The Kurds’ Way by Melik Kaylan

July 29, 2009 at 9:01 am | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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Comment: Melik Kaylan writes: “The Kurds flooded into Kerkuk and kept coming in the next two years until some 200,000 or more Kurds had moved into the city.”

In reality, over 600,000 Kurds, the great majority of whom were not originally from Kerkuk, have been transferred to Kerkuk since April 2003.

In order to change the demography of Kerkuk the  parties of the two Kurdish warlords Barzani and Talabani have given financial incentives and false identity papers to Kurds who are not originally from Kerkuk (some were brought  from Iran, Syria and Turkey) and have organized their transfer to Kerkuk.

The Kurds’ Way

Melik Kaylan, 07.28.09

Grandiose nationalism and demographic skullduggery.


The results of the elections that just took place last weekend in Iraqi Kurdistan could affect the stability of Iraq and, indeed, the entire region. The country is slowly sliding toward disaster.

These days, the issue that jeopardizes Iraqi stability more than any other–both in the short and long term–is not the threat from al-Qaida or the Sunni-Shiite split or the meddling of Iran. Those threats have faded for now. Instead it is the struggle over the fate of the city of Kerkuk that could spark a new civil war, one that could draw in Turkey, Iran and Syria. Neither of the two dominant coalition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan–the PUK and KDP–are offering to compromise with the central government in Baghdad over who rules oil-rich Kerkuk: the Kurds, or Iraq as a whole. The Kurdish elections have not altered that explosive standoff.

As things stand, the Kurdistan Regional Government, headed by President Masood Barzani, claims that the city falls within the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. They are, in effect, laying claim to the control of Kerkuk’s oil wealth. Baghdad, for its part, insists that the oil revenues must be distributed to the nation through the central government. The issue was booted into the future when the Iraqi constitution was drafted in 2005: The matter was to be decided by a national census followed by a referendum in Kerkuk by 2007.

Neither has happened. The Kurds would like to have the referendum already; everyone else, including the U.S., wants the referendum postponed until all parties have agreed on some sort of formula for power-sharing. This is because everyone knows who will win the referendum: the Kurds. (A very useful book on the subject, indeed on the future of Iraq in general, is How to Get Out of Iraq With Integrity, from the University of Pennsylvania Press. The author, Professor Brendan O’Leary, is a brilliant Irishman who worked on the Good Friday Accords to settle the conflict in Northern Ireland and then helped draft the Kurdish Constitution. He’s very sympathetic to the Kurds, but nobody’s perfect.)


Everyone believes, probably correctly, that the national census will show the Kurds have a majority of inhabitants in Kerkuk. The referendum’s outcome will reflect that. But everyone also knows that the Kurds cheated. They created facts on the ground soon after the U.S. invasion and the collapse of Saddam’s northern front. The Kurds flooded into Kerkuk and kept coming in the next two years until some 200,000 or more Kurds had moved into the city. They proceeded to purge various neighborhoods of their inhabitants. Arabs in particular flooded out, and many went to nearby Mosul to join the resistance, which partly explains why that city remains a powder keg.

The Kurds took over various municipal buildings in Kerkuk and burned tons of documents, such as land deeds and ownership records. Such details were hardly reported at the time. The world’s enlightened press collectively treated the Kurds as their chosen victim du jour–until the press turned against the war. At first the Kurds were said to be merely returning to Kerkuk, their rightful home. Then the numbers grew out of proportion. Saddam had pushed them out of the city forcibly from the 1970s onward and settled Arabs in their place. But nobody knew how many had actually lived there and for how long before Saddam had purged them. The Kurds clearly didn’t want anyone to know, hence the bonfires of documents. By the time the world press decided to take a second look, it was too late. The Kurds were fully installed.

I was in and out of Iraq during those years. Some weeks before the war started, I sneaked into Iraqi Kurdistan from Turkey and over into Saddam territory with money and a camera provided by CNN. I was perhaps the only Western journalist who didn’t have a Kurdish minder in Kurdistan and was therefore privy to all manner of Kurdish shenanigans unseen and unreported by others. I even filed a story for the saintly editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page. It was probably the only dispatch from the region in a Western newspaper that took a skeptical look at America’s valued tribal allies, particularly their leader Masood Barzani, whose family was still in cahoots with Saddam. The article predicted much of the trouble to come over Kerkuk.

There was, in the next few years, one group nobody wished to consult. This comprised the oldest inhabitants of Kerkuk, the Turkmen, whose ancient castle stood atop the central hill of Kerkuk, and whose old houses visibly testified to those who had lived there longest. But the Kurds, and the world press, had no time for the claims of the Turkmen, Iraq’s third-largest ethnic group; they were said to be Turkey’s fifth column within Kurdistan, spoilers, spies, whiners.

Nobody cared to note that this dismissal was precisely what the British had intended when they first carved out Iraq from the old Ottoman Empire after World War I. Not only did the Brits create Iraq’s borders out of thin air, they conducted a dodgy consensus to generate the results they needed. They invented a new ethnic group, the Turkmen, in order to downplay Turkey’s ethnic bonds and potential territorial claims to the region–an absurd artifice, as all Turks were Turkmen at some point in history. The Brits chose to imagine the Turkmen as tribal or nomadic, though the ones in northern Iraq were anything but. In Kerkuk, they were–and are–a highly literate, urbanized group, the Ottoman administrative class.

Ironically enough, Stalin followed this example by fragmenting the Turkic Silk Road region into pseudo-ethnic Republics, picking tribal names out of history and imposing them on newly drawn administrative zones: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and so forth. He then invented folk histories to suit his project, forcing these histories on the inhabitants.

Saddam openly modeled himself on Stalin: He too invented a retro-identity for the Turkmen, linking their history to the Soviet Republic of that name, and proceeded to indoctrinate his Turkic citizens of northern Iraq along the same lines. Nobody cared to know any of this as the Kurds inundated Kerkuk with settlers after the U.S. invasion. I remember a thoroughly ignorant female BBC correspondent riding at night atop a Kurdish truck into Kerkuk, drunk on adventure, shouting into the camera, “The Kurds are coming back home, for Kerkuk is a Kurdish city.”

When I returned to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s capital of Erbil three or four years later, I was astonished to find that the Turkmen were increasingly complacent over their lives under the Kurds. They were relatively well treated; there was enough work and minimal hostility. Compared with the full-scale civil war burgeoning elsewhere in Iraq, Kurdistan seemed idyllic. Women attended school. They more frequently adopted Western garb. Clean-cut students learned foreign languages. New construction rose all around. Sure, the two local ruling families of Barzani and Talabani (Jalal Talabani is Iraq’s president) had a hand in virtually every political and business transaction in the Kurdish zone. Indeed, this pervasive corruption ultimately gave rise to the new opposition party calling itself “Goran,” meaning “change,” which challenged the ruling duopoly in the recent elections.

It was certainly not Switzerland. The Kurds created pro-Kurdish puppet political parties of Turkmen to whom they allotted seats in Kurdistan’s parliament. Barzani kept making bellicose noises over Kerkuk, saying that if the referendum is not “implemented then there will be a real civil war.” The government kept announcing state-to-state diplomatic relations with various foreign countries, as if Kurdistan were an independent entity and not part of Iraq at all. Meanwhile, the Kurdish area nearer to Iran still maintained cordial ties to Tehran, as it still does. When Ahmadinejad made a state visit to Baghdad, he stood on a podium with President Talabani and called him “uncle Jalal.” (Talabani had been a client of the mullahs during the Kurdish civil war in the mid-1990s when his troops fought against Barzani’s, who was, in turn, supported by Saddam.)

The U.N. has worked on the question of Kerkuk for two years and recently came up with a confidential report. Only its general outlines are publicly known. The most workable solution they suggest, the one that’s least likely to cause instant strife, is the establishment of a neutral and separate province of Kerkuk with all the parties having a share.

It’s time to give the Turkmen a safe zone of their own. They suffered under Saddam as much as anyone, and Iraq owes them redress on many levels. Furthermore, the Kurds realize that whoever controls Kerkuk’s landlocked oil must make a pipeline deal with some nearby country, whether it be Syria, Turkey or Iran. None of those countries will suffer a new and independent Kurdish state to survive, one that’s afloat in sufficient oil money to stir up trouble with their own Kurds. They will demand impossible conditions for allowing Kerkuk oil through.

The Iraqi Kurds’ Western allies would certainly prefer that they do business with Turkey, and the Turks will demand that Kerkuk remain free of Kurdish rule. The West now also realizes that encouraging the grandiose nationalist dreams of Barzani and his ilk has been a mistake. It has brought Iraq to the brink of a new dissolution.

The Kurds have done very well, and bless them for it, but they remain a fractious bunch. They should recognize that they’ve just lived the best 10 years of their divided history since the days of Pax Ottomanica, and they should step away from the edge. They should look around and note that virtually no state in the world with control of oil gets a good night’s sleep. Literacy, educated women, hard work, free enterprise and transparent institutions are better than oil, especially if they want continued support from Western countries invested in Iraq’s stability. The Kurds don’t need to dominate and manipulate other ethnic groups, and they don’t need to be surrounded by enemies. The last thing they need is control of Kerkuk.

Melik Kaylan, a writer based in New York, writes a weekly column for Forbes. His story “Georgia in the Time of Misha” is featured in The Best American Travel Writing 2008.

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