The Time for an Independent Kurdistan Is Now
For too long, my people have been attacked, killed, and betrayed. We can no longer believe Washington’s promises or hope that Baghdad will help us.
It was a bitterly cold, overcast day in the winter of 1991. I was only 4, but I still recall how we struggled up 6,000-foot-high mountains near the Iraqi-Turkish border. Twenty feet ahead, my mum was carrying my 2-year-old brother on her back as she trudged through the snow. Two days on foot had left her exhausted and weak.
As I trailed behind, dad kept urging me on. “Just over the hill, son.”
Dad was lying. I followed mum’s faltering footsteps as she plunged to the ground again. I stood over her crying.
We were among thousands of Kurdish families fleeing from Saddam Hussein’s army, which was bent on annihilating the Kurds.
It took five grueling days to reach the makeshift camp that straddled the Iraqi-Turkish border. The weather was harsh. There was no sanitation and little food or water. Every day was a ritual for survival: one sip of water per person from the cap of a bottle, a piece of dried bread, and a few frozen dates. Men clutched bags holding their families’ remaining possessions; women carried wailing children. This mass exodus, the flight of almost 2 million people, marked another climactic chapter in the long struggle of the Kurdish people with successive Iraqi governments.
Everyone had a story. This is mine.
My dad was a revolutionary fighter, known as Peshmerga — in Kurdish, “those who face death.” He had been fighting for autonomy since the 1960s and was part of an uprising to expel the Iraqi Army from the Kurdish provinces following the end of the Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein’s forces were weakened. The Shiite uprising in the south had emboldened the Kurds, but without U.S. support, Saddam’s army started to regain territory and take vengeance. The decisive use of Iraqi helicopters — sanctioned by the U.S. military — to level rebel strongholds forced the Kurds to flee.
We finally reached the camp, called Belehe, but it was no salvation. It was an open graveyard. Our family of nine squeezed into a tent meant for three. I remember winds shaking the flimsy tents at night, as a fragile old woman abandoned by her family cried for help. Mum gave me a small piece of bread to hand to her. By the next morning, the cold had killed hundreds of sleeping children and several of my relatives. The old woman nearby our tent had frozen to death, her family nowhere to be seen.
This is my first childhood memory of Iraq: forced to flee my home to the mountains for refuge from the Iraqi government. In the years that followed, I witnessed the Iraqi regime kill six of my relatives and abduct several others, all for the crime of advocating for Kurdish rights.
The Kurds had been fighting for self-rule ever since the end of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The struggle reached its peak after 1979, when Saddam Hussein came to power; in the ensuing years, his army killed as many as 182,000 Kurds, poisoned thousands with chemical weapons, and razed more than 4,500 of our villages.
Like many other Kurds, I tried in vain to suppress this bitter past following the overthrow of Saddam in 2003. The U.S.-backed no-fly zone in Iraq and humanitarian support had paved the way for our return from the mountains to the cities below and gave us the space we needed to build a de facto state in Iraq’s north.
After the United States overthrew Saddam, American officials called upon us to return to Baghdad to give the new federal Iraq a try. I didn’t want to be part of the new Iraq any more than any other Kurd, but I felt we had no other choice but to try to secure our rights through a democratic process in Baghdad.
The West was convinced Saddam’s removal — and newfound Kurdish political clout in Baghdad — would usher in a new chapter of reconciliation between Kurds and Arabs, and persuaded us to stay with Iraq rather than push for an independent Kurdistan. There were moments I, too, felt it could work.
They were wrong, on both counts. So was I.
Now Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, having run out of patience with Baghdad, has promised a referendum on independence in one of the few democratic and liberal enclaves left in the Middle East. The Kurds in Iraq’s Kurdistan region are secular and pro-American, and independence will be the first step in addressing historical injustices. Given Iraq’s bloody history, it is naive to believe that this land could still be a stable home for Kurds and Arabs, Shiites and Sunnis.
Let me tell you why I will be voting “yes” for an independent Kurdistan.
For me, the Kurdish experiment in Iraq ended in August 2014, when the Islamic State unleashed a bloody campaign against Yazidis in Sinjar, in which an estimated 5,000 Yazidis were killed and thousands of women were abducted to be used as sex slaves. After the death and enslavement of so many Yazidis, a religious Kurdish minority, I could only conclude that the Kurds have exhausted every system of governance that might hold Iraq together: monarchy, republic, dictatorship, autonomy, and federalism.
Iraqi regimes have systematically attacked Kurds in every decade of the last century. Given that experience, it should come as no surprise that Kurds seldom embrace an Iraqi identity.
Even beyond the persecution of Kurds, Iraq today is a failed and fragmented country. Sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis, exacerbated by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarian policies and Sunni acquiescence to the Islamic State’s conquest in early 2014, has resulted in segregated communities across the country. The Iraqi state’s control barely extends beyond the outskirts of Baghdad due to the rise of Shiite militias in the south, the Islamic State’s occupation of Sunni territory, and the Kurdish advance in the north, as we seek to fulfill our aspirations for an independent state.
The Kurds should not be blamed for Iraq’s collapse. The post-2003 Iraqi project unraveled because of the historical, sectarian hatred between Muslim Arabs. These animosities are more catastrophic than Kurdish-Arab political disagreements in Iraq over oil, land, or government revenues.
For the Kurds, the recent attacks by the Islamic State, an outgrowth of the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq, is another episode to add to the litany of deliberate massacres in Arab Iraq. It should be no surprise that the creation of its self-styled “caliphate” was the last straw for many Kurds in their relationship with Iraq: The Iraq government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan government in Erbil now practice independent foreign policies, including toward Syria, and control separate armies. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, backed by international coalition warplanes and limited aid from Baghdad, remain the most effective ground force fighting the Islamic State and have retaken more than 7,700 square miles from the militants.
The recent disagreement between the Kurdish regional government and Baghdad over distribution of oil revenues has only widened the gap between the two sides. The suspension of the Kurds’ budget from Baghdad for the last two years has left the Kurdistan government unable to pay its civil servants, fund the war against the Islamic State, and provide refuge to almost 2 million displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees. It has also affected ordinary households, causing profound resentment. The global slump in the price of oil threatens both economies and makes a potential agreement to share oil revenues deeply unpopular.
The West bears great responsibility for the perpetual failure of Iraq — not least for drawing the borders in the Middle East in the first place. It was the removal of the former authoritarian regime in Iraq that unsettled the country’s fictitious borders in the first place. The United States and Europe also continue to insist on maintaining the status quo, cajoling Kurdish officials to return to Baghdad rather than pursue independence.
“This is Iraq’s last chance,” Western diplomats often say in meetings. Their nightmare is admitting the failure of a “united” Iraq, which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives — Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Yazidis, Jews, and others — provoking wars and the displacement of millions. They are misguidedly fixated on seeing Kurdish aspirations through the prism of a post-2003 Iraq.
But rapprochement between Erbil and Baghdad will not put off the inevitable declaration of an independent Kurdistan. The struggle to build a Kurdish home is about charting a better course forward for the Kurds, after the injustices they have suffered in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. For the Kurds this isn’t just a fight against IS but a war of independence, and Baghdad should not expect them to simply return to a united Iraq following Peshmerga sacrifices — some 1,400 killed and over 7,000 wounded — to delineate the borders of an independent Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq.
Behind Barzani’s struggle lie centuries of Kurdish revolts against the Ottomans, British, and Iraqis. It’s also very personal for him: His father, Mustafa Barzani, led the Kurdish liberation movement in Iraq. Now, the president of the Kurdistan region carries the baton for the largest nation without a state.
Barzani also recognizes that the defeat of the Islamic State is likely to reinforce Baghdad’s political and military strength, and diminish global support for the Kurds. Further, the next U.S. administration is unlikely to support the partition of Iraq, as it could lead to similar calls in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. So the window of opportunity for Barzani’s referendum remains this year — before offensives on the Islamic State strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa and the next U.S. presidential election.
In May, the Sykes-Picot agreement, in which the West carved up our region, will turn 100 years old. At that time, we will reflect on the century of failure in Iraq that resulted from this agreement. That should be enough for the West — and Iraq — to recognize there’s a reason the map was drawn in pencil.
An independent Kurdistan carved out from the ruins of Iraq will save the next generation of Kurds fleeing at the hands of an Arab Iraq.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images