Iraqi Kurds Are a People Without a Country, But They Are Critical to Finding Stability in the Middle East

The Kurds are a people without a country, and therein lies a complication that reaches deep attempts to bring stability to the Middle East.The Kurdish people are spread across four countries: Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. But most Americans likely know of the Kurds for two things. First, they created an autonomous region in northern Iraq that was protected by a no-fly zone before Saddam Hussein was deposed.The second thing Americans may know about the Kurds is that they have proven to be particularly fierce fighters. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been a strong backstop against the spread of ISIS in Iraq and a key ingredient to retaking territory. The Peshmerga also famously include women fighters.One report from Reuters a few years ago is typical of stories that have filtered back to Americans. It chronicled a unit containing women that was attacked by ISIS. The women first used loudspeakers to taunt the enemy by breaking into song (ISIS forbids singing) and then opened fire with machine guns.The complicating factor here is the Kurds have created an autonomous region and a strong fighting force because they've long faced persecution. Saddam Hussein was particularly brutal, including using chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988.Following the American invasion, the Kurds were pulled into the national government of Iraq. But the history doesn't stop there as tensions have flared over a range of issues.The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government representative to the United States, Bayan Rahman, was recently in Dallas as a guest of the World Affairs Council and HKN Energy, a Hillwood company with oil drilling operations in Iraqi Kurdistan.To explain what is happening in the region, Rahman also visited the offices of The Dallas Morning News.Below are excerpts of the editorial board's conversation with Rahman:Most Americans aren't familiar with what's happening on the ground in region. Can you give us a quick sense of the relevant history?We thought in 2003 that after the liberation of Iraq we could turn over a new leaf, that this would be a new chapter in Iraq. We helped to draft the 2005 constitution of Iraq, and we believe that the constitution sets out the only way that all of us Iraqis can live together in peace. It sets out a federal structure for Iraq, not a centralized form of government, which has proven to be catastrophic for Iraq.Unfortunately we saw all of those hopes being dashed, many articles of the constitution being unraveled, violated or ignored. If you look at what happened in Iraq under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, as soon as the Americans withdrew from Iraq he began to hound the Sunni community. Their leaders were arrested, or arrest warrants were issued and they escaped out of the country. He sacked people from various government institutions because they were Sunnis. When there were protests by the Sunni community because of bad services they were met with violence.So it wasn't surprising that a group like ISIS sprang out of Iraq. It didn't come to Iraq from somewhere else. It is a creature of Iraq. It isn't surprising that when ISIS rose up that many of the Sunni Arabs supported it. Maybe they came to regret it later when they realized how brutal they are, but at the beginning they offered an attractive alternative to what Baghdad was offering them.And so in 2014 ISIS spread up. They took over Mosul. There were several divisions of the Iraqi Army in Mosul using or equipped with American sophisticated weapons. They were Shia forces. They were not made up of locals. The Iraqi divisions in Mosul didn't do a single thing. They didn't fire a single shot to protect the people of Mosul when ISIS invaded. They left their equipment, they took off their uniforms, and they fled. And so ISIS overnight took over all over the banks in Mosul and had billions of dollars, took over all of the military equipment that the Iraqi military had left.Fortunately at that moment President Obama ordered airstrikes. This was in August 2014. And the strikes turned everything around. The [Kurdish] Peshmerga didn't have the weapons to fight ISIS.And we should also look at why the Peshmerga were not trained and equipped. We have our own training programs but they were not given the same training that the Americans had given to the Iraqi army, nor did they have the same equipment as the Iraqi army. And this was a deliberate policy by successive governments in Baghdad after 2005.I'm saying all of this to explain why we had a referendum. We all know that the people of Kurdistan want independence. We weren't asked whether we wanted to be part of Iraq, but we are part of Iraq. We have never been treated as equal citizens. We have been oppressed. Genocide has been committed against us under successive Iraqi regimes, most notoriously under Saddam, and then again under ISIS.For the longest time all that we heard from the White House, State Department, was words against the referendum: "It's unfortunate, it's illegal, it's unconstitutional," all of which we disagree with, and we've said that to them face-to-face.Now the U.S. says that it is against an independent Iraqi Kurdistan but it favors a strong, viable, unified Kurdistan region within a sovereign Iraq.How realistic is the concern that a stronger Kurdistan would lead to an independence movement that would go across borders?Well, the referendum was only for Iraqi Kurdistan and you had to prove you were an Iraqi citizen to be able to vote. My husband's an Iranian Kurd and he couldn't vote, for example.But definitely Iran and Turkey became very concerned about the referendum. There was a sense of euphoria about the referendum across all parts of Kurdistan. And I think the day of the referendum and a few days after there were celebrations everywhere. So, sure, that would cause concern. But frankly if Turkey, Iran and Syria treated their Kurds better then maybe, like Scotland, they would be happy to be equal citizens of that country.Talk about your relationship with American oil companies. The region has attracted a number of U.S. oil companies in the past decade, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Hunt Oil Co.The problem with oil, actually, is the lack of a revenue-sharing law in Iraq. We have been pushing for a revenue-sharing law since about 2006 or 2007, and we still believe that a revenue-sharing law would take away a lot of the problems, not just between the Kurds and Baghdad, but for the Sunnis as well, for places like Basra. Basra sits on massive oil wealth but the city itself is a dump. So if you're someone from Basra, there's a lot of tension in Basra, people wondering why their city is in that state.So for example, in 2014 Baghdad cut off our share of the federal budget. We were supposed to get 17 percent of the federal budget for Kurdistan. And then unilaterally, in February 2014, al-Maliki just shut it off completely. So we started to export oil and to keep the revenues. We would have given the revenues to the federal government if we were getting our budget. But you cut off our budget, we have to survive. So we have kept the revenues.And we're proud of our relationship with the oil companies. Kurdistan is rich in oil and gas. Of course, it has been throughout the century that Iraq has existed, but it was deliberately neglected because no Iraqi government wanted Kurdistan to be wealthy, to be prosperous.Walk us through how independence could reasonably work in a way that you'd gain international partners.The the makeup of the next government will decide the next chapter, frankly. Then the other thing that we're doing already but we'll, I think, do even more proactively after the election is to focus on implementation of the constitution. We still believe that the Iraqi constitution is the only way that Iraq can be peaceful.What would it take for you guys to remain bought into the idea of federal Iraq? I'm trying to get a sense of what your real goal is, and whether independence is an aspiration or if it's actually something you're hoping to achieve.Well, every Kurd, in their heart, dreams of independence, and that hasn't died. But we're also realistic about where we are. And the Kurdish independence movement faces challenges that many other countries don't because we're divided between four countries. So the dream of independence will always be there, but we also have to live with the realities that surround us.Elizabeth Souder is the assistant editorial editor and a member of the Dallas Morning News editorial board.Brendan Miniter is vice president, editor of editorials and a member of The Dallas Morning News editorial board. What's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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