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The Kurdish North: A Volatile Ethnic Mix

Northern Iraq, or what Kurds call Kurdistan, is home to a potentially volatile mix of Kurdish, Arab, and Turkoman populations in cities such as Mosul, Erbil, and Kirkuk. Some fear that tensions between Kurds and Arabs in strategic, oil-rich Kirkuk could lead to civil war. Others see hope for stability and prosperity under a new, democratic Iraqi government -- as long as the U.S. doesn't pull out too soon. Addressing the situation in northern Iraq, in excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews, are General David Petraeus in Mosul, Colonel William Mayville in Kirkuk, and PUK leader Barham Saleh in Suleimaniya. [Editor's Note: An excerpt has been removed from this page to protect the security of the person interviewed.]

Maj. Gen. David Petraeus
Commanding General of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, he was based in Mosul from April 2003 until February 2004.

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I want to talk a little bit about the Kurds and the ethnic tensions that are existing between them and the Sunnis, and the Arabs in general. You command an area that contains the three Kurdish provinces. What do you see happening in this area?

... So far, in Nineveh province, there is a good degree of working together. There is, in fact, an Arab governor and a Kurdish vice governor. Both of them want to be the representatives of all Iraqis, of all ethnic groups ... and all the tribes and all the various other interest groups and walks of life and religions as well.

You don't feel that there's a problem with ethnic tension here in Mosul?

There is ethnic tension ... sure there is. Everyone is concerned about how they will end up in the future. Everyone wants the certain basic human rights. That, I think, they have a reason to want. They all have legitimate aspirations, and they're all concerned that those legitimate aspirations are realized, and that's understandable. But it's one thing to have, if you will, tension, or dialogue or debate. Shouting is OK. Shooting is not. We've said that on a number of occasions. In the ethnic area, that has been the limit so far.

 
 

Col. William Mayville
Commander of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, he was based in Kirkuk from April 2003 until February 2004.

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[Is there the potential for civil war here?]

There's a big risk of civil war here. ... Civil war, or at least civil unrest, with very, very violent consequences. ... But there's also the possibly of stability. It is this very complex multiethnic reality that is also the source of its strength in the future, if we can build the bridges; if we can build communities of communities; if we can find common language, and we can find guarantors of everyone's rights. I think that there is the possibility of long-term stability here. ...

Kurds talk to us, tell us they believe that you're on their side.

Right. Yes, I think the Kurds believe that the war really was about their repatriation to lands that they had lost during the Arabization process of Saddam Hussein -- the time period in the past 20 years where the Kurds were forcibly moved out of this area, and forced to either move to the north or allowed to displace to villages to the south, where there was no Kurdish communities. For many of them, this is about their repatriation. ...

The question ... that I keep pushing back at the Kurds, at the Kurdish community and the Kurdish leadership, [is] in light of everything, in light of all that you want to do, are you prepared now to play by a different set of rules? Because up to this point, despite what they tell you, despite what they show you, despite their institutions, they have, in Suleimaniya and in Erbil, and behind the former Green Line, played by a set of rules that is tribal-feudal in nature, and very, very consistent with Islam. They use terms like prime ministers and parliaments, and things like that, and they come about as close to it as anybody else in Iraq. But make no mistake about it -- they are very much along tribal-feudal traditions.

Democracy, the way we understand it in the West -- extension of rights, the guarantee of rights, the rule of law, and the processes that we have in the West -- are new. There's a lot that they have to be prepared to take on if they truly want a democratic society; if they want, in my opinion, to hold what they have gotten so far. ...

You have Kurds that believe that they're owed the city.

This was once a Kurdish city. Of course, you ask the Kurdish community, "What does that mean? To the exclusion of everyone else? Is it zero sum?" You have Turkomen who are very proud of their history, and very proud of the fact that they, at one time, were a large majority. They have always seen themselves as a very important, prominent community within -- not only in Kirkuk, but in the cities south of Kirkuk -- and even to the northeast, the northwest. ... You have Arabs. And you have Arabs that have been here and lived here peacefully for a very, very long time -- as long as the Kurds. You have Shia who have come here for one reason or another, and have been here 10, 20, 25 years.

Many of them the "10,000-dinar Arabs." ...

That is a term that refers to a group of Arabs that were given incentives under Saddam Hussein's Arabization program to come up here and to live on land and to build on land that once belonged to the Kurdish, and in some cases, Turkoman population. At one period, the families were given 10,000 dinars as part of an incentive program to come up here. So today, the "10,000-dinar families" refers to those Arabs who were brought up here to occupy lands that were once Kurdish lands. ...

This is a place that could unravel Iraq. This is a place that could begin a spiral, a downward spiral to Iraq. Civil unrest is right here. It's at the surface; it's just below the surface. Right now, break-even is just keeping it below the surface. Don't address those things? Let those things come up, and you may start to see a process that spreads throughout, first, the province, and then the country.

What you mean by civil unrest is ethnic warfare? Ethnic cleansing?

Yes. You see the tension already. ... We sat in there with the Kurdish leadership the other day, and they were telling us that the 10,000-dinar families ... oppressed the Kurdish families. Well, we went and visited [those Shia Arab families] today. Those kids without shoes, those shacks without windows, those people that have no jobs. The sewage--

Do Kurds say they took their homes?

They did.

They did, in some cases. But they were forced. These people didn't have a choice.

Kurds tell me that they're guilty because they went along with it. … Then if you go and sit there and you talk to the other side, you realize that these folks, the homes that they had in the marshlands [in southern Iraq] were destroyed. They were given about as much of a choice to come up here as the Kurds had to leave.

What you really see is one of Saddam Hussein's greatest crimes, the way he just displaced communities and pitted them one against the other. But this is how he maintained power in this province. ...

The Kurds have a history that says Kirkuk belongs to them. They also have a history of losing Kirkuk, and they lose it oftentimes [because] they [have] shortsighted tactical political goals ...

And infighting?

And infighting. That's a very important point. If you saw the KDP and the PUK talking to me, you would get the impression that there's a unified and integrated strategy among the Kurdish community here. That's not the case. Today they share a common goal -- and that goal is Kirkuk, and that goal is this province. But my concern with the Kurdish community is the rate at which they depart beyond that goal. ...

[A] long-term strategic view for this province ... [is] going to take real political leadership. That's going to take vision. That's going to take leaders in the Kurdish community and in the other communities to articulate that vision, and be willing to meet with the other community leaders in a way that they can forge some sort of alliance that leads all these people to something that's much better than what they have today. ...

 
 

Barham Saleh
Prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major Kurdish political parties.

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[How would you evaluate the past 12 years for Kurds versus the current situation in Iraq?]

[The past] twelve years was the golden era for the Kurds compared to the previous 70 years. [Now] with the demise of Saddam, we have entered into a period of uncertainty. Most of us have a concern about the future -- how the transition will work itself out; whether we will be able to retain the self-government that we have worked so hard for; whether we will have what we hoped would be a genuine democratic federal system of government in Iraq.

But in reality, the last 12 years [under the protection of the U.S.-enforced no-fly zone] ... were a lot better than what we had previously. But we were living in the shadow of tyranny. ... We depended critically on international protection. It was a very precarious situation. ...

[But] it was a monumental change for us [from] the days of genocide and the days of [the Arabization] campaign, from the days of chemical attacks, from the days where my people would be slaughtered in their houses without anybody uttering a word about us. That situation at least changed for the areas that were under our control. ... We had some important economic progress over the last 12 years as well. ... Despite Saddam's sanctions, despite the U.N. sanctions, despite the hostility of neighboring countries, it really did a lot to improve the quality of life for our people. ... [Yet] for all its successes, it remained very precarious, very fragile. ...

What about the precariousness of the current situation?

Of the current situation, I would not call it precarious. I would call it the uncertainties of the new era. ... Now we are committed to working, or at least the political [side is] committed to working with other Iraqis to build a new nation. ...

I want to be very realistic about it. ... It takes work. It takes effort, and it takes patience. We are trying to be very candid with our constituents -- that, for all the uncertainties and the valid concerns, the legitimate concerns that we have about the past, we have no other choice, because we cannot secede away from this country. We are part of Iraq. Geography and history has made us part of Iraq.

But the dream lives of an independent Kurdish state, especially among the people.

Well, not only among the people. I would say among every Kurd, including myself. Every Kurd would ask, "Why not? Why am I different? Why am I different from the Palestinians, or the Jews, or the Arabs or the Turks, or the Armenians, or the Iranians? Everybody has a state; only the Kurds do not have one." ...

You're the largest nation without a country.

Absolutely. It's painful. I'm not one of those who'd say the Kurds do not want independence; not when the Kurds have the right, like every other nation to enjoy their independence. But I, in my position, I have to be realistic. ...

I don't think dividing Iraq is a viable option at this moment of history. In this moment in the politics of the Middle East, we have the choice as Kurds. We have the choice either to be realistic and get something tangible for our people. ... The other option is to seek independence. ...

I do not like to commit the mistake the many other elites in the Middle East are committing ... committing their people to an arduous journey of suffering without anything tangible -- to get to [what] at the end of the day? We have made that choice. We want to be partners with other Iraqis.

All Arabs of Iraq, or most Arabs of Iraq want to retain the territorial integrity of Iraq. We've been very candid with them. We say to them, "Do you want us to remain Iraqis? You want us to be with you? In that case, you'll have to admit us into Iraq as full-flesh citizens of Iraq and as full partners. We will not accept to be second-class citizens. No longer."

We are not willing to stay in the margins while an Arab national [council] in Baghdad commits Iraq to war or peace, squander[s] the resources of Iraq, build[s] weapons programs, et cetera and so on. If you want us to be Iraqis, we are going to be with you in Baghdad. If you don't want us to be Iraqis, it's a different matter then. We'll have to consider another option. ...

What makes a Kurd a Kurd? ...

What is a Kurd? What's an Englishman? What's a Frenchman? What makes you an American? A Kurd is somebody who speaks Kurdish, lives in Kurdish town -- although in the Kurdish region [there are] Turkomen and Syrians and other nationalities. A Kurd is a national identity, culture, language, you name it.

But at the same time, I have to tell you something as well. We are all human beings. ... The sense of national identity is strong. ... I'm proud as a Kurd. But at the end of the day, probably what unites me with an Arab democrat, a liberal democrat in the Middle Eastern context, is much more than what unites me with a Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist.

Nationalism has an interesting life of its own. Kurdish nationalism has emerged as a result of years of brutal repression and denial. When Saddam Hussein was committing genocide based on ethnic identity, committing ethnic cleansing in Kurd-occupied spaces, it made everybody feel nothing but Kurdish. Saddam Hussein did not allow us to evolve into the Iraqi identity dimension, did not allow us to feel Iraqi. The challenge that we have with the Arabs of Iraq is to transcend our national identities, retain our culture, retain our heritage. Be proud of them, but at the same time forge this common identity of Iraq.

Will it be easy? Definitely not. Because we will be fighting against decades -- if not centuries -- of definitions of one's existence. I hope we can do it. It's not easy. ...

But I believe out of necessity, out of recognition of realities, the Arabs of Iraq, the Kurds and Turkomans and the others, where we all know we have nowhere to go but to be together. In a way, we are condemned to this country together. We have to live together. Let's make something out of [the recent] triumph. Find the framework of peace and peaceful co-existence; for me to be a Kurd, but at the same time to be an Iraqi as well. It should not be a contradiction in terms. ...

[Describe] the importance to the Kurds of getting to peace and democracy in Kirkuk.

Not just for the Kurds; [for] Iraq. I remember the other day I had a discussion with an Arab friend of mine about Kirkuk. ... Aside from the fact that I'm a Kurd and [he is] an Arab, Kirkuk is an important symbol for everybody.

Kirkuk was a scene of a terrible crime -- ethnic cleansing. You, my Arab compatriot in Iraq, you can try to convince me that the Kurds will be better off [in the new] Iraq, but it has to be proven to people. Decades of ethnic cleansing committed in the name of Arabization. You, the Arab of Iraq, have to take the lead in reversing that policy of ethnic cleansing and proving to the Kurds and the Turkomans that this time is going to be different, is not just empty words.

In the same vein, I tell many of my Kurdish compatriots in Kirkuk and elsewhere that we have an indigenous Turkoman community in Kirkuk who feels concerned about Kurdish domination, Arab domination or whatever. How can we address their concerns? How can we address their identity issues? How can we turn Kirkuk into a place of peaceful coexistence between each other's communities? It's a challenging issue for us. It's not easy.

But this is by no means the Balkans. ... I think hatreds do not go as deep. ... I also believe -- and I think I have some legitimacy in making the following argument -- that, unlike the Balkans, Iraqis -- Kurds, the Arabs, Turkomans and the others -- have modern political leaderships who are trying to make this thing work. ...

But when I say, "So far, so good," I'm concerned. We need to act faster to reverse Arabization, to allow the original people of Kirkuk to go back to their homes; for the people of Kirkuk -- Kurds, Turkomans and Syrians and indigenous Arab community that lived in that part of the country before the Arabization campaign to really be given a chance, a say in defining their future.

 

 

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posted february 12, 2004; updated august 24, 2004

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