Apr 10, 2007

The Kurds and Turkey

Few months ago I came across a BBC feature on tourism in northern Iraq or what's now called Iraqi-Kurdistan (check out this video). Again last week I listened to a discussion on open source radio - one of my favorite podcasts - about Iraqi Kurdistan. The guests were Qubad Talibani the son the Iraqi president Jalal Talibani, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman Chairman of Kurdistan Development Corporation (KDC), Peter Galbraith a former US ambassador involved with the Iraqi-Kurdistan government.

The message was an upbeat one, Kurdistan is peaceful and is developing fast and investors are pouring into the region; that's not including the energy sector (the big oil companies need no invitation). Everyone who has been to the region seems to reach the same conclusion, Iraqi-Kurdistan is nothing like the rest of Iraq. The Kurds, one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without a country of their own; they are estimated at 27-37 million and divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. The Kurds have suffered greatly under Saddam.

The speakers talked about how the Kurds welcomed and still support the US invasion of Iraq. It makes sense because the Kurds, thanks to the Americans, were finally freed from Saddam's oppression. Iraqi Kurds made sure they had their own regional government which is, almost, completely independent from the rest of Iraq. Qubad Talibani expresses this:
When the U.S. came into the country, they were greeted as liberators, candy and flowers and food were thrown in the direction of our friends that came from afar. And I think that really created such a positive environment, to know that that danger against our people, the danger that was Saddam, was no more.
It's difficult not to be impressed with what the Kurds have achieved so far.

On independence, the speakers thought it was just a matter of time and formality before Iraqi-Kurdistan declares its independence. The problem is that Turkey was terrified from the onset about the possibility of Iraqi-Kurds declaring independence after the fall of Saddam but the speakers painted a different picture:
People imagine that Turkey is very negative towards Kurdistan, but in fact, in terms of foreign direct investment, Turkey is the largest single investor in the Kurdistan region, having invested up to two billion dollars in the region in the past few years.
Peter Galbraith goes a little further arguing that Turkey may not really have a problem with independent Iraqi-Kurdistan:
Among other Turks, there’s a recognition that maybe this isn’t such a bad thing for Turkey. After all, who are the Kurds? They’re secular, they’re pro-Western, they aspire to be democratic, and they’re not Arabs; in short, they’re very much like the Turks. And of course, if Kurdistan does become independent, it’s going to be dependent on somebody, and if the Turks play their cards right, that would be Turkey.
A Turkish diplomat I met sometime ago had a different view, he told me about how Saddam removed thousands of Turkman from Kirkuk, a hotly disputed city, by Saddam. But now thousands of Kurds were returning to the city to up their numbers and add the city to Iraqi-Kurdistan, something Turkey, the Turkman and the Arabs oppose.

Just few days ago Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani made this remark, threatening Turkey if they interfered in Kirkuk:
"Turkey is not allowed to interfere in the Kirkuk issue and if it does we will interfere in Diyarbakir's affairs and other cities in Turkey," Barzani told Al-Arabiyah television.

Diyarbakir is the largest city in southeast Turkey.
Needless to say that was a really bad move, this is how the Turkish prime minister responded:

They should be very careful in their use of words ... otherwise they will be crushed by those words ... Barzani has again exceeded the limits.
An even the State Department said the comments were "unhelpful". Ooops!

Contrary to what the speakers said, Turkey is worried about Iraqi-Kurdistan seeking independence, inciting the Kurds in Turkey or for Kirkuk to become part of Iraqi-Kurdistan autonomous region.

The Kurds are in a difficult position, none of the neighboring governments - that's Syria, Iran and Turkey - want to see independent Kurds in northern Iraq, and such comments can only damage the Kurd's newly found autonomy. Iraqi-Kurds don't want the Americans to leave but it seems that the majority of US population want US troops out. Again, the Kurds find themselves thin on friends.

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