But, if that happens, says Mr. Kadir, “I’ll leave everything, business and all, and go and fight the Turks in the army”—by which he meant the Kurdish peshmerga forces. He said that if the Turks joined the battle against Saddam Hussein and then left right away, that would be all right. However, Turkish leaders have always maintained that they would not fight Saddam—their population has been against it—and were coming to Kurdistan primarily to stem any flow of Kurdish refugees and also to make sure that no independent Kurdistan could emerge. If that turns out to be the case, Mr. Kadir told me, “I think Turks and Kurds will fight.” After all, he pointed out, the last time the Turks came, they stayed “for seven hundred years.” He was referring to the Ottoman Empire. Another, more frequently cited example that the Kurds want to avoid is that of Cyprus, where Turkish troops have been stationed ever since their invasion in 1974.
A few minutes’ walk from Mr. Kadir’s Arbil Tower hotel is a mall full of clothing shops. There I met Idris Pira. He has lived all his twenty-nine years in Arbil, but his family actually comes from a place called Kandenawa, which lies between Arbil and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. In 1968 the Iraqi authorities began destroying houses there in a campaign to dislodge—ethnically cleanse—local Kurds. Since then tens of thousands of Kurds, especially from Kirkuk and the surrounding region, have been thrown out of their homes because Saddam Hussein and rulers before him have wanted to make the region Arab and fatally weaken the Kurdish claim to the land and its oil.
Kirkuk and Mosul are both of vital strategic importance because of their oil reserves. The Kurds regard Kirkuk as their “Jerusalem”; they know that if it falls into their hands, as it did briefly during the uprising of 1991, and they manage to keep it, they would secure a solid economic foundation for a future independent state. This is the Turkish nightmare, and over the last few months Turkish generals and officials have threatened to occupy Kirkuk and Mosul, to prevent the Kurds from taking them. (In fact, the Kurds do not say Mosul is in Kurdish territory.)
The Turks claim that the British cheated them out of the two cities after World War I, because they wanted the region’s oil to support their newly created mandate of Iraq. The Kurds say that Kirkuk, at least, has always been Kurdish; but the Turks contend that the region has a historic majority of Turkoman people who speak a Turkic language and that Turkey has a duty to protect the Turkomans from ethnic cleansing by the Kurds after the coming war. Depending on whom you believe, there are anywhere between 500,000 and 2.5 million Turkomans in Iraq, which has a population of some 23 million. There are also believed to be between four and five million Kurds.
I was told by people at the opposition conference that US officials, concerned about the argument between Kurds and Turks, have told them both that, in the interim at least, they will occupy both cities, keeping out both Kurds and Turks, and they will stay there until the future can be peacefully worked out. The Turks say they fear that the Kurds will create facts on the ground by sending home the tens of thousands displaced from the Kirkuk region in order to consolidate their future here. But the Kurdish authorities probably won’t need to take any action at all. Mr. Pira told me that after the war he would stay in Arbil, but much of the rest of his family had every intention of returning to Kandenawa. He said of his father that “all he talks about” is going back. Some Kurds remained in Kandenawa, he told me, and recently they had brought startling news. Some of the Arabs who had been settled there and in other nearby villages “have already left and gone back to where they came from.”
What happened when I tried to get near the “politburo” of the opposition leaders at the Salahaddin conference in order to see some of the Iraqi politicians there may suggest something about the future. Dozens of men, bristling with Colt M4 machine guns, pistols, and daggers, searched everyone coming in and had taken up positions around the buildings. They were of course American—not, they said, from the military but from the “Diplomatic Security Service.” Officially they were here to protect Zalmay Khalilzad, who is President Bush’s special envoy and “ambassador-at-large for free Iraqis”; but it was clear that they were protecting the delegates as well. When one of them searched my friend Marc Semo, who works for the Paris daily Libération, he asked him if he was French. “Yes,” said Marc. The American responded with a large globule of spit aimed close to his feet. “You know the south of France?” he asked. “Yes,” said Marc. “Just like Algeria!” More spit.
The conference opened amid recriminations that the US had “betrayed” the Iraqi opposition because of President Bush’s openly discussed postwar plans to impose a US military administration over much of the existing Iraqi structure. The opposition, by contrast, has talked about a “de-Baathification” of Iraq resembling the postwar denazification in Germany. The Kurds were also particularly angry that the US would agree to let thousands of Turkish troops into Iraqi Kurdistan as part of the price of being able to use Turkey as a springboard for a push southward into the country.
Despite interviews on and off the record, communiqués, and press conferences, the results of the Salahaddin conference remain vague. Before the meeting, the writer Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile who teaches at Brandeis University, wrote in the London Observer that the US was “about to betray” the “core human values of self-determination and individual liberty”; but later, during a press conference, he said that after seeing Mr. Khalilzad he was much “reassured.”
Mr. Khalilzad himself announced that the US would not stay in Iraq “one minute” after its mission was complete. But just what will that mission be, and who will decide when it is over? He did not say. Mr. Khalilzad did remark that he hoped that “the Iraqi mil-itary will be part of the liberation of their country,” which appeared to be a call to mutiny; and then he added that while the US wanted to work with the Iraqi exile opposition it also wanted to work with “liberated Iraqis as the country is freed”—just when that will take place and who these people may be neither he nor anyone else is saying. In February, a US undersecretary of state, Mark Grossman, told a Senate committee that “it would probably take two years or more for the military to transfer control of many ministries to Iraqi officials.”
What became evident at the conference is that no one knows what is going to happen. For example, one of the delegates, Ghassan Attiyah, an exile and well-respected analyst of Iraqi affairs, told me that as soon as the war began, there might be a coup inside Iraq. But then, what would happen? Would the invasion or bombardment stop? Would the coup leaders stay in control? Nobody knows. Mr. Attiyah said that the exiled Iraqi opposition was “not here to install ourselves as the new rulers of Iraq.”
Still, the delegates agreed to form fourteen committees to deal with such postwar matters as finance and foreign affairs; but these committees, they said, were not to be regarded as ministries in waiting, and indeed the six-man leadership council selected at the meeting was not a provisional government—or rather, as some delegates said, “not yet.” In the words of the communiqué issued at the end of the meeting, the committees were being created “in order to prepare for liberation and to prevent the emergence of a political, administrative and security vacuum” after Saddam’s fall. In other words, everything is up in the air.
No one, as far as I could see, has any idea of the strength of the connections of the exiles at the conference with people at home. Many of them have been outside Iraq for twenty years or more. And no one has any clear idea of the real relative strengths of any of the groups. One of the biggest question marks hangs over the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is based in Tehran and claims to speak on behalf of Iraq’s Shiites, who make up some 60 percent of the country’s population. During the 1991 uprising against Saddam, SCIRI, which is led by Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, sent forces of its Badr Brigade militia into Iraq. This militia is based in Iran and is supervised by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. This was one reason why the US, having encouraged the revolt, pulled back, allowing Saddam to crush it.
Today SCIRI has become part of an uneasy alliance with the US, even though its Iranian hosts remain part of the “axis of evil.” During the last few weeks some six hundred men from the Badr Brigade have been moving across the Iranian border and setting up camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ayatollah Hakim’s representatives have been in regular contact with the US, and Hakim’s brother, Abdulaziz, led the SCIRI delegation to Salahaddin, where its delegates made up one third of those present. Abdulaziz was chosen as one of the six members of the opposition leadership council.
Last summer in Tehran, I asked Ayatollah Hakim, a graceful sixty-three-year-old man who smiled easily, what he did and did not want. He replied, “We are against any attack that will destroy Iraq’s infrastructure and kill people.” But then he said he wanted the “UN to achieve the same mission as it has in Kosovo.” The UN mission in Kosovo came about thanks to a seventy-eight-day US-led bombardment of Yugoslavia, which destroyed its infrastructure and killed hundreds of civilians. In a private talk outside Iran, a SCIRI representative told me that the ayatollah was in a highly delicate position. In exile since 1980, he wanted to see the end of Saddam’s regime, but since Iran is officially against any US attack he could not say that he in fact supported it. On the other hand, SCIRI could not afford to stand on the sidelines because it feared being shut out of any postwar power arrangements. It was my impression that SCIRI no longer hoped for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution. The ayatollah certainly has backers in Tehran who want him to cooperate with the US, so that they, too, can have influence on a postwar Iraq.
All these contradictions were evident in Salahaddin when I talked to a SCIRI delegate, a chador-clad woman called Souad al-Kremawi. She said, “We are opposing any invasion or military intervention but we are not opposing any help or support from the international community.” Her group, however, has allied itself with other groups who are strongly supporting an invasion. Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, which is closely aligned with the US, is a secular leader and a Shiite, and he also has good relations with the ayatollah. Mrs. al-Kremawi only had words of praise for Chalabi. Such are the complexities of Iraqi opposition politics.
To make things even more unclear, nobody knows what the Turks will do in northern Iraq. In fact, a few thousand troops are already here, keeping watch over Turkish Kurdish fighters, who since 1999 have been observing a cease-fire. If the new Turkish troops also stay out of sight and close to the border, the Kurds may not challenge them. But Latif Rashid, the London representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Kurdish groups, told me that there could well be a conflict if they go further. “Turkish intervention means destroying everything we have built up over the last eleven years,” he said.
Virtually sealed now, the Turkish border post on the road to Iraqi Kurdistan at Harbur recalls a cold war–era frontier post between East and West. Iraqi Kurdish vehicles can’t cross to the Turkish side so you have to cross on foot carrying your baggage, which is then subjected to a careful search. You also have to have special Turkish permission to get through. Past the border post are lines of white tents and a large area in which more can be set up. In 1991, when Saddam crushed their post– Gulf War uprising, 500,000 Iraqi Kurds fled to the border. This time the Turks don’t want to be caught unprepared.
Four hours’ drive from the Habur “Gate,” as it is called, is the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, most of whose population is Kurdish. Armed police patrol the streets and soldiers can be seen near sandbagged bunkers, guarding barracks. Until 1999 the entire region was scarred by the brutal dirty war between the authorities and the separatist and Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) led by Abdullah Ocalan. The conflict dragged on for fifteen years and cost some 36,000 lives. Ocalan was in Syria but when Turkey began massing troops on its border, the Syrians expelled him. Finally the Turks caught up with him in Kenya and he is now the sole inmate of a jail on the prison island of Imrali. After his capture he called for a cease-fire. Today some five thousand armed PKK men remain based in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Turkish contingent I have mentioned keeps a wary eye on them.
Last August, as part of its long-awaited reforms required to join the EU, Turkey passed laws to allow teaching in the Kurdish language (but not in public schools), and to allow Kurdish-language broadcasts on public radio and television. In November the Turkish government lifted the state of emergency which, in one form or another, and especially in Diyarbakir, had been in force for much of the last twenty-five years. A peaceful future seemed possible for a Kurdish population ground down by the conflict and its privations. While Iraqi Kurds are all for a war to get rid of Saddam, their more numerous Turkish brothers are dead set against it. They believe that if war comes, their hopes of having rights and a decent life within Turkey will simply vanish.
Rojin, a thirty-year-old English teacher, told me that while an independent and united Kurdistan was “a beautiful dream,” there was a difference between “what you can want and what you can get.” She said that Kurds in Turkey were unhappy because none of the reform laws that have been passed have actually been implemented; still, she said, “it is more than nothing.” What scared her now was that if the Turkish army went into northern Iraq in great force it would undoubtedly try to crush the remnants of the PKK and thus the conflict could well reignite across southeastern Turkey.
Diyarbakir’s local authorities are under the control of a pro-Kurdish party. Mehdin Guler, the deputy mayor, told me that if there was conflict between Turks and Kurds in northern Iraq, he had no doubt that “it will come here.” The war with the PKK drove some three million people from their homes; many now live in Diyarbakir but many others have gone to the big Turkish cities of the west, such as Istanbul and Izmir. The unemployment rate in Diyarbakir is 70 percent, and the entire region still suffers from the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Apart from smuggling and a small amount of legal trade, much of southeastern Turkey has been cut off from its natural trading partners across the border in Iraq.
Selhattin Demirtas, chairman of the local branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association, says that, as war approaches, the government is again becoming repressive. In January and February more people were arrested here for political reasons than in the entire last six months of 2002. Some 425 people were arrested in January, of whom seventy-four had been charged and were still in prison. He told me that many of these had been arrested for illegal anti-war demonstrations—which were sometimes also demonstrations in support of Ocalan.
Rojin told me that one of the things that frightened her was that many of the “old heads,” as she called them, the Kurdish separatist militants of the older generation, were getting excited about the possibility of a return to combat. She took me to see one of her uncles, who asked that his name not be used. He told me bluntly that the PKK cease-fire had been a mistake. “The Turkish government has taken no real steps to accept the existence of the Kurdish people,” he said. His dream was an independent Kurdistan, a large part of which would be carved out of present-day Turkey. After that he hoped that what remained of Turkey and Kurdistan would live next to each other “like brothers.”
At the Diyarbakir airport I saw Patriot missile batteries being deployed that had been sent by the Dutch. Silhouetted against the snow of the mountains behind, they looked black. Bulldozers were also working to prepare part of the airport for the influx of some 62,000 US troops to Turkey who were then expected as part of the Iraq invasion force.
In Ankara the newspapers were full of jubilant headlines. “Peace Won,” said one banner headline; “Parliament Rejected War,” said another. I had arrived just after parliament had failed, on March 1, to approve a motion allowing the US troops to land. A day or two later the headlines had changed to ones like: “Citizen Osman pays price of peace.” In exchange for letting in the US troops, the US was to have given Turkey up to $30 billion in grants and aid.
By the time this report is published, either the Turkish parliament will have changed its decision under pressure from the US and the way will be open for a US assault from Turkey, involving heavily mechanized troops with tanks and other such equipment, or the Americans will instead follow “Plan B,” an offensive launched mainly from Kuwait, but also using lighter forces to take over northern Iraq, and Turkey will not get its $30 billion.
Whatever happens, though, it is clear that the outcome will have huge consequences. The governing Justice and Development Party, the AKP, is a wide coalition, grouping some Muslims with militant Islamist backgrounds together with others who regard themselves as “Muslim Democrats‚” comparable, they say, to European Christian Democrats. The issue of Iraq could well shatter the party. Mehmet Dulger, the chairman of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and a partisan of the moderate Muslim Democrats wing of the AKP, told me that the entire process of negotiating with America over Iraq had been a bruising experience.
In a largely Muslim country of some 57 million people, well over 90 percent of Turks are opposed to the war and there have been large-scale demonstrations against it. While many in the government and especially in the military believed that Turkey’s strategic and economic interests lay in cooperating with the Bush administration, “the Americans,” Mr. Dulger complained, had disparaged the Turks as haggling “rug merchants” and “belly-dancers” and had refused to listen to Turkish concerns as a good ally should. In the Foreign Ministry an official told me that when Yashar Yakis, the foreign minister, told President Bush that Turkey had severe problems with the war and with complying with all of America’s requests, Mr. Bush brushed him off, saying: “I understand, but now go back to Turkey and do the job.” The official thought awhile and said of President Bush: “The man is ill.”
Turkish officials are now gripped with fear. If Turkey does not go along with the US-led war it will have little say in the future of Iraq. Without an agreement with the US, the Turks will find it harder to enter northern Iraq. But the Turks are adamant that if the Iraqi Kurds try to declare independence or if they remain part of a future Iraq in name only, any such Kurdish entity could not be allowed to continue. Seyfi Tashan, the director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute, told me that independence, de jure or de facto, is “anathema,” because Turkey’s own Kurds would then feel encouraged to demand the same and the Turkoman minority in Iraq would be in danger. He said bluntly: “We will do whatever is possible to prevent an independent Kurdish state.”
I asked for an interview with the foreign minister, but an aide said that Mr. Yakis wasn’t talking for the moment, since “he didn’t know what to say,” a most unusual statement from any foreign ministry. Even before the first shots are fired, the prospect of war has thrown the largest and most powerful state in the region into turmoil.
—March 13, 2003