Limits of Kurdish Autonomy
The Iraqi government will likely resist any attempt at secession. Kurdish Iraq sits on 5 percent of the world’s known oil resources, but Kurds there haven’t yet established firm rights to the oil fields nor to the pipelines leading out of the country to Turkey.
The Bush administration has been quietly supportive of Kurdish autonomy. But it is neither encouraging it nor advertising it. The administration doesn’t want to send signals that it favors an independent Kurdistan, for two reasons. First, one Iraq is official American policy. Second, the administration doesn’t want to upset Turkey, which bitterly opposes an independent Kurdistan on its border — as do Iran and Syria. An independent Kurdistan would encourage Kurds in those countries to press for inclusion in Kurdistan, a redrawing of maps every country there opposes. Those countries message to Kurds: tough luck.
For Kurds in Iraq, however, independence may not be the best way to go if they intend to maintain their autonomy and economic successes. They’re landlocked. Turkey is their chief trading partner. They’re enjoying American protection for now. Should their press their case for independence, Turkey could cut off all economic partnerships and the United States, which turned its back on Kurds in 1991 (as it did after 1918), could turn its back again to preserve the highly prized American alliance with Turkey.
Not Quite a Model Democracy
Iraqi Kurdistan is busy building international airports, malls and internet cafes. It’s accommodating investors and educators (the new American University of Iraq opened its doors in the Kurdish town of Sulaimaniya in October 2007). It may be secure and prosperous in comparison with the rest of Iraq. But it’s no model democracy.
The region is ruled by rival administrations: The Kurdistan Democratic Party, run by the Brazani clan, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, run by Jalal Talabani, who is also the figurehead president of Iraq. The two fought a civil war in the late 1990s that left between 3,000 and 10,000 people dead. They’re working closer now and have merged several government functions, but they’re not friends. The media is strictly controlled, of somewhat free. Political opposition to the Kurdish cause is not tolerated. But minorities, such as Turkomans and Assyrians, are treated well.
The PKK / Kongra-Gel
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a Marxist resistance group founded in 1978 in Turkey. In 1984, the PKK began an armed insurgency against Turkey. More than 30,000 people were killed over the next 15 years. Both sides were implicated in the killing of civilians. Turkish authorities arrested PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in February 1999. The PKK observed a truce for several years, which broke down in 2004.
The group, which is on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign Terrorist organizations, has renamed itself a few times, adopting the name Kongra-Gel around 2003 and promising a more peaceful incarnation. The name change hasn’t affected the group’s means or intentions, however, as attacks continue. The group is still best known as the PKK. Its several thousand fighters are camped mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan and have stepped up attacks on Turkey in 2007 and especially in 2007. On Oct. 17, 2007, by a 507-to-19 vote, the Turkish parliament approved Turkish military incursions into Iraq to go after PKK militants.
A group similar to the PKK, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, is operating in much the same way against Iran, using the western side of Iraqi Kurdistan for a base. Both the American government and Iraqi authorities have pressed Iraqi Kurds to pressure the PKK against using northern Iraq to attack Turkey. Beyond lip-service, the pleas have gone unanswered.