, to protect the Kurds living there who had been subjected to acts of violence linked to Iraq’s instability and inability to protect its population. The Kurdish bloc in the Baghdad Parliament, in a statement reported that about 500 Kurdish civilians had been killed and 1400 forced to flee in Diyala Province. Moreover, the Kurds, and in particular the PUK, that had ordered the Peshmergas’ deployment, pointed out that these attacks no longer come from terrorists but from Arab militia opposed to the proposed referendum that could eventually detach these districts to include them in the Kurdistan Region and are thus trying to “Arabise” Diyala. The members of Parliament even accuse units of the Iraqi Army of carrying out several attacks on Kurdish civilians.
In 2003, following the overthrow of the Ba’ath, the Peshmergas had ensured the security of Diyala and the request of the Americans. They were withdrawn in 2008, still at the request of the US, leaving the security of the province’s Kurds in the hands of the US troops and the Iraqi police and army. On 18 August the Speaker of the Kurdish Parliament stated that the withdrawal in 2008 had been “a strategic error”: “These areas are part of the Kurdistan Region, it is our duty to send Perhmerga units to save the lives of the citizens. We have asked that Peshmerga units be deployed in the Kurdish parts of Diyala and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan has responded positively”.
Consequently 7,000 Peshmergas took up their positions in the towns of Sadiya and Jalawla, in Khanaqin district, where the Kurds had suffered several attacks. According to the local press, they are heavily armed and some Kurdish religious clerics have even granted them exception from the Ramadan Fast.
The most recent statistics show that the number of Kurds living there has dropped since 2003 and that these areas have tended to become Arabised. In Jalawla, the Arab population has increased from 40% to 77% and in Sadiya from 37% to 82%. However, Jabar Yawar, the Peshmerga spokesman, states that this drop in Kurdish population is due to their dangerous situation, stating that 423 of the 555 people murdered in the region were Kurdish and that 629 Kurdish families had been threatened and obliged to flee in Jalawla and 64 in Qartaba.
Bloody attacks are continuing in Turkish Kurdistan. On 17 August, eight Turkish soldiers were killed by PKK guerrillas in Hakkari Province by two mines that exploded as an army convoy was passing. As a reprisal, the Turkish air force bombed “168 PKK objectives” in Turkish Kurdistan and crossed the Iraqi border to bomb, according to their official communiqué “85 PKK objectives and positions” in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the areas of Kharkurk, Qandil and Zap. Te Turkish armed forces haven’t crossed the border to attack PKK bases for about a year.
The human losses from these air raids are said, according to Turkish sources, to have been about a hundred deaths and 80 injured in the ranks of the PKK. They also claimed to have hit 14 facilities, 8 food and 1 munition depots nine anti-aircraft guns, 18 caves and 79 arms caches.
For their part, the Iraqi Kurds denounced a raid that was responsible for 7 civilian deaths in Kortek village in Qalah Diaah district of Sulrimaniyah Province. On 21 August, whole family, fleeing the bombing by car, was wiped out. Some shocking video pictures of the bodies and the wrecked remains of the car circulated round the Kurdish press, web sites and were also brandished during demonstrations in Irbil, while the Turkish press ignored the “collateral damage”.
Amnesty International demanded that the Turkish authorities set up an independent enquiry to clarify the death of 61 year-old Hussein Mustafa Hassan, his wife, Mer Haci Mam Kak, 43 years of age, his daughter Rezan Hussein Mustafa, and his two grand-daughters, Sonia Shamal Hassan (6 years) and Sholin Shamal Hassan (6 months), his son Zana Hussein Mustafa (11 years) and his niece Askar Khuzer Hassan (10 years).
For its part, the Iraqi government demanded the immediate end to these violations of its territory and protested against the civilian deaths.
Caught between two fires, the Kurdistan Regional Government again called for a bilateral cease-fire. Thus the former Prime Minister and present N°2 of the KDP, Nêçirvan Barzanî, in an interview to the Kurdish daily Rudaw on his return from Teheran, called on the PKK and PJAK fighters to lay down their arms.
“The Turkish government must follow and policy of democracy and openness. In the context of such a policy, the PKK must lay down its arms and undertake a civilian and parliamentary struggle in Turkey”.
In Turkey, the consequences of the war are being felt in political and civil life, by stirring up the Turkish man in the street against the Kurds and by inciting the Kurdish citizens to protest at the hardening of Ankara’s policy. Police repression of a demonstration at Çukurca (Selê), where the attack on the convoys had taken place, resulted in the death of a Kurdish local councillor, Yildirim Ayhan, a member of the BDP, killed by a tear gas grenade.
“The officers suddenly ordered the soldiers facing us to go into action. They began by firing teat gas grenades. One of these hit Ayham and we saw him collapse”, stated and AFP witness.
However, the military reprisals were not able to stop the fighting and, on 28 August, three soldiers and a village guard died when a remote controlled mine exploded as their vehicle was going over at Semdinli. Three other soldiers were wounded.
At Midyat, the night attack on a police station caused the death of a village guard and wounded three other members of the militia.
Samir Nashar, General Secretary and spokesman of the “Damascus Declaration for a democratic change” Syrian opposition group, founded in 2005, was interviewed by the Kurdwatch. He stated that the Kurdish question in Syria would not be ignored by the Arab majority, if it achieved power and that his movement was working on “a fair and democratic solution to the position of the Kurds”. “The Kurdish question in Syria in a national issue and must be resolved on a national scale” Samir Nashara stated, “in a new democratic, multi-facetted State and new civil status. Like all the other citizens, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian or Cherkassy, the Kurds are also Syrian citizens”. According to this member of the opposition, giving identical civil rights to all the constituents of the Syrian population will settle all problems. Questioned more specifically about these rights Samir Nashara raised the issue of the Kurds who had been deprived of their nationality, that of the access of Kurds to state employment and their right to the use of their culture, traditions and language and to have their own universities. Kurdish could even be the second official language in Syria and could have a preponderant status in the areas with a Kurdish majority.
In the issue of one of the demands made by certain Kurdish parties, namely the constitutional recognition of “Kurdish ethnicity” in Syria, Samir Nashara was more cautious, stating that he did not approve of an Assyrian or Kurdish nationalism that was not “Syrian above all else”. “Personally, I reject all nationalisms, even Arab nationalism. I would like the Arab and Kurdish nationalists to do the same. Some Arab groups fear that recognition of the Kurds as the second Syrian ethnic group could lead the Kurds to demand, at some future date, to secede from Syria so some form of self-determination or autonomy”. However, Samir Nashara said he was in favour of decentralising the Syrian State in favour of local organised forces in the various provinces.
Regarding the expropriations following the policy of the “Arab belt” in the Kurdish regions, the Syrian member of the opposition was more inclined to paying compensation to the injured owners rather than return of their property.
Finally, the wait-and-see attitude of some of the Kurdish parties regarding the Syrian revolution and the ambiguous attitude of some of them about joining the opposition and negotiating with the existing regime could have negative consequences for the Kurds after the fall of the Ba’ath, according and the Arab dissidents.
It is true that the Kurds in Syria are having difficulty in uniting round common action and a cleat political line. On 4 August, they announced they were preparing a conference to finally draw up a clearer strategy on their future role in the new Syria, but without having any unanimity about the holding of such a conference. Thus, of the 12 Kurdish parties, the Sawa Kurdish movement, one of the most active in the demonstrations, has declined to participate. “The Kurdish parties have not even clarified their position regarding the present Syrian regime. This makes us suspicious. WE hope that they will publicly announce their stand before holding this conference because, as far as we are concerned, we have finished with the Assad regime. Yet, despite this, some Kurdish parties are still talking about possible negotiations with this regime”.
Last June the Irbil Kurdish Parliament passed a law banning the practice of excision, after a several-year-long campaign by local and international NGOs for banning this practice. Thus WADI, a Kurdish-German NGO, with the support of the Kurdish government, has been travelling all over the regions of Iraqi Kurdistan to evaluate the extent of the practice of excision.
For the moment this NGO’s work has been on those Kurdish districts outside the Region, particularly Kirkuk but also in the rest of Iraq, where this practice, that had been presented as a specifically Kurdish tradition, could also affect the Arab population. Since Kirkuk Province is multi-ethnic and multi-denominational, it enables the NGO to form hypotheses about those Iraqi provinces where it is too dangerous to carry out enquiries.
Out of 100 interviews carried out in Kirkuk Province, it appears that 54% of the Sunnis practice circumcision while the Shiites and other religious minorities are hardly affected at all. It also appears that circumcision is mainly practiced in rural areas and very little in the town.
Regarding its extent amongst the Kurds, Arabs and Tucomen, it appears that 78% of the Kurds are circumcised as against 25% of Arabs and Turcomen. The Christians, be they Assyrian, Chaldean or Armenian are not affected by this practice at all.
Of those women who had been circumcised, only 2% stated that they wanted their daughters to have the same while 62% said they were against this. However, amongst the same group, 29% had already had their daughters excised, which suggests that there has been a very recent change of attitude — possibly due to the very active information campaigns of the Kurdish Region — despite the opposition of some very minority Islamist circles who oppose this ban.
The people inhabiting the area round Lake Urmiah are protesting against the refusal by the Teheran Parliament to redirect the flow of several streams to supply water to the world’s largest salt lake. This has been ecologically endangered by dams and by building motorways and bridges. Several demonstrations were repressed on 27 August by the anti-riot police, who used tears gas and charged into the marchers.
However, this ecological protest can cover more political tensions, particularly between the Kurds and Azeris, since both people share the banks of Lake Urmiah, which lies between the Provinces of West Azerbaijan (which includes the North of Iranian Kurdistan) and eastern Azerbaijan.
Mohammad-Javad Mohammadi-Zadeh, the Vice President of the Environmental Office, who runs the Environment Protection Organisation, accuses the local groups of “politicising” the defence of Lake Urmiah.
The demonstrations and clashes with the police are taking place in a tense political context in Iranian Kurdistan, at a time when the attacks on the PJAK bases are continuing outside Iran’s borders.
As for the Azeris, they are a Shiite ethnic group fairly well represented in the central authority, as many of the country’s present leaders are Azeris, including the Supreme Guide, Khamenei himself. However, some Pan-Turanian movements are constantly active in the country and look towards re-unification with the Azerbaijan Republic and the Turkic world.
Thus both peoples, Kurdish and Azeri, have often revolted against the Persian power centre, ever since the 1906 Constitutional revolution. Both proclaimed short-lived independent republics in 1946 with some Soviet support and both provinces were active opponents of the Shah of Iran during the 1979 revolution.