January 11, 2013

United States and the Kurds in the post-Saddam Iraq - By Kirmanj Gundi


In 1991, in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush successfully assembled a strong international coalition against Iraq's aggression. On January 16, 1991, the US led the war and achieved a decisive victory over the Iraqi forces. The impact of the defeat on Iraqis was overwhelming. Saddam Hussein could not tell his right hand from his left hand. The US led forces could have easily entered Baghdad and removed him from power. However, President Bush chose not to go after the defeated Iraqi forces into Baghdad—instead he called upon Iraqi people to rise against the “dictator.”

The US attitude towards the Kurds before the Iraq liberation

People of Kurdistan and the Shi’ites embraced President Bush’s call to rise up against Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime. At the time of popular apprising, it seemed that Saddam Hussein’s days were numbered. But, as it became clear, toppling the regime in Baghdad was not the US intention—rather it was an act to punish Saddam Hussein for his aggressive behavior towards Kuwait, Israel, and other friendly nations in the region.

In only a few weeks all Kurdistani cities including the ancestral Kerkȗk were liberated. In the South, Shi’ite rebels engaged in fierce street fighting and were rapidly gaining ground against regime’s security forces. Not expecting such a “rapid response” from Iraqis, the US administration was flabbergasted by the eagerness of the people to over through the tyranny.

However, as mentioned, America did not want to topple the regime in Baghdad. Bush’s political paradoxical analysis recommended that Saddam Hussein had learned his lesson and would not aggravate the situation or misbehave in the future. President Bush wanted a “reprimanded” Saddam to remain on the top of his military forces to maintain a buffer zone against Iran’s possible future threats and prevent Iran’s ambition in exporting its radical ideas to other Islamic countries, particularly countries with Shi’ite populations. Thus, President Bush not only let the dictator remain in power, but also allowed him to use his military might to suppress Iraqis’ popular uprising. This by all accounts, was a flagrant U-turn from Bush’s previous stance, “…for the Iraqi people to take the matter into their own hands and set aside the dictator…”

Saddam Hussein’s brutal forces brought the Shi’ite rebellion in the South to an end. Thousands of people were slaughtered, disappeared, or disabled for life. After regaining control over the Southern region, Saddam Hussein was in a better position to turn his fury against the people of Kurdistan. Iraqi hateful forces returned and started indiscriminately murdering people—this caused an exodus of some two million people into the mountains, which created a human catastrophe in Kurdistan.  While these people fled to escape Saddam’s imminent death sentence—hundreds were losing battle to the bitter cold on a daily basis. Sadly enough, not until the Kurdish misery created an international outcry did George H. W. Bush decide to create a safe haven to protect innocent lives.

Ostensibly, the so-called 36th parallel was thought of as a solution. This parallel was true only in theory—it was used to provide the minimal possible haven for the people of Kurdistan. It was called the 36th parallel—but in every practical sense, it had nothing to do with the 36th parallel. It was the unrealistic US desired solution—which, to many people, was like putting a bandage on a deep infected wound.  Under the so-called 36th parallel theory, the Bush administration penciled a line that barely included Duhok, Hewlêr, and Slêmanî. Under President Bush’s 36th parallel the majority of Kurdistani lands including Kerkȗk remained under the control of the central Iraqi regime.   This arbitrary and presumably temporary measure seems to be enshrined in American policy and remained US’s preferred “solution.”

This failure to protect the Kurds after calling upon them to revolt, certainly was America’s second betrayal of the people of Kurdistan—the first of its kind was when in 1975, the Nixon administration cut off aid to the Kurds, which caused the Kurdish movement to collapse. It is noteworthy to mention that both of the US betrayals of the people of Kurdistan took place under Republican administrations—presidents Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush. 

Although, the US protected the people who were in the safe haven from Saddam Hussein’s forces—those people continued to suffer economically. They endured two blockades—one by the international community on Iraq, and the other one was Iraq’s blockade on the people in the safe haven. Subsequently, the two blockades remained enforced until the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 by George W. Bush Jr. 

The US attitude towards the Kurds during the Iraq liberation

Soon after George W. Bush, the son, became the 43rd president of the United State, as it was reported later, he had ordered a plan for the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad. In the effort leading to the preparation for the invasion, America needed Turkish cooperation—the US needed divisions of its forces to pass through Turkey and into Iraq. To convince Turkey, the Bush administration reportedly gave the Turkish government a free hand in dealing with the Kurdish political presence in Kurdistan-Iraq, since Turkey, at the onset of the establishment of the Kurdish safe haven, expressed its opposition to any Kurdish gain in Iraq. To secure Turkish cooperation, the Kurdish card was rather a “discount bargain” for the US to offer the Turks to do as they liked with the Kurds. Nonetheless, for the US troops to pass through Turkey, the Turkish Parliament had to ratify the American request—however, the Turkish Parliament under the influence of Recep Teyyp Ordegan’s AKP majority, turned down Bush’s request and the US Plan A was dead on arrival to the Turkish parliament. 

The unfriendly Turkish attitude towards the US plan of Iraq invasion put America in somewhat of an awkward situation. Americans did not have much time before they had to come up with Plan B in order to increase pressure on Iraqi forces—hence they needed a gate from the “North.” To execute Plan B, cooperation of the Kurdish leadership was of importance to America’s effort in toppling the regime in Baghdad. Under Plan B, the Kurds who were about to be thrown under the boots of Turkish soldiers under Plan A, became “reliable” friends, and the Kurdish Peshmargas—who were well-organized and seasoned fighters became America’s “fighting partners.”

The Northern Front, with the help of the Kurds, caused the Iraqi forces further defeats. More areas were rapidly liberated including Kerkȗk for the second time—after its first liberation in 1991 during the uprising against Saddam Hussein. In the wake of such a transformation, the Arabs who were brought to arabize Kerkȗk all fled and went back to the cities and towns in the central and southern parts of Iraq in which they had previously lived. The Kurds who were expelled out of Kerkȗk by Saddam Hussein’s regime all began to return to their native city.  It is regrettable that the US forces, once again, forced the Peshmarga forces to leave Kerkȗk and made sure that the Arabs who left Kerkȗk had returned to the city. To maintain Kerkȗk out of Kurdish control, the US officials announced that the process of returning Arabs from Kerkȗk to their native regions must take place under a legal procedure—as if those Arabs were brought to arabize Kerkȗk under a law that was premised on a democratic Constitution. America had a unique opportunity to resolve the Kerkȗk issue—However, not only the US did not resolve the issue, but also further complicated it. 

The US attitude towards the Kurds after the Iraq liberation

The Kurdish role in the post-Saddam Iraq—although remarkable, for the most part, was taken for granted by George W. Bush’s administration. General Jay Garner, who was the first appointed US administrator to head Iraqi provisional government by President Bush, had a better understanding of the Kurdish plight and their historical national geography. Soon after he made a remark about Kerkȗk being a “Kurdish city,” the General was removed from his post and replaced by Paul Bremer who, by all accounts, was an oblivious of the complexity of Iraqi society, particularly with regard to the Kurdish relationship to Iraq. He acted as if he was the chosen “Messiah” sent to Iraq to rebuild the country on the US blueprint with the recentralized power in Baghdad.

This was ironic since Paul Bremer was a citizen of the United States that has been founded on the principles of a federal Constitution—a country that consists of 50 decentralized states in which each state, within the statewide borders, has its own jurisdiction. Nevertheless, Bremer had a 180 degree opposite vision for Iraq. As the carrier of Washington’s agenda and the head of Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Bremer remained a staunch opponent to a similar federation system for Iraq that would reflect the two major nationalities Kurds and Arabs with respect to their national geographies. Instead, Bremer revived and proposed the so-called “federation” that was based on the idea of “Iraq’s 18 governorates” that dated back to Saddam Hussein’s era. Sadly, the implication of Bremer’s ill intention was so grave that the existing administration of Kurdistan would have to accept its dissolution into the preexisting governorates of Iraq.

As the administrator of the CPA’s Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) of which various Iraqi political figures including Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzanî were rotating leadership for a month, Bremer made his move.  On November 15, 2003, only a few months after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, in a quick arrangement with Jalal Talabani, who then was the rotating president of the IGC—Bremer convinced Talabani to sign the agreement to reestablish the old form of Iraqi governorates and recentralize power in Baghdad. Seemingly, this would be the end of Kurdistan as an entity and the return of the Kurds to the second-class citizenship.

Having Talabani’s signature under his belt, Bremer thought he was closing the gap for his plan in reestablishing the old political structure of Iraq. He thought with Talabani’s backing, Barzanî would have no choice but to join the “club” and sign Bremer’s agreement. To accomplish his mission, Bremer went to Kurdistan and met with Masoud Barzanî. Bremer pressured Barzanî to join Talabani and sign the agreement to reestablish the governorates form of government—Barzanî categorically repudiated his pressure and made it clear to him that his wish would not be honored in Kurdistan since it was against the rights of the people of Kurdistan—thus Bremer’s ignominious mission to charm the people of Kurdistan with a “gift” of centralizing power in Baghdad was defeated in Pîrmam. Bremer returned to Baghdad empty handed.

Further, Jalal Talabani who had been preaching the “gospel” of “Self-determination” in Kurdistan signed the disgraced agreement for Bremer in Baghdad to end all that the people of Kurdistan had gained after a long and bloody struggle. Talabani’s agreement with Paul Bremer, if successful, would have made decades of Kurdish national resistance disappear in vain. But, Barzanî’s fortified opposition to Bremer’s and Talabani’s agreement did salvage Kurdistan—and today’s identity of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is the product of that day on which Barzanî said “No” to Bremer’s callous ploy.  

Furthermore, Condoleezza Rice, the top US diplomat as the Secretary of State who at the beginning of the invasion had a better attitude towards Kurdistan, began to trivialize the Kurdish federated identity in Iraq during her final year as Secretary of State.  This was part of her cynical effort for returning Iraq into the “Arab World” and rebuilding Iraq’s old political edifice.  Her statement, “Iraq is an Arab nation and the Arab countries should help Iraq return to the Arab world” was nothing short of belittling the Kurdish status and lacking respect for the cooperation the Kurds gave to the US in its invasion of Iraq. It certainly was demeaning to the plight and misery of this ancient people who have been suffering oppression for centuries as the direct result of the Western colonialism. Additionally, since the US has yet to show its support to the Kurdish “just” cause, the people of Kurdistan had never challenged America’s characterization of Iraq’s “Arab” identity—all the Kurds have always asked is to have their own “Kurdish” identity within the majority Arab Iraq. This is a right that the people of Kurdistan and their leadership will not compromise in order to appease others.

America’s role in downgrading the Kurdish status in Iraq

The US authorities in Washington and in Iraq never took a genuine step to understand the Kurdish historical misery under the racist Iraqi regimes. The current predicaments, particularly the issues of Kerkȗk and other parts of Kurdistan that were taken by Iraq’s previous regimes to arabize them could have been settled in 2003 when all Arabs left the city—nonetheless, the US policies, for the most part, were in favor of maintaining Arab control over these Kurdistani lands. Thus, when the US officials encouraged the return of Arabs to Kerkȗk—the US administration reinforced the continuation of the policy of arabizing Kerkȗk.

When the US officials stated that “the issue of Kerkȗk should be resolved through a legal procedure,” it was no more than a nakedly apparent scheme.  Because, all that the US officials did during some eight years in Iraq was to give “lip service” to the “legal procedure” and implementation of the Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution that calls for normalization of the changed demography of Kurdistan.

Late in 2011, the US administration vacated Iraq and withdrew its forces from the country and left all the crucial issues between Baghdad and Hewlêr unresolved. America removed a bloody dictator and broke Iraq, but never completed its mission to create a functioning democracy in the country—America left Iraq without rebuilding its political and legal systems—this laid ground for another dictator to come into existence—Nuri Maliki’s dictatorial persona, undoubtedly will take Iraq back to the dark days on which Iraq will continue the same cycle of hate and the people of Kurdistan will continue to suffer in that cursed cycle.


Kurdish commitment to the US success in Iraq never meant much for the US authorities, because the US administration was never sincere in making Iraq the “beacon of democracy” for the larger Middle East. This motto was nothing but an empty slogan—a slogan that was used to give more legitimacy to the US invasion of Iraq. 

Iraq as a failed state is a product of the British colonial interests, which came into existence after the WWI. It has always been run with an iron fist by one dictator after another until the spring of 2003, when America invaded the country and toppled the tyranny.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the end of Iraq as an institution. Iraq was literally dismantled. The dictatorships of minority Sunnis that headed Iraqi consecutive governments since Iraq came out of the womb of British colonialism were no longer executives of Iraq. The post-Saddam Iraq as the Bush administration referred to was meant to be a “New Iraq.” However, Iraq was anything and everything but “new.” Bush’s new Iraq was supposed to include Arabs, Kurds, and other ethnicities in a functioning democracy. Conversely, the US never tried to put a genuine effort to transform its slogan of democracy for Iraq into a reality. Further, one could ask how would it be possible for the so-called new Iraq to operate under a century old backward Arab political mentality.

Therefore, it would have been a wise strategy had the US administration implemented the Joe Biden plan and divided Iraq into three federated states (of Kurds, Shi’ites, and Sunnis) with Baghdad the capital of Federation of Iraq, or supported independence of Kurdistan. Surprisingly, the US administration withdrew all the American forces and left behind all the unresolved constitutional pending issues between Baghdad and Hewlêr. It was the same thing the British did in 1932, when they left the Kingdom of Iraq—they left the people of Kurdistan with no safeguard. Consequently, the Kurds were subjected to the policy of annihilation including the use of chemical weapons by Iraqi forces against them in the 1980s.

Additionally, since America’s involvement in the affairs of any nation in the world is premised on protecting US vital interests—perhaps, the US may well need a new vision for Iraq. That vision should encompass the fact that the Kurds are more reliable and trusted than not only Arabs in Iraq, but also other nations in the Middle East except Israel. The uphill and uneasy experience of the US with the political culture of Iraqi Arabs should lead the US to look for another alternative.

The change of the world map after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia proved that it wasn’t that bad as was previously thought. There is more peaceful coexistence among those former republics of the Soviet Union than many places in the world. Thus, there is no sanctity in preserving a post WWI map in certain places anymore. This map that was drawn after the WWI, for some ethnicities including the people of Kurdistan, has become the roots of unimaginable suffering. 

Finally, although, the people of Kurdistan have been pro-America, occasionally they have suffered as a result of the US policies in the region—nonetheless, they have not waivered in their admiration for America. As previously cited, after the Israelis, the people of Kurdistan are the most reliable people in the Middle East. Thus, America should support Kurdish national and democratic aspirations. Considering the uncertainty of the region—the US should strengthen its relations with people in the turbulent Middle East who are friendliest to its interests. Conceivably, now is a better time for the US leadership to reject the “Kurdo-phobia” that is engineered by the occupying countries of Kurdistan, and follow the courageous steps taken by the Exxon Mobile, Chevron and other oil companies. America needs to view Kurdistan with more realistic approaches and realize that Kurdistan has oil, gas and other natural resources. It is inhabited by a very friendly people, and it is situated in the most strategic region of the Middle East. Hence, promoting the US interests in Iraq and to a larger extent in the Middle East may rest with supporting and protecting independence of Kurdistan.

Kirmanj Gundi is a professor at the Department of Educational Administration and Leadership at Tennessee State University.

To comment please visit Professor Kirmanj Gundi's Blog


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