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The Way of the Kurds

One part of Iraq is working better than the other.

May 24, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 34 • By MAX BOOT
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Kurdish leaders have also shown geopolitical wisdom by not seeking independence as demanded by most of their people. They realize that, surrounded by hostile states, an independent Kurdistan could not flourish. Instead of confronting its neighbors, the Kurdish Regional Government is working with them. Its most notable success has come with Turkey, which in 2007 was threatening to invade the KRG to root out rebels from Turkey’s own Kurdish community, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Today the KRG and Turkey have flourishing trade ties and expanding diplomatic links. The Turkish government has even invited Massoud Barzani to visit in his capacity as president of the Kurdish Regional Government, whose very existence the Turks only recently recognized. 

Another sign of the Kurds’ sagacity is their attitude toward Israel. In Iraq proper, visiting the “Zionist entity” is still considered a death-defying feat to be undertaken only by the extremely brave or foolish. (Mithal al Alusi, a member of parliament who has visited Israel, was charged with visiting an “enemy state,” and his sons were killed in a terrorist attack.) But the Kurds, who are secular Sunni Muslims, are notably pro-Israeli in their attitudes. If it would not risk a major rift with the rest of Iraq, they would be happy to establish formal ties with the Jewish state. As it is, they maintain informal links. The Barzanis, the first family of the KRG, have a branch in Israel with whom they keep in contact. “It would be good for Iraq to have good relations with Israel,” a senior Kurdish politician told me.

The record is hardly perfect. Heavy-handed Kurdish attempts to extend their influence across northern Iraq have caused a backlash among Arabs and created an opening for extremist groups. In some areas they have been guilty of anti-Arab ethnic cleansing in an attempt to make up for anti-Kurdish campaigns under Saddam Hussein. Also, although an opposition party called Gorran (“Change”) is growing in influence after its members split from Talabani’s camp, political intimidation—even, on occasion, violent intimidation—still occurs. Recently, for instance, journalists accused Kurdish security forces of killing a young writer who was critical of the Barzanis and other powerful clans. Deplorable as they are, such events are also rare—certainly less prevalent in the KRG than in the rest of Iraq. 

So too with corruption, which remains a problem in the KRG (its leading politicians are fabulously wealthy), but far less so than in the rest of Iraq. One old Iraq hand suggested to me that payoffs to politicians in the KRG run only 20 percent of a contract as opposed to 50 percent or more in the rest of the country. More important, Kurdish politicians deliver results; they don’t just pocket the proceeds and leave their constituents without basic services. The KRG might be seen as a monument to the kind of “honest graft” that built America’s major cities, as opposed to the kleptocratic practice too often evident among Iraqi Arab politicians.

The Kurdish model suggests what Iraq can become in a few years—but only if it continues to improve in fighting crime and terrorism, reducing corruption, and developing the rule of law. Much of this is outside American control, but we can have a major impact on the security situation. A key component of Kurdish success, after all, has been American protection, offered in one form or another since 1991, when the George H.W. Bush administration proclaimed a “no fly” zone to keep Saddam’s aircraft from bombing the Kurds. American planes were still patrolling the no-fly zone at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Some kind of long-term protection will be necessary in the rest of Iraq, which must deal in the future with hostile neighbors and suspicious sectarian factions. As it stands, however, the last American troops are supposed to withdraw on December 31, 2011. 

That is a worrisome prospect because Iraqi political disputes can still engender violence. Nowhere is the danger greater than along the Green Line separating the KRG from the rest of Iraq. The boundary remains disputed, with the Kurds keen to assert their sovereignty over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq. The Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi troops have been on the verge of gunfire numerous times, pulling back only as a result of American mediation. Today U.S. troops patrol the Green Line in cooperation with the peshmerga and Iraqi forces.

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