The High Stakes in Iraqi Kurdistan
Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurds of northern Iraq, expressed defiance yesterday in the face of a threatened invasion by 100,00 Turkish troops, and was scornful of Turkey’s claim that it wants only to pursue Turkish-Kurd rebels.
“We are not a threat to Turkey and I do not accept the language of threatening and blackmailing from the government of Turkey,” he said from his mountain fortress of Salahudin 10 miles north of Arbil. “If they invade there will be war.”
Mr Barzani is President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the autonomous Kurdish area in northern Iraq which enjoys quasi-independence from Baghdad and has stronger military forces than half of the members of the UN.
He was in no mood to buckle under Turkish pressure to take military action against the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who have their hideouts in the mountain ranges along Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders with Iran and Turkey. “My main mission would be not to allow a Kurdish-Kurdish fight to happen within the Kurdish liberation movement,” he declared.
Mr Barzani said Turkey’s attempt to solve its Kurdish problem by military means alone had not worked in the past 23 years and would not work now. It was in 1984 that the PKK took up arms, seeking independence or autonomy from theTurkish state that refused to admit that it had a Kurdish minority of 15 million.
Mr Barzani also said that he was increasingly convinced that the Turkish objective was not the PKK but Iraqi Kurdistan, which has achieved near-independence since 2003. He said he was convinced Turkey’s claim that its target was the PKK “is only an excuse and the target is the Kurdistan region itself”. When the KRG put its peshmerga (soldiers) on the border with Turkey to control the areas where the PKK has sought refuge, Turkish artillery had shelled them, he said.
Mr Barzani appears to believe there is no concession he could offer to Turkey which would defuse the crisis because he himself and the KRG are the true target of Ankara.
Turkish military action might be largely symbolic with ground troops not advancing very far, but even this would have a serious impact on the economy of the KRG. The Iraqi Kurds would also be badly hurt if Turkey closed the Habur Bridge, the crossing point near Zakho through which passes much of Kurdistan’s trade. Some 825,000 trucks crossed the bridge in both directions last year. Asked what the impact of the closure of Habur Bridge would be on Iraqi Kurdistan, Mr Barzani said determinedly: “We would not starve.”
Turkish artillery is already firing shells across the border in the high mountains around Kani Masi, a well-watered border village in western Kurdistan, famous for its apple orchards. The shelling is persistent and is evidently designed as warning to the Iraqi Kurds. “We are afraid but we have nowhere else to go,” said Mohammed Mustafa, an elderly farmer.
For the moment, the villagers are staying put. Many of them in this area are Syriac Christians whose parents or grandparents emigrated to Baghdad but had returned recently because of fear of sectarian killing in the capital. Omar Mai, the local head of Mr Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party in Kani Masi, said that seven villages in the area had recently been shelled.
He said that there were no PKK in the villages and that they stayed permanently in the high mountains. Another reason for the PKK guerrillas making themselves scarce in this area is that there are Turkish outposts and garrisons already inside Iraq, set up during previous incursions. At one point near the village of Begova the snouts of Turkish tanks point menacingly down the road.
Driving to the top of a mountain where peshmerga were dug in, Mr Mai explained with some pride the intricate geography of the frontier. On one hilltop below us was the Turkish army, identifiable by the red Turkish flag, while a few hundred yards below the hill, separated by a flimsy fence, were Iraqi Kurdish frontier guards living in a long white barracks. In a grove of trees behind this building was a villa that was also occupied by Turkish troops.
Further north, hidden by folds in the mountains, are the Turkish guns that intermittently bombard this area. If the Turkish army does want to advance here there is not much to stop them, but it is unlikely that they would find any PKK, scanty in number and well-hidden in caves, in this vast range of mountains and valleys.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.