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Iraqi Kurds Face Crunch Time

The one issue Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran could usually always agree on was the need to keep their Kurdish minority populations under control. Turkey has 12 million to 16 million Kurds, Iran has 4.8 million to 6.6 million and Syria has 900,000 to 2.8 million. Iraq's Kurdish regions have 4 million to 6 million Kurds.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) June 04, 2007
For four years, the enthusiastically pro-American enclave of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq has been portrayed as the one shining beacon of hope in the sinister chaos of Iraq. But that bright beacon now threatens to set off a regional fire that could wreck NATO's southern flank.

Bush administration policymakers and their U.S. media cheering section held out the Kurdish enclave as proof that -- with a vastly disproportionate U.S. investment in money, diplomacy and "nation-building" -- a stable, pro-American democracy could be established in the heart of the Middle East, to serve as an example to the surrounding region.

They all ignored two constants of the previous 80 years of Middle East history. The first is the chaotic inability of the Kurds to get along with each other and build any kind of stable or self-sustaining state structures, a pattern that has been clear since the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. The second is the implacable hostility of giant neighboring Turkey to allowing them to do so.

The one issue Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran could usually always agree on was the need to keep their Kurdish minority populations under control. Turkey has 12 million to 16 million Kurds, Iran has 4.8 million to 6.6 million and Syria has 900,000 to 2.8 million. Iraq's Kurdish regions have 4 million to 6 million Kurds.

Since the U.S. armed forces with British help toppled Saddam Hussein and occupied Iraq in early April 2003, Turkish leaders have watched closely the activities of the Kurds in their northern enclave. They have especially been concerned about any Kurdish moves that threatened the status of the Turkoman community in the Kurdish-controlled, U.S.-protected areas.

Now, Turkish leaders are furious over the increasing activism of the Kurdish Workers Party in southeastern Turkey. They fear that Kurdish extremists could seek to revive the ferocious guerilla/terror conflict that cost at least 40,000 lives before it was finally ended. They also accuse the United States of failing to rein in the Kurdish authorities in Northern Iraq and failing to force them to crack down on the KWP.

The Kurds have reacted predictably. On Saturday, the ruler of Kurdistan, President Massoud Barzani, said flatly, "Turkey does not have the right to interfere in Kurdistan."

Turkey has traditionally ranked with Israel as the United States' most loyal ally in the region. For more than half a century it has been a member of the NATO alliance and proved crucial throughout the Cold War in blocking major Soviet expansion into the Mediterranean region.

But Turkey for several years has been run by an Islamist government. Its previous warm relations with Israel have cooled. But the biggest reason for the growing strains between Washington and Ankara has been the U.S. support for the independent Kurdish enclave over the past four years.

The Kurds are also under attack from the Sunni insurgents who continue to wreck havoc in Iraq. The Sunnis hate them for embracing the United States and for having fought so long against Saddam's oppression. The Sunnis also resent being left impoverished while the Kurds refuse to share the oil revenues from their region with the Sunnis.

In parliamentary maneuvers over the past 18 months in Baghdad, the Kurds have generally sided with the main factions of Iraq's 60 percent majority Shiites to shut out the Sunnis. And the short-term, apparent success of their exercise in self-government has been used as an argument for recognizing a de facto partition of Iraq between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds by American advocates of the idea.

But the Kurds cannot automatically rely on the Shiite political factions for support forever. Iran's influence is already very strong in Shiite movements like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and in the Mahdi Army led by Moqtada Sadr. Now Sadr is trying to make common cause against American forces in Iraq with Sunni insurgent and other groups. If he succeeds, the Kurds could find themselves isolated in their landlocked enclave.

Even with U.S. support, it appears highly unlikely that the Kurds could maintain their de facto independence if the Shiite majority in Iraq, as well as the Sunnis, turned against them. Turkey and Iran, historic enemies, agree at least on their hostility to Kurdish independence.

Turkey's grievances against the Kurds run from a desire to reclaim the oil-rich territories they lost more than 85 years ago when the British Empire unilaterally created the Kingdom of Iraq and drew its borders to include the oil-rich regions of the north, to anger over the perceived Kurdish threat to the Turkomans. But any perceived support by the Kurds for groups like the KWP that Ankara fears may revive the guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey tops everything else.

White House and Pentagon policymakers have paid the Kurds relatively little attention in recent months. They have been lulled by the steady stream of success stories coming out of Kurdistan. But that dream enclave could turn into a nightmare -- and soon.

Source: United Press International

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