Kurdistan Rising

For the pesh in northern Iraq, it's the birth of a nation—and they don't mean Iraq

 SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQ—K.G. was just a kid when Saddam Hussein's army swept into his village near this city in northern Iraq.

It was spring 1991. Hussein's defeat in Kuwait at the hands of the American-led coalition had inspired both Shiites in southern Iraq and Kurds in the north to revolt.

The result of the Kurdish revolt is still in question in 2005, as Kurdish ambitions play out on the stage of Iraq's nascent democratic government. Kurds account for only 15 percent of Iraq's 25 million people. But with an estimated 75 to 85 percent of eligible Kurds voting on January 30, the Kurdish alliance led by Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) chief Jalal Talabani won 75 of the new national assembly's 275 seats. In recent weeks, Talabani has forged a coalition with the majority Shiite United Iraqi Alliance. As part of the deal, Talabani will serve as the new government's first president.

Old anxieties: Kurdish kids line up on a bridge on March 20 to watch U.S. soldiers.
photos: David Axe
Old anxieties: Kurdish kids line up on a bridge on March 20 to watch U.S. soldiers.

At stake as Kurds wield their growing political power are the unity of Iraq, more than 5 percent of the world's oil reserves located in one key Kurdish city, and a peculiar relationship that has developed over the years between the Kurds and the United States.

In 1991, the Iraqi army, battered though it was in Operation Desert Storm, swiftly crushed the Shiite revolt. But in mountainous Kurdistan—the area around Sulaymaniyah and north of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where half of Iraq's estimated 4 million Kurds live—guerrillas known as peshmerga, hardened by decades of insurgency, stopped Hussein's soldiers dead in their tracks.

Fourteen years later, the rusting remains of Iraqi tanks littering Sulaymaniyah bear grim testimony to the peshmerga forces' victory.

But Kurdish victory came too late for K.G. and his family. K.G.'s father was a well-known "pesh" leader in an area crawling with Iraqi agents. Their village ravaged and his cover blown, they fled north into Turkey in a column of refugees. K.G. recalls stealing bread from the houses of dead families and drinking from puddles teeming with frogs. Eventually, they reached the relative safety of Turkey. But in 1997, a brief civil war between Kurdish factions in Turkey claimed the life of K.G.'s father and put the family in flight again—this time to America, which since 1991 had become a sort of big brother to young Kurdistan. Since the pesh victory, the U.S. Air Force had flown daily air patrols over northern Iraq and dropped food supplies to starving Kurdish villages.

Now, years later, Kurdistan is all grown up—and K.G., now in his mid-20s, is too. And like his father and his grandfather before him, he's a soldier in the Kurdish army.

Sort of.

Actually, K.G. is a U.S. Defense Department translator working for the U.S. Army in Sulaymaniyah. But he carries a weapon, wears a uniform, speaks Kurdish most of the time, and is still an Iraqi (he says "Kurdish") national. And in order to protect himself from insurgents, he identifies himself only as "K.G."—a practice entirely consistent with that of other Kurds, who typically use only one name.

K.G. says that he's a Kurd and an American—and that he's equally proud to be both. In a land whose fortunes are irrevocably tied to the United States, K.G. is a living, breathing symbol of an unusual and, at times, uneasy alliance.

On Kurdish maps, the limit of Saddam Hussein's former reach into northern Iraq is marked in green with a wobbly line running east to west through the 36th parallel. The Green Line, they call it. Everything north of the line is Kurdistan.

Officially, there is no Kurdistan, except to Kurds. And while it has its own army, police, and courts—even its own national assembly— Kurdistan is not recognized by any other nation in any official capacity. All of autonomous Kurdistan is contained within the borders of Iraq, and these days, Iraq's territorial integrity is a main priority of the U.S. government. Meanwhile, Kurdish regions in neighboring Iran and Turkey are anything but autonomous—oppressed is more like it. While some Kurds dream of a pan-state Kurdistan that would unite all Kurds under one government, that's unlikely as long as both Iran and Turkey have all those tanks and helicopters, and as long as the U.S. has any say. Only in Iraq, only in the unique conditions created by U.S. intervention in the region, beginning with Operation Desert Shield in 1990, could there be any Kurdistan at all, official or otherwise.

Kurdistan only exists because, from 1991 to 2003, the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force flew round-the-clock jet fighter patrols over northern Iraq that kept Hussein's own aircraft on the ground and hamstrung his forces. It was this advantage that enabled the lightly equipped pesh fighters to best the Iraqi army.

The pesh are the key to Kurdish autonomy and, inasmuch as Kurdistan has prospered, the key to its success—a fact not lost on the U.S. Army. There are very few U.S. forces deployed north of the Green Line, and those that are carry unloaded weapons and defer to Kurdish commanders. American troops of the Idaho National Guard's 116th Regiment, deployed to Camp Stone in Sulaymaniyah, even live inside a pesh compound.

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