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.

There's a healthy respect for the pesh among American soldiers here. But it's a respect tempered by the danger the pesh pose to U.S. intentions in Iraq. For America wants a stable, peaceful Iraq—an Iraq where rival ethnic groups bury their differences and where the oil flows freely. But Kurds want at least their autonomy—many say their independence—and in the short term, that would mean breaking Iraq into pieces and shuffling around its ethnic populations, a process that would be anything but peaceful. And as for oil, 40 percent of Iraq's reserves—5 percent of the world's—lie beneath Kirkuk, a city of almost a million people just south of the Green Line. But despite pumping nearly a million barrels of oil per day, Kirkuk suffers a gasoline shortage and still has neighborhoods that are "below Third World," according to Brigadier General Alan Gayhart, the 55-year-old commander of the 116th.

Since the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad has a monopoly on the state's oil production and is using oil revenue to fund reconstruction, "nothing comes back into Kirkuk," says Major Darren Blagburn, 36, also from the Idaho regiment.

All that would change if the Kurds had their way.

Kirkuk's population is evenly split among Shiites, Arab Sunnis, and Kurds, but it's surrounded by areas that are almost entirely Kurdish, and many Kurds eye it as the heart of a future independent Kurdistan. "The PUK's goal is to bring Kirkuk into Kurdistan as the capital," Blagburn says.

But any Kurdish attempt at taking Kirkuk from Iraq could instigate large-scale violence, because of what Blagburn calls the city's "competing social demographics."

"In order to keep a unified, peaceful Iraq," Blagburn adds, "Talabani must keep the Kurds back."

Kirkuk is a fascinating place. As Gayhart says, "A political science major would go nuts here."


Old pesh are a rare breed, because most pesh die fighting. For a century, they've fought for Kurdish independence—first on horseback with sabers and breech-loading rifles, later with AK-47s and Soviet-built tanks captured from the Iraqi army. Even with the tanks, they were always outgunned by their enemies. But the pesh relied on stealth, dark of night, and not a little savagery to gain the upper hand during the bloody '80s and early '90s. K.G. remembers when pesh would slip into towns at night, gun down collaborators in their homes or in the streets, then slip away. That yesterday's pesh used the same tactics as today's insurgents is not lost on him. Old-school pesh were terrorists.

But these old pesh are now in their forties and fifties. They've graduated from gaunt terrorists to potbellied military officers and politicians. Their goals are the same, but their means have evolved.

Anwar Dolani was a pesh fighter—and one of the best. It was his troops that destroyed the last Iraqi tank to penetrate Sulaymaniyah in 1991; its rusting carcass is a famous landmark. After the liberation in 2003, Dolani surrendered his PUK membership in order to accept a general's commission in the new Iraqi army.

His men came with him.

Today, fat and imposing at the age of 47, with a cigarette always in one hand and a bottle of Scotch in the other, Dolani is one of the most powerful men in Kurdistan, commanding an entire brigade of 2,000 former pesh wearing Iraqi army uniforms and overseeing security for all of Sulaymaniyah and its environs. He wears the uniform of his former enemy—and not with irony. Dolani says that his people are becoming the real Iraq and that they want the rest of the country to "stop falling behind."

He's got a point.


Sergeant José Alvarez tours a park near Sulaymaniyah during Kurdish new year celebrations.
photo: David Axe
Kurdistan is the most prosperous region of the country—so prosperous that it steals jobs from other areas. "We're seeing a lot of businesses move to Kirkuk from Baghdad because it's safer," Blagburn says.

Kurdistan's a refuge too. Local security forces—overwhelmingly pesh and former pesh—are entirely capable of independent operations. They even deploy to other parts of Iraq for emergencies. On election day, Kurdish patrols appeared unannounced in the Sunni town of Baqubah and began clearing roadside bombs from polling sites. Kurdish forces are so strong that the U.S. Army plans to turn over Kirkuk within weeks, making it the first city outside of Kurdistan proper to make the full transition from foreign to local protection.

"Because of the safety and security, Arabs come here to forget about the problems in their own towns," Colonel Kamal, one of Dolani's lieutenants and another former pesh, says, as K.G. translates. "Kurds have a good habit of respecting them."

During a visit to a shrine to the 5,000 victims of Hussein's 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja (a former pesh stronghold), a badly scarred Arab gentleman in his fifties approaches this reporter, introduces himself as a doctor, and says in British-accented English that I must show the world the evils of terrorism.

"I've tasted it," he says.

Two years ago, he was working for the U.N. in the Baghdad Green Zone. On August 19, 2003, an insurgent rocket attack blew off half his face. Only the quick work of U.S. Army surgeons saved him. After months of treatment abroad, he returned to Iraq. But word was out on him; death threats piled up. So he fled to Kurdistan—the only place in Iraq, he says, where he feels safe.

"We're Kurds, but we're never against anyone," Dolani explains. "Our goal is every human on earth considering every other human equal."

That's Dolani the pesh-turned-politican talking. But even Dolani the politician betrays his nationalistic priorities. "[Kurds and Arabs] are all the same, but [the Kurds'] true leader is Talabani."

That's just Talabani. Not Talabani's coalition. Not the Iraqi government. Just Talabani.

In a moment of candor after an emotional visit to the Halabja shrine, Colonel Kamal is more direct: "Arabs were troublemakers from the beginning. This is our land, but no one will call it our land. It's the 21st century . . . and we don't even have a country."

And the U.S. government hopes it stays that way. In the meantime, anxious American officers in Kurdish cities keep an eye on their pesh and former-pesh comrades. American diplomats walk a fine line between their resolute demand for a unified Iraq and their tacit recognition and open respect for Kurdish accomplishments. Everyone waits and watches as Talabani and his landless people plan their next move.

As for K.G., he's torn. "I love the U.S. I love Kurdistan," he says. And even while he's fighting the good fight in Kurdistan—a Kurdish soldier in an American uniform—he's applying for U.S. citizenship so he can join the FBI.

But he says he'll always be a Kurd.

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