Struggle for homeland

The Kurds have been lied to, double-crossed and used in their history, but they're a wild card as war looms.

March 02, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

ONCE AGAIN, as the Kurds find themselves in the middle of a high-stakes game of international poker, it is not clear if they are a player in it or just a chip on the table pushed around by the big powers who hold all the cards.

Throughout the past century, as the Kurds have been dominated by regional rulers and used by Western powers, their elusive goal of an ethnic homeland has remained just out of reach. Despite their strategic importance in the current dispute with Iraq, there is no indication the Kurds will get any closer to making that dream a reality.

With a population estimated at 25 million, the Kurds are said to be the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland. The country of Kurdistan exists only in hopeful longings, the map of an imaginary land that takes in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Still, the Kurds have a few cards to play. Though some dispute it, the Kurds say their land includes Kirkuk, location of some of the richest oil deposits in Iraq. And Kurds control the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, giving them an important say over the fate of water in the region.

In the run-up to this war, the 5 million Kurds in Iraq have been talked up as fierce foes of Saddam Hussein, the ethnic and geographical equivalent of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan that was so crucial to the defeat of the Taliban.

But the Kurds are fiercer foes of Turkey, a country considered an important ally of the United States as it prepares for the conquest of Iraq. Negotiations to ensure Turkey's cooperation have centered on two issues - money and the Kurds. The Turks want cash and assurances that the United States will not arm and encourage the nationalistic aspiration of the Iraqi Kurds in a way that might spill over to the 10 million Kurds who make up a quarter of Turkey's population.

Latest reports indicate that the United States has agreed to Turkish demands to prohibit an autonomous Kurdish region in the north of a post-Hussein Iraq - lest it give Turkish Kurds any ideas - and to allow Turkish troops to come into Iraq and monitor disarmament of Kurdish militias after the fight is over.

Add to that the fact that the Kurds have been double-crossed by the United States twice in recent years, and that every time they seem to be advancing their cause they disintegrate into internal squabbles, and a picture of the tangled web of Kurdish politics begins to emerge.

"They've been fairly regularly screwed throughout history," says Larry P. Goodson, director of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College. "That's kind of what you do if you work in the Middle East - before your career is over, make sure you screw the Kurds at least once."

But all too often they have been their own worst enemy.

"They remain a minority split across several countries, and they are not happy about it," says Monty G. Marshall, a senior research associate at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It is not clear if anything will make them happy. They are a very independent bunch of people."

If there was a high point in the history of the Kurds, who have occupied this mountainous region for thousands of years, it came in the 12th century. That was when a Kurd named Saladin became a legendary Islamic warrior, driving the Crusaders from their Holy Land conquests - and then treating those Christian subjects with much more kindness than they had shown Muslims when taking Jerusalem 88 years before.

Saladin ruled a land that extended from his homeland in what is now Iraq to Egypt. Coincidentally, he was born in Tikrit, the hometown of Hussein. But after Saladin's death in 1193, his Kurdish heirs resorted to bickering. "Mountain people are very independent groups of people," Marshall says, noting similar disunity among Afghans. "That's why they live in mountains."

After World War I, the victors carved up the spoils in a way that left most of the Middle East under British and French control, taking over from the Ottoman Turks whose empire had sided with the Germans.

Under the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, maps in the region were to have included Kurdistan under principles calling for ethnic self-determination. But in 1923, the final Treaty of Lausanne made no mention of the Kurds. Partly that was because the Turks and others had asserted their authority on the ground, staking out de facto control over Kurdish areas. It also was because the British, who hoped to administer the new Kurdish state, were not given a hero's welcome.

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