Once again, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the Kurds are in the headlines. And although most Americans support President Clinton’s stance against Iraq, few know about the Kurds or their background.
Historically, the Kurds were a seminomadic people divided into clans and tribes. In 1514, Kurdish lands were divided between the Persian Shah Ismail and the Turkish Sultan Selim. The Kurds were content to give their allegiance to outside overlords as long as their freedom and autonomy were respected.
But in the 19th century, when the Ottoman and Persian governments sought to impose their direct control over the Kurdish lands, the Kurds resisted.
After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson championed the cause of Kurdish independence, and the Treaty of Sevres (August 1920) envisioned both a Kurdish and an Armenian state arising from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Under Gen. Kemal Ataturk, however, the new Turkish Republic seized control of much of the land designated for the Armenians (the remnant was absorbed into the Soviet Union) and also occupied many of the Kurdish areas.
From the 1920s on, Turkey has worked from the premise that all Muslims living within its boundaries are Turks, and the Kurds were reclassified as “mountain Turks.”
In Iraq, the various governments since independence from Britain have been willing to concede only limited cultural autonomy to the Kurds - and certainly not independent statehood.
Kurds have not been happy with Kurdistan being divided among three nations and actively have sought a Kurdish state. Some Kurdish organizations have carried out an armed struggle for decades against the Turkish and Iraqi governments to achieve this goal.
However, the Kurds remain divided among themselves, with different movements claiming supremacy in the struggle.
The Kurds have been targeted especially by Saddam Hussein because they pose a threat to his attempts to create a united Iraqi state with himself as its focal point. Unlike other minority groups such as the Christians, who are well-integrated into mainstream Iraqi society, groups such as the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds not only are culturally distinct but they also inhabit well-defined territories which have acted as focal points of resistance to Baghdad.
The West always has had an ambivalent view of the Kurds.
On the one hand, the United States and other countries always have maintained that the human rights of the Kurds must be protected by the governments of the countries where they live.
On the other hand, the West was unwilling to countenance the secession of eastern Turkey (a NATO ally), northern Iraq and northwestern Iran (a Western ally until 1979) to form a Kurdish state.
Saddam’s poison-gas attacks on Kurdish civilians in the 1980s brought international condemnation, but as long as Iraq bled Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, economic and military assistance continued to flow into Baghdad. It was only after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 that the Kurdish cause began to be re-examined by the West.
Now, the United States is caught in a dilemma.
On one hand, the Kurds are an effective tool to put pressure on Saddam Hussein.
At the same time, the United States does not want to destabilize Turkey, which grapples with a Kurdish insurgency and has engaged in brutal reprisals against the Kurds.
It is ironic that cruise missiles were lobbed at Baghdad when Iraqi forces entered the Kurdish “safe haven,” but no such refuge exists to protect the Kurds from the Turkish military, the second-largest army in the NATO alliance.
The “safe haven” weakens Saddam, but it also has provided the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey with a refuge across the Euphrates River, which is why the Turkish army has crossed the border into Iraq to engage the guerrillas.
The United States cannot carve out an anti-Saddam Kurdish state in northern Iraq and hope that, at the same time, Iraqi Kurds will remain indifferent to the plight of their compatriots across the border in Turkey.
If the United States believes Iraq and Turkey should remain within their current borders, then using the Kurds as an excuse to engage Saddam Hussein is both risky and unethical.