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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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