The Betrayal of the Kurds
by Phil Gaspar
Review, April 2003
A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle
reported that over 100 Kurdish exiles from northern Iraq now living
in California have volunteered for a Pentagon training program
to prepare them to accompany U.S. forces if and when they launch
an attack on Saddam Hussein's regime. "I speak English and
Arabic and Kurdish. I want to help," said one. Another urged
the U.S. to drop leaflets on Iraqi cities "making clear that
the Americans are coming as liberators."'
There is no question that the current
Iraqi regime has a brutal record of repression against many of
its own citizens, and in particular against the country's Kurdish
minority. Yet of all the reasons the Bush administration is offering
to justify its planned war on Iraq, perhaps the most cynical and
hypocritical is that it wants to end Saddam Hussein's human rights
violations. In fact, at the very moment that Kurds in California
were volunteering to help the U.S., Washington was negotiating
a deal with the Turkish government that betrays the fundamental
interests of Iraqi Kurds. The Washington Post reported that in
exchange for the use of Turkish bases, the U.S. government "promised
to prevent Kurds from imposing a federation-style government in
postwar Iraq that would ensure their continued autonomy"
and agreed to allow Turkish troops to occupy several hundred square
miles of northern Iraq "to prevent a flow of refugees into
Turkey and maintain stability and security in the region."
"Basically, the Kurds have been handed
over to the Turkish government," states Kani Xulam, director
of the American Kurdish Information Network. "The gains of
autonomy that the Kurds have made in northern Iraq [since 1991]
could well be lost. The Turkish military has depopulated thousands
of Kurdish villages and killed tens of thousands of Kurds over
the last 15 years. Northern Iraq could end up much like northern
Cyprus, which Turkey has illegally occupied for decades."
The deal may be scuttled by the Turkish government. Under tremendous
public pressure at home, it has refused to allow U.S. troops to
stage an invasion from Turkey into northern Iraq, though as ISR
goes to press they may be "encouraged" to reconsider.
The point is that the U.S. is perfectly happy to manipulate Kurdish
support when they need it, and then abandon the Kurds when it
In reaction, Kurds in northern Iraq have
vowed to resist any attempt by Turkey to invade. If the U.S. allows
Turkey to go to war against the Kurds in Iraq, "clashes would
be unavoidable," said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader.
Pawns in the great game
The Bush administration's callous abandonment
of the Kurds will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with
the long history of broken promises by both the United States
and Britain, Washington's principal ally in the current war drive.
Up until now it has been useful to talk about Kurdish freedom
for propaganda purposes, but the U.S. government has never been
serious about defending the rights of the Kurdish people.
The Kurds are the largest ethnic group
in the world without their own country. Their total population
is over 25 million, with about half living in Turkey and most
of the rest in Iran, Iraq and Syria. At the end of the First World
War when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Treaty of Sevres recognized
the Kurds' right to their own state and U.S. President Woodrow
Wilson pledged to support its creation within two years. This
promise, however, was soon forgotten, as Western powers competed
to control the region's oil supplies. British planes gassed and
bombed Kurdish villages in Iraq in order to enforce the borders
they wanted. "I do not understand this squeamishness about
the use of gas," wrote Britain's war secretary at the time,
Winston Churchill. "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned
gas against uncivilized tribes.... [W]e cannot in any circumstances
acquiesce in the non-utilization of any weapons which are available
to procure a speedy termination of the disorder which prevails
on the frontier." Meanwhile the Turkish government brutally
repressed its own Kurdish population, denying them freedom of
language and culture. Although this violated the peace treaty,
the Western powers supported the Turks who were seen as a vital
ally in preventing the spread of the Russian Revolution.
At the end of the Second World War, Kurds
in northern Iran briefly set up their own state, the Mahabad Republic,
which offered them a brief taste of freedom. But the government
in Tehran soon crushed this experiment, with the backing of the
U.S. and Britain. Qadhi Muhammad the republic's elected president,
was publicly hanged along with several other Kurdish leaders.
But the most cynical acts of betrayal
are more recent. In the early 1970s, as tensions between Iran
and its neighbor Iraq increased, the U.S. Secretary of State Henry
Kissinger agreed to support a plan devised by the Shah of Iran
to encourage an uprising by Kurds in Iraq. By 1975, Kissinger
had secretly channeled $16 million of military aid to the Kurds,
who believed that Washington was finally supporting their right
to self-determination. The following year, however, the Pike report,
issued by the House Select Committee on Intelligence, revealed
that the U.S. had never had any intention of supporting a Kurdish
Documents in the Committee's possession
clearly show that the president, Dr. Kissinger and the foreign
head of state [the Shah of Iran] hoped that our clients [the Kurds]
would nor prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents
simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources
of our ally's neighboring country [Iraq]. This policy was not
imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting.
At the 1975 Organization of the Petroleum
Exporting Countries (OPEC) summit, Iran and Iraq temporarily resolved
their border dispute. The Iraqi government was then informed that
U.S. support for the Kurds would be withdrawn, while the Kurds
themselves were kept uninformed about what was happening. Iraqi
forces immediately launched an aggressive campaign against the
Kurdish rebels. "The insurgents were clearly taken by surprise.
Their adversaries, knowing of the impending aid cut-off, launched
an all out search-and-destroy campaign the day after the agreement
[with Iran] was signed. The autonomy movement was over and our
former clients scattered before the [Iraqi] central government's
As Iraq wiped out the remaining rebels,
the Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani sent a message to Kissinger:
"Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable
way, with silence from everyone. We feel, your excellency, that
the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards
our people, who have committed themselves to your country's policy."
Kissinger, however, didn't even bother to send a reply.
According to the Pike report, "Over
200,000 refugees managed to escape into Iran. Once there however,
neither the United States nor Iran extended adequate humanitarian
assistance. In fact, Iran was later to forcibly return over 40,000
of the refugees and the United States government refused to admit
even one refugee into the United States by way of political asylum
even though they qualified for such admittance." As Kissinger
later explained to a Congressional staffer, "Covert action
should not be confused with missionary work." U.S. strategic
interests, in other words, were more important than mere moral
principles. "Even in the context of covert actions,"
concluded the Pike report, "ours was a cynical enterprise."
The cynicism continued in the 1980s. In
1979 the Iranian revolution had overthrown the Shah, whose brutal
regime had been a key regional U.S. bulwark for more than a quarter
of a century. The following year, Iraq invaded Iran, beginning
a bloody war that was to last until 1988. During the course of
the war, both Iran and Iraq carried out brutal massacres of their
own Kurdish populations. The U.S. and other Western countries
gave covert support to Saddam Hussein's regime, supplying Baghdad
with the materials to create chemical weapons and providing intelligence
reports that allowed them to be used against Iranian forces.
In 1988, as the war was winding down,
the Iraqi army carried out its murderous and now infamous gas
attacks on rebellious Kurdish villages, which it accused of aiding
Iran. In response, the U.S. Senate passed by a large margin a
bill calling for an end to U.S. military aid to Iraq and for other
mild sanctions. But these measures were vigorously opposed by
both the Reagan and Bush administrations, which called them "premature"
and "misguided," and the Senate bill was eventually
It was only after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait
in 1990 that Washington's concern for Kurdish rights suddenly
reappeared in the build up to the last Gulf War. George Bush Sr.
proclaimed Saddam Hussein the new Hitler and said the U.S. was
fighting to free the Iraqi population. At the end of the war when
Shiite Muslims in the south and the Kurds in the north rebelled
against Hussein's regime, the U.S. abandoned them, permitting
the Iraqi military to use helicopter gunships to crush the insurrections.
Washington preferred a unified Iraq under Saddam to successful
rebellions that would have broken the country up and thus strengthened
Iran. As Bush and his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft,
later explained: "While we hoped that popular revolt or a
coup would topple Saddam, neither the U.S. nor the countries of
the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state. We were
concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of
the Gulf." Once again, U.S. strategic interests had trumped
After the war, the U.S. and Britain unilaterally
established no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq, claiming
that these were intended to protect the Kurds and the Shiites.
But the real reasons were different. As Kurdish journalist Husayn
Al Kurdi writes, "It was clear from the beginning that the
'safe haven 'was an operation to provide cover as distinct from
'providing comfort,' as its early official designation implied.
It provided cover for CIA operations against Iraq and for Turkish
moves against the Kurds."
In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration
authorized the CIA to pursue a dual strategy that entailed fomenting
a popular uprising led by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and
Kurdish paramilitaries on the one hand, and seeking a coup from
above, to be engineered by ex-Iraqi officers organized in the
Iraqi National Accord, on the other. With CIA backing, the INC
launched an uprising in 1994, and in March 1995, seized control
of Mosul and Kirkuk in northern Iraq. The Clinton administration
withdrew support for the operation at the last minute, and it
(along with the attempted coup) was crushed by Iraqi troops at
the same time that Turkish troops invaded from the north. Meanwhile,
Saddam Hussein was able to play off the fratricidal rivalry between
the two main Kurdish organizations-the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
(PUK), headed by Jalal Talibani, and the Kurdistan Democratic
Party (KDP), headed by Massoud Barzani. With Iranian backing,
Talibani's forces attacked the KDP forces. Failing to get U.S.
support, Barzani requested assistance from Saddam Hussein, who
promptly invaded northern Iraq, taking over areas controlled by
the PUK (and then quickly withdrawing). Surviving remnants of
the Iraqi National Congress were forced to flee in a panic along
with their CIA backers. Not only did attempts by the CIA to use
the "safe haven" as a staging ground for "regime
change" fail miserably, they increased the vulnerability
of Kurds to both Iraqi and Turkish attacks and exacerbated inter-Kurdish
The U.S. has permitted the Turkish military
to cross the border and kill Kurdish guerrillas when it pleases.
For example, in 1995 Turkey sent "35,000 ground troops backed
by F16 jet fighters, paratroopers, tanks and helicopters...deep
into Iraqi Kurdistan, seizing a strip almost 30 miles long and
140 miles broad, and occupying [the town of] Zakho. Although the
invasion was a flagrant intervention of an internationally protected
area under Iraqi Kurdish control, the attack had the prior consent
of the Allies, foremost among them the United States." This
assault, the largest military operation that Turkey had undertaken
for 70 years, "immediately resulted in civilian arrests,
abductions and casualties among both Iraqi and Turkish Kurds."
Another major incursion took place in 1999 following the capture
of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers
Party (PKK), which at that time was engaged in a guerrilla insurgency
against Turkey's repression of its Kurdish population. These repeated
U.S.-backed invasions make a mockery of Washington's claim that
it is concerned about Iraq because it is a threat to its neighbors.
While Washington condemns Iraq for its
treatment of the Kurds, it supports Turkey's even more brutal
repression of its own Kurds. "The lot of the Kurds in Turkey,"
writes Tariq Ali, "where not even the Kurdish language is
permitted in schools and the army has displaced two million people
from their homelands in its war against the Kurdish population,
has always been worse than in Iraq, where-whatever Saddam's other
crimes-there has never been any attempt at this kind of cultural
annihilation. Yet as a valued member of NATO and candidate for
the [European Union], Ankara suffers not the slightest measure
against it, indeed can rely on Western help for its repression."
Until recently, Turkey was the third biggest recipient of U.S.
military aid, which it has used to kill over 30,000 Kurds during
the past two decades.''
Turkey's military operations in northern
Iraq have been intended not only to track down PKK guerrillas,
but also to destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan and prevent the emergence
of a full-fledged Kurdish state. Meanwhile, for the past decade,
Washington has tolerated limited Kurdish autonomy in northern
Iraq, while refusing to recognize the Kurds' right of self-determination,
because that would strengthen the struggle of Kurds in Turkey
for the same right and thereby weaken a key U.S. ally. Now, Washington's
new agreement with Turkey means that even limited autonomy for
the Kurds of Iraq will not survive. According to the British newspaper
the Independent, ordinary Kurds are terrified by the prospect
of a Turkish attack. "Only a week ago the main topic in the
streets among Kurds was Saddam and the fear of chemical attack,"
says Karim Sinjari, the Kurdish interior minister. "Now the
only thing people talk about is Turkey and the Turkish advance.
Weak leadership and antagonisms between
competing factions, often deliberately exacerbated by outside
intervention, have greatly weakened the Kurds' fight for freedom
over the past several decades. The Kurdish people will need to
rely on their own struggle, not Washington's false promises, in
order to win their liberation.
Phil Gasper is on the editorial board
of the International Socialist Review.
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