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IRAQ: The Road to Kirkuk, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Road to Kirkuk"

History without a homeland

The costs of war

Government, population, Iraqi Kurds

Kurds, nationalism, Iraq after Saddam




Kurds at the Crossroads
Dreams of Independence False Starts and False Friends Atrocity, Genocide and Land Homecoming and Revenge

1993-2003: Homecoming and Revenge

PKK member on fire

A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, sets himself on fire in Athens to protest the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Oçalan at the Greek Embassy in Kenya in 1999. (photo: Yannis Kontos)
With a new stronghold in northern Iraq, the Kurds received renewed American attention. The CIA recruited Kurds for an anti-Saddam army, and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a U.S.-backed opposition group, set up a base in the area called Kurdistan. But fighting within the nationalist parties greatly hindered a concerted campaign against Saddam. And in 1994, tensions between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan erupted into civil war. The KDP allied itself with the Iraqi government against the PUK and the INC. Then, in September 1998, after four years of fighting, the KDP's Barzani and the PUK's Talabani signed a peace accord in Washington, D.C., but northern Iraq remained split between the two adversaries.

In 1999, Abdullah Oçalan, who had been directing the Kurdistan Workers' Party from his point of exile in Syria, was captured by Turkish authorities and put on trial. He received a death sentence, which was later commuted to life in prison without parole. The PKK has since officially ended its armed struggle against the Turkish government, though skirmishes continue. Turkey has lifted the state of emergency in predominately Kurdish provinces and has lifted restrictions on its Kurdish population, largely to fulfill conditions for joining the European Union.

Special Forces Join the Peshmerga

US Special Forces in Iraq

U.S. Special Forces watch as Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga advance on Kirkuk in April 2003. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. moved quickly to secure Northern Iraq and its oil fields.
As the Bush administration turned its sights on Saddam Hussein in 2002, the Iraqi Kurds emerged as key players in the American plans to invade and rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq. After the U.S. military launched "Operation Iraqi Freedom" in March 2003, it hoped to quickly secure several key locations in Kurdistan, including the Mosul and Kirkuk oil fields. The United States initially planned to open a northern front along the Turkey-Iraq border, but this had been rejected by the Turkish parliament. The Turkish government was concerned that the Kurds might take control of the oil fields and set up an independent state, which could provide a haven to Kurdish separatists. Likewise, Iraqi Kurds feared that Turkey might cross the border to attack them.

With a Turkish front closed, the United States airlifted Army Special Forces into northern Iraq to join peshmerga fighters. Talabani welcomed the American invasion and expressed his hope that "the dictatorial regime will end very soon and with the least casualties." Iraqi resistance quickly fell apart, and the PUK took control of southern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, while the KDP took the northern part.

Reconciliation or Retribution?

Kurdish woman

The U.S. has tried to restore law and order in post-Saddam Iraq. But reports of ethnic tensions and violence threaten to mar the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
But the sudden fall of Saddam's regime created new challenges for the U.S. occupiers and their Kurdish allies. The Americans have gone from being liberators to peacekeepers in a region where ethnic rivalries, religious differences and historical grievances threaten to boil over. The Kurds, with U.S. backing, have solidified their role as the rulers of this small patch of Kurdistan. With this new responsibility comes the temptation of settling old scores, both within the Kurdish nationalist movement and against the local Arab and Turkamen population. In towns like Kirkuk and Mosul, Kurdish fighters have driven Arab residents out of their homes and launched new campaigns against non-Kurds. It remains to be seen whether after decades as victims of repression, ethnic cleansing and genocide, the Iraqi Kurds will break the cycle of violent retribution and find a peaceful home.

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