Excerpt: “Turkey is the most congenitally hostile to the notion of a Kurdish identity, more even than President Saddam. It is the main reason the Kurds fly no flag: they took it down in the one official place it did fly, flanking a portrait in parliament of the late Mustafa Barzani, the hero of the Kurdish struggle, when a Turkish delegation visited.”

Those words were published in August 2001. The Kurdistan flag, which is quite commonly flown today, began flying publicly in early 2003 before the US-led March invasion, most noticeably in communities along the border when Turkey threatened to invade for “humanitarian purposes”.

A graduate of Oxford and the American University of Beirut (AUB), David Hirst is a veteran Middle East journalist who reported for The Guardian for over 30 years. He has been very familiar with the Kurdistan situation for decades.

Throughout most of the 1990s and up to the 2003 war when Iraq was under international trade sanctions, the Kurdistan Region was isolated from the rest of the world. Public Internet service began in late 1999, limited to very few who had computers and a working telephone landline connected to an outdated clickety-clackety, electromechanical exchange with no spare parts. Internet service was dial-up, extremely slow, very expensive, and problematic.

Erbil Governor Nawzad Hadi was directly involved in installing the first (probably) digital exchange in Iraq, in Erbil, under sanctions, which was creatively imported.

International telecommunications were severely limited to a few high cost satellite (INMARSAT) systems. In the early 1990s analog, luggage-sized systems cost $50,000 and $10 per minute to operate. Later, in the late 1990s, digital, laptop-sized systems brought the cost down to $3,000 and $2 per minute to operate.

Making an international call meant going downtown to a shop with an INMARSAT system. In Duhok, it meant a drive out of town toward Zawita and up a mountain (above Bablu village) to a few parked vehicles with long-range booster equipment that tapped into the Turkish cellphone system.

In Zakho, it meant going to a phone booth on the border that was connected to the Turkish landline telephone system. During the earliest days after the 1991 war, citizens of Erbil would make the 8-hour journey to the border booth to talk with friends and relatives abroad.

It was a backroad journey to avoid Iraqi (Saddam’s) security forces. Much of the road was unpaved and the Qandil Bridge did not yet exist. As time went on, NGOs, UN Agencies, and the KRG improved the roads and installed bridges, and the journey was reduced to 4-5 hours.

Throughout the 12-year period from 1991 to 2003 access to the Region was severely limited. There was virtually no air service into or out of anywhere in the country.

While there were a very few, rare exceptions, Turkey did not allow anyone to enter the Region via its land border unless they were Iraqi citizens with valid Iraqi passports, or, if they had only foreign passports, they could prove they were born in Iraq.

Because valid passports for Iraqi citizens in the separated, autonomous Region were impossible to obtain, many traveled on creative passports that some countries, understanding the situation, accepted.

Non-Iraqi UN staff entered Iraq with official Iraqi visas overland on a 12+-hour road journey from Amman to Baghdad on what must be (was?) one of the finest, and fastest, highways in the world. Then another approximately 4 hours by road up to Erbil. Non-Iraqi NGO staff entered the Region under special arrangements with the Syrian Government via Damascus, then an hour and half $20 (twenty dollars!) plane ride on a dilapidated Yak-40 north to Qamishly, then a 2+-hour trip through backroads to the Tigris River.

A rickety motorboat ride across to Faishkhabur meant that if the outboard motor failed midstream the fast current would deliver the boat’s contents into the hands of Saddam just a few hundred meters downstream.

Iran did not allow non-Iraqis to enter the Region either, except very few, rare exceptions. With all four neighbors severely restricting access, a lot happened in the Region during the 12-year (1991-2003) period that failed to reach the outside world.

For instance, all four neighbors invaded the Region, including Syria that harbored and supported the PKK that destroyed and forcibly evacuated dozens of communities. These communities had been reconstructed and resettled with assistance from UN Agencies, NGOs, and the KRG after being earlier destroyed and forcibly evacuated by the Saddam regime.

Iran invaded with missiles, rockets, and heavy artillery. Turkey invaded many times, sometimes by over 30,000 troops with full-on military equipment including tanks and fighter-bombers, even landmine laying equipment.

Journalists for sure were not allowed in.

After all this, in the midst of all this, in 2001 veteran journalist David Hirst showed up in the Kurdistan Region, via Iran. He has a history of getting into, and out of, extremely difficult situations. His articles from those times are below. So, what’s changed since then?

David Hirst’s observations over a decade ago are stunning. And so are his latest, also below.


The National Abu Dhabi, UAE  6 Aug 10

David Hirst: the voice of reason in Middle East journalism


Here’s a question for you: who is the British journalist who has lived in Lebanon for decades, knows the region inside and out, writes weighty and influential tomes about regional politics, takes positions that are controversial in the United States and is not terribly fond of Israel? Most people would point to Robert Fisk, the hot-headed correspondent for The Independent, who has been lionised (and demonised) for his jeremiads against American and Israeli policy. But Fisk isn’t the only ageing Briton to have made Lebanon home: David Hirst, in fact, has been there longer, written more books, and – among journalists, anyway – attracted more admiration than the divisive Fisk. Hirst is one of the most respected journalists of his generation, recognised by his peers as an eminently meticulous chronicler of Middle Eastern affairs.

In his recent memoir, Dining with al Qaeda, Hugh Pope – another veteran foreign correspondent in the region – says Hirst was one of the correspondents he respected most, particularly after witnessing a scene in which Hirst, “a slight and utterly unphysical man, evaded his would-be kidnappers in the vital first few minutes by kicking and shouting as they tried to force him from the street into a basement.”

Hirst’s demeanour – a slight frame, donnish oversize spectacles on a round head, a quiet, lilting voice and a very English self-effacement reminiscent of John LeCarré’s unlikely spymaster, George Smiley – is also the opposite of Fisk’s. Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East correspondent for The Economist, says:, “David is the kind of person who will stay silent throughout an animated political conversation for an hour, and then quietly come out with a statement of devastating insight.” Still waters run deep, it seems, and Hirst’s writings betray a quiet but relentless outrage on behalf of the region he has made his home for over half a century.

Born in 1936 to a middle-class family in England, educated at Rugby, a posh boarding school, at 18 Hirst was sent to do his military service (then still compulsory) in Egypt and Cyprus. Living there between 1954 and 1956, he took the opportunity to travel around the Levant, leaving shortly before the Suez War. “I was a blank slate,” Hirst recalls. “I knew nothing about the Middle East and hardly knew the difference between Israelis and Arabs.”

Nonetheless, he must have caught some bug. After completing a degree at Oxford, he decided to return to Lebanon, enrolling at the American University in Beirut in 1959, and stayed there when he was offered a job as The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent. “In those days, it was a natural progression,” Hirst says of his move from the university to the press. Lebanon was “the listening post of the region,” and he became fascinated by Arab politics. He would also go on to visit almost every country in the Middle East, get banned from six of them and escape two kidnap attempts. But it may be his coverage of the region’s framing story, the Arab-Israeli conflict, that has had the most lasting influence.

At the time, The Guardian was a left-of-centre newspaper with a middle-class perspective, in contrast to the more establishment Times or Telegraph; it had just moved from Manchester to London. Hirst filed his first dispatches to a foreign desk that was still in the northern industrial town, the move still incomplete. The paper was generally pro-Israel, as the British left tended to be at the time, but its new correspondent would play a key role in changing his country’s perception of the region.

The Gun and the Olive Branch, Hirst’s first book, was a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Published in 1977, it was received to a “puzzling silence” in the UK and US and derision by the few reviewers who dared to take a look at it – in part because it came out just after the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem. The New York Times even canned a positive review, on orders from on high. Hirst’s sin was to have recounted, in great detail, the story of the Zionist project as it had been experienced by the Arabs who necessarily suffered from the ambition to carve out a Jewish state in Palestine. At the time, such criticism of Israel was unheard of in the West, with affection and admiration for Zionism and the narrative of a plucky little state, triumphant against multiple Arab armies only a decade beforehand, the dominant orthodoxy.

As Hirst says in a long essay introducing the third edition – The Gun and the Olive Branch having since become something of a modern classic – he had “set out to ‘tell the other side of the story’, for the simple reason that, as it seemed to me, it had not been properly told, or won anything like the attention it deserved; I wanted to help redress a balance that was strongly, if not outrageously, tipped in the opposite direction.”

More than this, Hirst can claim to have blazed a trail where others – notably Israel’s “New Historians” would follow. The nature and extent of Palestinian and Arab suffering at the hands of Israel and the profound destabilisation engendered by the Zionist project are now fairly well understood, and even in the United States it has recently become more permissible to counter the dominant pro-Israel narrative.

In his second book, a biography of Sadat (written with Irene Beeson), Hirst argued that Egypt had sought peace with Israel at the expense of a wider regional resolution to the conflict. The book echoed Arab perceptions of Sadat’s “betrayal” of the Palestinians, a view practically absent in the West – particularly when the book was published, shortly after Sadat’s assassination, when he was still glorified as a martyred peacemaker. That view of Sadat still persists today, but time has caught up to Hirst’s argument, and it is increasingly common to hear laments that Sadat – who originally sought a comprehensive peace deal – mistakenly settled for a bilateral deal or was misled by his Israeli counterpart, Menachem Begin, who was never interested in dealing with the Palestinian question.

The roots of the Hirst’s latest book, Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East, came in late 2006, after the war between Hizbollah and Israel that ravaged Lebanon. A publisher asked Hirst to write something on that sad episode, but he demurred. “I quickly gave up the idea, and kept thinking instead of a phrase I had once read: ‘Beware of small states’. I looked for the source but did not find it until I searched for it in French, and found out it had been written by Bakunin.” With that guiding idea in tow, Hirst wrote yet another broad history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this time from the perspective of his adopted home, Lebanon.

The warning to which Hirst refers was enunciated by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in 1870, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war, which would lead to the unification of Germany. “Beware of small states,” Bakunin wrote, eyeing the German advances, “that are unfortunate enough to possess Germanic minorities in their midst, such as the Flems.” Bakunin’s context does not transpose straightforwardly to the Middle East, but his warning against the exploitation of identity politics does have resonance.

Before the Great Palestinian Rebellion of the late 1930s galvanised Arab opinion against them, the early Zionists sought an alliance with Lebanon’s Maronites, with whom they shared a nervousness about being surrounded by Muslims. Lebanon, a country that now does not even officially recognise Israel, then published tourist guides in Hebrew, and Zionist leaders dreamed it could become “a listening post and propaganda platform for the whole Arab world”. The dream of an Israel-Maronite alliance persisted until 1982, when it expired amid the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the massacre, by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies, of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Chatila.

But Lebanon’s weakness is only one part of the story. For Hirst, the history of Israel has been one of consistent aggression, driven by the need to reassert its “deterrent power” – the ability to inflict wrath on its enemies as to make any resistance not just futile, but positively suicidal. This, at least, has been Israel’s standing theory of war since Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall. Its current iteration, the Dahiyeh Doctrine – elaborated in Lebanon in 2006 and fully deployed, to results chronicled in the Goldstone Commission’s report, in Gaza in 2009 – offers much of the same.

Beware of Small States ends with both a warning and a glimmer of optimism. The warning is that the next conflict in Lebanon – what he dubs the “seventh Arab-Israeli war” – will not be confined to the country. With the prospect of a strike against a nuclear installation, Israel’s refusal to discuss the comprehensive peace offered by the Arab League and Iran in 2002, and Iran-backed non-state actors such as Hizbollah and Hamas showing a resilience and defiance long beaten out of the now mostly “moderate” Arab states, the next war may be the first regional one since 1973. This pessimism is only moderated, in the book’s epilogue (written in 2009), by a cautiously positive reception of the Obama administration’s initial moves in the Middle East.

Speaking last week from Beirut, Hirst tempered that optimism. “Obama has turned to be something of a disappointment,” he said resignedly. “He seems to have abdicated and now follows the same failed pattern.” Hirst has said his piece – and he’ll leave it to others to kick up a fuss.

Issandr el Amrani is a writer and analyst based in Cairo. He blogs at

The Daily Star (Beirut)

24 Dec 12

A Kurdish state is being established, and Baghdad may accept it

By David Hirst

I was surprised last week to read an article in the Baghdad newspaper Al-Sabah, by its editor Abd al-Jabbar Shabbout, suggesting it was time to settle the “age-old problem” between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds by establishing a “Kurdish state.” For never before had I heard so heretical a view so publicly expressed in any Arab quarter. And this was no ordinary quarter either. Sabah is the mouthpiece of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Shabbout went on to suggest a negotiated “ending of the Arab-Kurdish partnership in a peaceful way.” He called his proposal Plan-B – Plan-A being what was already in train: namely, a continuous “dialogue” between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish regional government, conducted within the framework of the “new Iraq” – constitutionally defined as “federal, democratic and parliamentary” – that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.

But Plan-A, Shabbout observed, was going nowhere. Differences – over power and authority, oil and natural resources, territory and borders – were so profound that dialogue had repeatedly failed. And this month it almost came to war. For a while the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga faced each other across the frontiers between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq in an atmosphere so tense, noted Shabbout, that hostilities could have broken out at any moment.

And it wasn’t only Shabbout, but Maliki himself, who warned that if war did break out it wouldn’t be just a war between Kurdish rebels and Baghdad, as it used to be under Saddam. It would be an “ethnic war between Arabs and Kurds.”

Be it Plan-A or Plan-B, war or diplomacy, the latest, dangerous standoff has made one thing clear: the “Kurdish question” has now reached another critical stage in its long history, and it is intimately bound up with the regionwide cataclysm that is known as the Arab Spring.

It was ever thus for the Kurds, their destiny as a people always shaped less by their own struggles than by the vagaries of regional and international politics, and particularly by the great Middle Eastern upheavals regional and international politics periodically produce. These began, in modern times, with World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement Britain and France promised Kurds a state of their own, but then reneged on that promise. Kurds became minorities, more or less severely repressed, in the four countries – Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria – among which their vast domains were divided. They repeatedly rebelled against this new order, especially in Iraq. But their landlocked location and their broader geopolitical environment were always against them. Their rebellions were invariably crushed – the last one, under Saddam Hussein, through genocide and the use of chemical weapons.

But they never ceased to dream of independent statehood. And the first of two great breakthroughs toward this grew out of the megalomaniac folly of Saddam himself, with his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. One of the entirely unforeseeable consequences of this was the establishment of an internationally protected “safe haven” in northern Iraq that enabled Kurds to take their first state-building steps, in the shape of a regional assembly and a degree of self-government.

The second breakthrough grew out of that whole new constitutional order which the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 ushered in. Under it, the Kurds consolidated their already existing autonomy with broad new legislative powers, control over their own armed forces, and some authority over that mainstay of the Iraqi economy, namely oil.

From the outset, the Kurds had made it clear that they would only remain committed to the “new Iraq” if it treated them as equal partners, and not, as before, a subordinate minority.

It wasn’t long before this ethno-sectarian, power-sharing democracy began to malfunction, and to generate those disputes no amount of dialogue could resolve. And as these disputes deepened, they only intensified the Kurds’ yearning for independence – and their practical preparations for it. Openly or surreptitiously, they began accumulating constitutional, political, territorial, economic and security “facts on the ground,” designed to ensure that, if and when they proclaimed their new-born state, this entity would have the means and ability to stand on its own feet, to thrive and to defend itself.

So are the Iraqi Kurds now on the brink of their third, perhaps final, breakthrough, the great losers of Sykes-Picot about to become, 90 years on, the great winners of the Arab Spring? They themselves certainly hope so. “Not only is Iraqi Kurdistan undergoing an unprecedented building boom,” reports Joost Hiltermann in the American magazine Foreign Affairs, “its people are now articulating a once-unthinkable notion: that the day they will break free from the rest of Iraq is nigh.” And Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani often openly alludes to this possibility. “We have had enough,” he says, of the “the dictatorship in power in Baghdad” and of the Kurds’ participation in it.

It seems, however, that he awaits one last thing before taking the plunge, another of those game-changing events – such as the breakup of Syria – that can transform the whole geopolitical environment in the Kurds’ favor. But the quarter in which Kurds are actively looking to bring this change about is in Turkey. That they should even think of this is, historically speaking, extraordinary, considering that, of all the Kurds’ neighbors, Turkey probably has most to lose from independence-seeking Kurdish nationalism, and has brutally repressed it in the past. Considering, too, that ever afraid that Kurdish gains elsewhere may be a progenitor of Kurdish aspirations in Turkey, Ankara has long set great store on Iraq remaining united, with its Kurds an integral part of it.

But since 2008, in a complete reversal of earlier policy – which had once been to boycott Kurdistan altogether – the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pursuing “full economic integration” with Iraqi Kurdistan. Meanwhile, its relations with the Iraqi government have been relentlessly deteriorating, with the two now on opposite sides of the great Middle Eastern power struggle that pits Bashar Assad’s Syria, Shiite Iran, Maliki’s Iraq, and Hezbollah against the Syrian revolutionaries, most of the Sunni Arab states and Turkey itself.

Under pressures from this struggle, Turkey’s extraordinary courtship of Iraq’s Kurds has continued to bloom, and to move from the merely economic to the political and strategic as well. In fact it has moved so far – the Kurds believe – that Turkey might soon break with Maliki’s essentially Shiite regime altogether, and deal separately with those two other main components of a crumbling Iraqi state, the Arab Sunnis and, more importantly, the Kurds.

The allurements that an independent Kurdistan could proffer in return would include its role as a potential source of much-needed, abundant and reliable oil supplies, as a stable, accommodating ally and buffer between it and a hostile Iraq and Iran, and even – in a policy option as extraordinary as Turkey’s own – as a collaborator in containing fellow Kurds, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Having established a strong presence in “liberated” Syrian Kurdistan, the PKK is now seeking to turn this territory into a platform for reviving the insurgency in Turkey itself.

It is even said that Erdogan has gone so far as to promise Barzani that Turkey would protect his would-be state-in-the-making in the event of an Iraqi military onslaught. However, presumably that would never come to pass if, adopting Plan-B, the Maliki regime really is contemplating the seismic step of letting the Kurds go of their own free will.

David Hirst is a former Middle East correspondent for The Guardian and author of “Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East.” He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

The Guardian 1 Aug 01

The Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq is proving to be the Gulf war’s most enduring and successful legacy

David Hirst

The Kurds have a national flag. The red, green and white tricolour with a sun at its centre is the emblem of a people who, numbering about 40m, are the Middle East’s fourth-biggest ethnic group. Their mountainous heartlands describe a great arc through some of the richest and most strategic regions of the four states – Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria – among which they are divided.

In 1920 the Treaty of Sévres recognised the Kurdish right to statehood. But the rise of the Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk and the 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne, by which Turkey renounced sovereignty over Mesopotamia, put paid to their dreams: they have been rising in revolt after bloody, uncoordinated, unavailing revolt ever since.

In 1946 the flag flew in the small but short-lived “Mahabad Republic” before it was suppressed by the Shah of Iran. Nowhere has it flown officially since, not even here in “liberated” Iraqi Kurdistan.

It is 10 years since the Iraqi Kurds, or a large segment of them, acquired a sort of self-mastery. It was the fruit of a long struggle and great suffering and, typical of the Kurdish experience, it was great upheavals beyond their control that finally brought their self-ruling enclave into being: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait; the great Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings; the panic flight of an entire people; and the creation of the western-protected “safe haven”, subsequently expanded, which persists to this day.

This juridical no man’s land was to have been a strictly provisional affair, pending a final settlement of the whole Iraqi question. But of all the unfinished business of the Gulf war, “liberated” Kurdistan looks like being its most important legacy: the longer it endures, the harder it is to undo.

The Kurds dare not fly their flag, but in this swath of territory the size of Switzerland a community which, at 3.6m, outnumbers many UN member states is surreptitiously acquiring the attributes – functional, political, cultural and economic – of independence.

It adds up to the greatest success in the annals of pan-Kurdish struggle. Yet it remains a deeply vulnerable one. Iraqi Kurds are a people in waiting, suspended as never before between ultimate triumph and renewed calamity. For they know that, just as their curious entity came into being by a geopolitical accident, another could just as easily extinguish it.

The ultimate triumph would be formal, internationally recognised independence. “That goes with the self-determination which is the natural right of all peoples,” said Nerchivan Barzani, one of the Kurdistan regional government’s (KRG) two prime ministers. “Ask any Kurd if he wants a state.” They virtually all do.

Saedi Barzingi, president of Irbil University, said: “It’s time to correct the injustices of the post world war one settlement. We are not Arabs, Turks or Iranians. Why shouldn’t we have the same rights as a string of Gulf tribes who declared themselves states?”

“Liberated” Iraqi Kurdistan is self-consciously pan-Kurdish in its ultimate aspirations. “We could be a model for all other areas of Kurdistan,” said Barham Salih, the KRG’s other prime minister, contrasting its moderate, gradualist, democratic approach to self-determination with the all-or-nothing violence of Abdullah Ocalan and his Kurdistan Workers’ party’s (PKK) failed bid to win independence for the Kurds in Turkey.

No Kurdish party holds independence as its official aim. “In spite of our right to our own state, we don’t raise this slogan,” said Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP). “We only seek federation within a democratic Iraq.”

What one official called “the lousy hand dealt us by history and geography” dictates this caution. For the Kurds have no access to the sea, nor to any neighbouring state without a potentially secessionist Kurdish minority of its own.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq remains an ever-present, if wholly unpredictable, menace. Having lost his northern provinces, he does not hide his ambition to re-establish his gruesome tyranny over them.

Day of reckoning
Every day new families trickle into Kani Sheitan refugee camp, victims of a slow-motion campaign to Arabise the oil-rich Kurdish regions still under President Saddam’s territory. Officials of the governing party, the Ba’ath, mocked them with the choice: “Become Arabs, and join the fight for Palestine – or get out.”

Barham Salih said: “A regiment of tanks is only half an hour away; they could sweep into Kurdistan at any time.”

Nor will any regional powers connive at the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in another’s territory. The most they will tolerate is the perpetuation of the status quo until the day of reckoning, when President Saddam’s removal opens the way for the new Iraqi order.
All the Kurds can do in the meantime is to be as strongly placed as possible when the day comes.

They are steadily forging a distinct Kurdish polity. Irbil, the “capital”, has been renamed Hawler, and everywhere Kurdish signs have replaced those in Arabic. They are kurdicising school curricula.

They have developed a reasonably efficient administration, with an elected parliament and municipal councils. They have internal freedoms unimaginable in Baghdad: there are 50-odd newspapers and unlimited access to satellite television; in the remotest villages, dishes sprout from every other mud-and-wattle rooftop.

They have NGOs and human rights groups and, whatever their politics, their discourse is infused with a real concern for those ideals – democracy, pluralism, tolerance – whose absence they suffered so grievously.

Two of the region’s three universities have been established since 1991. They are resettling the 4,500 villages destroyed by President Saddam, replacing lost livestock, and recultivating the fertile, well-watered soil that remains the backbone of their economy.

In Sulaymaniyah a new oil refinery is testimony to the self-reliance of Kurdish technicians: they built it entirely from the cannabilised parts of soft-drinks, sugar, and cement factories and pipes left behind by the army.

From Iraqi minefields they made explosive devices to open up a well in the Taktak oilfield, turning Kurdistan into the world’s latest oil producer.

There are two great threats to all this. One is the deep-seated rivalry between the two main parties – Massoud Barzani’s KDP and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The government is actually composed of two geographically separate administrations, the KDP’s centred on Irbil, the PUK’s on Sulaymaniyah.

They share the same general orientation, and collaborate harmoniously in many ways. But on the day of reckoning a divided Kurdistan could be a fatally weakened one.

The other threat is the machinations of the regional powers, Turkey above all. Turkey is the most congenitally hostile to the notion of a Kurdish identity, more even than President Saddam. It is the main reason the Kurds fly no flag: they took it down in the one official place it did fly, flanking a portrait in parliament of the late Mustafa Barzani, the hero of the Kurdish struggle, when a Turkish delegation visited.

“For the Turks we are more dangerous than Saddam,” a leading KDP executive said. “They have a paranoid suspicion that our self-government is a conspiracy to which the west is a party; they hate anything that smacks of Kurdish progress. The more progress we make the more they must sabotage it. And they will use any means to do so, such as the exploitation of our Turcoman minority.

“In effect they are saying that if we Kurds are to have an entity of our own, this community of 10,000 people should have an equivalent one. They sponsor the Turcoman Front, a puppet body with no following; Turkish officers control it and train its militia.

Puppet body
“We have given the Turcomans their own schools, radio and language teaching. We offered them seats in parliament, but the Turks told them to refuse. On his last visit to Ankara, Massoud Barzani told them: ‘Why don’t you give your Kurds what we give our Turcomans?'”

But what really alarms the Kurds is the “second passage”. Under this scheme, already agreed in principle between Iraq and Turkey, the two countries will establish a new crossing point in the north-western tip of “liberated” Kurdistan where Iraq, Syria and Turkey meet, `bypassing the lucrative business that comes their way from the internationally tolerated “smuggling” of Iraqi oil.

The Iraqi army would reoccupy a narrow strip of territory. It could only do so with Turkish connivance. “It would be a strategic blow, a noose around our neck,” a KDP leader said. “And we would fight it by any means. Fortunately, the US has made known its disapproval to the Turks.”

Western protection remains the linchpin of the Kurds’ security and wellbeing. So long as it holds they hope for a win-win situation: building a quasi-independent polity on the one hand, and on the other taking comfort from the knowledge that the longer they have to build the better off they will be when the reckoning comes.

It creates a contradiction in the Kurdish soul: they fear no one like Saddam Hussein, yet they are in no hurry to expedite the day of reckoning, or turn Kurdistan into the indispensable platform for a US-backed insurrection to unseat him. Ever mindful of past US betrayals, they would demand cast-iron guarantees of the outcome, and their own place in the post-Saddam order.

Though the official aim is federation, it is, Massoud Barzani said, the “content” of federation that counts. “We shall never give up our Kurdish characteristics, or allow the return of a totalitarian system. A generation is growing up that knows nothing of it.”

In fact, the longer self-rule persists, the harder it will be to imagine the return of Arab rule. So at the back of every mind is the hope that not just federation, but independence, internationally endorsed, may really come to pass.

“After all,” said Falih Bakr, a Barzani confidant, “who really foresaw the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of communism before it actually happened?”

The Washington Times  15 Aug 01

David Hirst
In “liberated” Kurdistan’s two other main cities, Suleimaniyah and Erbil, public parks have replaced the army barracks. In Dohuk, the Mazi supermarket has taken the barracks’ place.

Vast, gleaming and air-conditioned, its shelves abound with all one could possibly need, and a good deal more. From cheap clothing to the trappings of middle-class affluence, the store features Hitachi fridges and Moulinex mixers, peanut butter and soy sauce, inflatable garden swimming pools, lawn mowers and grandfather clocks. At the checkout counter, uniformed young women scan bar codes with infrared scanners. Judging by a large warning sign, affluence has bred shoplifting: “High-quality monitors are in operation, so please beware not to fall into an embarrassing situation.”

It can’t be said that prosperity has come to Iraqi Kurdistan — it would take three months of a teacher’s salary to buy the pair of Italian women’s shoes on display — but it’s obvious that these northern provinces, which until 1990 were the most backward, deprived and oppressed of President Saddam Hussein’s domains, are now much better off than those where his writ still runs.

Goods cheaper here
The local currency — still the pre-1990 Iraqi dinar — buys 100 times as much as it would elsewhere in Iraq. All perks included, a university professor here earns the equivalent of at least $250 a month; in Baghdad he might get a tenth of that.

There are Mercedes, even an occasional BMW, on newly paved highways. Hotels are opening, and open-air restaurants flourish beside mountain streams. There’s a tourist industry too, mainly summer visitors from the Kurdish diaspora, or Iranians who cross the order for a weekend’s dancing, drinking and veil-free relaxation.

“This area,” said Jamal Fuad, a minister of reconstruction, “is achieving a revival surpassing all countries in the region.”

The Kurds date their mini-boom from 1996 and the passage of Security Council Resolution 986, the “oil-for-food” program. It contained the provision that 13 percent of all U.N.-authorized humanitarian resources should go separately to the north.

‘It’s Iraq’s money, after all’
Although under the U.N. program the Iraqi government decides how the goods and services should be distributed throughout the country, in the Kurdish north it is the United Nations that distributes material and pays for the operating costs.

The money involved in “oil-for-food” in Iraq, including the north, is more than the entire U.N. budget for the rest of the world. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, its mountains and valleys are blue with the signs of nine U.N. implementing agencies that are not even present in the rest of Iraq — and for each of them, this is their largest operation in the world.

The sums at the disposal of the United Nations are vast, and the way it spends them often hugely wasteful. “The attitude is, ‘so what?'” said a former U.N. official, “It’s Iraq’s money [from oil exports], after all.”

Shafiq Qazzaz, Kurdish regional government (KRG) minister for humanitarian affairs, said: “It was 986 that saved us.” Overnight, every inhabitant had a free, 10-item monthly food basket that would previously have cost a whole family’s monthly income, or more. The World Food Program (WFP) distributes it, with the willing collaboration of the KRG which, officially, the U.N. does not recognize.

Development funds blocked
But the WFP is the only U.N. agency able to spend all the resources at its disposal, for food manifestly qualifies as “humanitarian.” What Kurdistan now needs is development — sustainable, income-generating growth.

“We’re not an Afghanistan or Somalia anymore,” said Azad Barwari, a Kurdish Democratic Party official. “We’re a potentially rich country.”

It could do great things with its 13 percent of Iraq’s oil revenue — if only it could spend it. As Iraq’s oil revenues have risen, the proportion of it going for food has fallen to less than a third. But the rest is not going for “development,” for under sanctions that remains a forbidden word in the U.N. vocabulary — though “reconstruction” and “rehabilitation” are often euphemisms for the same thing.

“When the U.S. and Britain formulated the Memorandum of Understanding” governing implementation of Security Council Resolution 986, said Nasreen Sideek, minister of reconstruction, “perhaps they assumed that the U.N., being in charge in the north, would make things work properly. But the truth is that we are still at Baghdad’s mercy.”

Baghdad drags its feet
And the Iraqi capital objects to anything that smacks of development or real progress in the Kurdish north, from which the government is excluded by a U.S. and British-imposed “no-fly zone.”

Since Baghdad doesn’t have to approve of any U.N.-run project it doesn’t like, Kurdistan has now accumulated in excess of $2 billion in unspent Iraqi oil revenues.

It is partly the fault of U.N. officials, the Kurds say. These officials are very deferential to Baghdad. They risk harassment or expulsion if they rock the boat, and self-interest dictates caution for those on a tax-free salary of $10,000 a month instead of the few hundred dollars they might be earning at home.

The 200 foreign U.N. officials in Kurdistan refuse to talk to reporters “unless you have a visa from Baghdad,” they add, knowing that the reporters never do.

Power projects languish
“It’s hardly surprising,” said one foreign U.N. official who was about to resign over the whole “sorry story” of the United Nations in Iraq, “that the government, so anxious to discredit sanctions, should try to prevent the Kurdish economy from taking off in spite of them — and thereby showing up its own performance.”

The procedure is for the KRG to propose projects, “developmental” or otherwise. They go first to the U.N. office in Erbil, which passes them to its headquarters in Baghdad, which submits them to the Iraqi government, which ignores them.

Having cut off all electricity supplies to the north since the early 1990s, the Iraqi
government now seeks to prevent it becoming self-sufficient in this area, either by building of dams for hydropower or through oil- and gas-fired generation. Vast swaths of the country depend entirely on private generators.

In government-controlled territory, Baghdad supplies sprinkler systems to Arabs newly installed on formerly Kurdish farmland but denies them to Kurds in Kurdistan. It impedes the growth of agro-industry — weaving or fruit and vegetable canning — in a region where 70 percent of the population is directly or indirectly dependent on the land.

U.N. spending constrained
It withholds authorization for bridges, road extensions, hospitals, a slaughterhouse, spare parts for an existing cement factory and, of course, a drilling rig to raise output from the Taqtaq from the 14,000 barrels per day it now yields to the 500,000 bpd of which it might be capable.

Because under sanctions the United Nations is forbidden to buy locally, the Kurds buy their “oil-for-food” wheat at $200 a ton, using U.N.-withheld Iraqi oil revenues. The Kurds themselves grow a better-quality wheat, and more of it than the 500,000 tons a years they consume, but smuggle it to Turkey and Iran for less than $100 a ton.

Nor can the Kurds persuade the United Nations to spend some of their huge surplus of “food-for-oil” money to, say, raise the salary of teachers to $50 a month to boost the local economy.

The Kurds may not like sanctions, but they do love their 13 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues.

Kurds want guarantees

“Are you surprised,” asked Mr. Barwari, the KDP official, “that every time the U.N. discusses the possible lifting of them we get nervous?”

This is not just for economic reasons, but for what they signify as a measure of the 10-year-old Anglo-U.S. political commitment to Kurdistan.

Would a weakening of sanctions imply a loss of other ingredients in the “containment” of Saddam Hussein — above all the northern “no-fly zone”?

Lifting them, without compensating guarantees for Iraqi Kurds, would instantly raise the specter of another 1991 — another panic flight to the frontiers by an entire people fearing the tyrant’s return and his long-delayed vengeance.

San Francisco Chronicle
3 Sep 01


Under the ‘no fly’ zones, life in Kurdistan has become dramatically better than in the rest of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq

David Hirst, Chronicle Foreign Service

Dohuk, Iraq — In the cities of Suleimaniyah and Erbil, public parks have replaced the barracks of the hated Iraqi army.

Uniformed young women at a gleaming air-conditioned supermarket in Duhok scan bar codes as customers purchase peanut butter, Calvin Klein jeans, Hitachi refrigerators and inflatable swimming pools.

Life is clearly improving for residents of so-called Iraqi Kurdistan, who suffered an onslaught of chemical weapons attacks in the 1980s ordered by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and are protected today only by virtue of American and British fighter-patrolled “no fly” zones established by the United States, Britain and France after the Persian Gulf War.

Prosperity has not yet arrived, but it can be said that these northern provinces, which until a decade ago were Iraq’s most backward, are much better off under self-rule.

The old currency — still the dinar — is now worth more than 100 times its counterpart in Iraq. A university professor earns a minimum of $250 a month; in Baghdad might earn one-tenth of that.

There are Mercedes-Benzes, even an occasional BMW, on newly paved highways. Hotels are opening, and open-air restaurants flourish beside mountain streams – – patronized mainly by tourists from the ever-expanding Kurdish diaspora, or Iranians who cross the border for a weekend of dancing, drinking and a veil-free environment for women.

“This area is achieving a revival surpassing all countries in the region,” said Jamal Fuad, minister of reconstruction for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

A swath of territory the size of Switzerland whose population of 3.6 million outnumbers many U.N. member-states, Kurdistan, while technically remaining part of Iraq, is surreptitiously acquiring the attributes — functional, political, cultural and economic — of independence.

It remains highly vulnerable to the machinations of global politics but still adds up to the greatest success in the annals of the pan-Kurdish struggle.

Although self-rule began in 1991, the Kurds date their mini-boom from 1996, after the passage of Security Council Resolution 986, also known as the “food- for-oil” resolution. The mandate decreed that 13 percent of all U.N.- authorized “humanitarian” resources go to northern Kurdish areas, where the world body administers the distribution program and pays its operating costs.

Almost overnight, every inhabitant had a food basket provided by the World Food Program, a 10-item selection that previously would have cost an entire monthly income or more.

“It was 986 that saved us,” said Shafiq Qazzaz, the KRG’s minister of humanitarian affairs.
But Azad Barwari, an official of the Kurdish Democratic Party who declares “we are not an Afghanistan or Somalia anymore, we are a potentially rich country,” and others say Kurdistan could do far more with its 13 percent share if it were allowed to make its own spending decisions — ones that would generate more income.

“We are still at Baghdad’s mercy,” said Nasreen Sideek, the minister of reconstruction, noting that Iraq does not have to approve any U.N.-financed project it doesn’t like and considers anything that smacks of development for the north undesirable.

As Iraq’s oil revenues have soared, the proportion of Kurdistan’s 13 percent spent on food has fallen to less than one-third, resulting in an accumulation of $2 billion that Hussein’s regime refuses to spend on the Kurds.

The money sits in a U.N. escrow account, and the world body — which formally respects Iraq’s sovereignty — has taken no steps to compel Baghdad to spend it.

Political observers say the lack of pressure is partly attributable to the high, tax-free salaries the 200 U.N. officials in Kurdistan pull down. Earning $5,000 to $10,000 a month instead of the few hundred dollars they might be making at home is a strong incentive to go easy on Baghdad, which can demand the expulsion of officials it deems prejudiced.

The U.N. officials refuse even to talk to journalists “unless you have a visa from Baghdad,” confided one of the officials.

The procedure is for the KRG to propose projects, “developmental” or otherwise. They go first to the U.N. office in Erbil, which passes them to its headquarters in Baghdad, which submits them to Hussein’s government, which then engages in systematic delay.

Since the early 1990s, Baghdad has cut off electricity to the north, and is now seeking to prevent Kurdistan from becoming self-sufficient in energy, either through the building of dams for hydroelectric power or through oil- and gas-fired generation. Vast sections of the country depend entirely on private generators.

Hussein’s government also impedes the growth of agro-industry — weaving or canning of fruits and vegetables — in a region where 70 percent of the population are directly or indirectly dependent on the land. It has also withheld authorization for bridges, road extensions, hospitals, a slaughterhouse, spare parts for an existing cement factory — and permits to import a drilling rig for the Taqtaq oil field, which could raise its production from the current paltry 14,000 barrels a day to 500,000 at full capacity.

The economic sanctions against Iraq also force Kurds to buy their wheat under the “food-for-oil” program — at a price of $200 a ton. They themselves grow a better-quality wheat in greater quantities than the 500,000 tons a years they consume, but end up trying to sell it — also technically illegal under sanctions — to Turkish and Iranian neighbors for less than $100 a ton.

Nor can they persuade the United Nations to spend some of its huge surplus on raising the salary of teachers to $50 a month.

But there is one field in which Hussein’s obstructionism hasn’t worked — one in which his own callous refusal to care for his own people is exposed for the world to see.

Hussein has made sick and dying Iraqi children the centerpiece of his anti- sanctions campaign. But they are not dying in Kurdistan in anything like the numbers seen in Iraq.

According to the most recent UNICEF figures, the infant mortality rate in Kurdistan is a high 72 per 1,000. But the figure is 131 per 1,000 in Hussein-controlled territory.

There is only one possible reason for such a remarkable discrepancy: Hussein himself.
A U.N. worker who asked not to be named said: “This is an oil-rich country that . . . is obliged by the U.N. to spend . . . an astonishing nearly 75 percent of its primary source of public wealth on ‘ordinary’ Iraqis, a far higher proportion than it ever did before sanctions. The evil is not just sanctions, but sanctions plus Saddam.”

The Kurds, meanwhile, press on to build up their mini-state, although its future is far from assured.

If the sanctions against Iraq are ever lifted without compensating guarantees for the Kurds, it would instantly raise the specter of another 1991, another panic flight to the frontiers by an entire people fearing Hussein’s return.

Said Barham Salih, one of the KRG’s two premiers, “A regiment of tanks is only half an hour away; they could sweep into Kurdistan at any time.”

Courtesy Alex Atroushi