"We Would have Liked To Explain": From Occupation to Liberation in Kurdistan

Andrea Schmidt

May 4, 2004

Suleymania, Liberated Kurdistan

Visiting Kurdistan as an anti-occupation, anti-imperialist is, admittedly, a head wreck.

It isn’t just the fact that Suleymania, a university town in the eastern part of the region governed by the PUK, is surrounded by green mountains and lakes and coniferous trees, and looks like a different country than the one I’ve lived in for the past two months. Or the fact that the amount of Kurdish spoken makes it sound like a different country. Or even the fact that the distinctly Kurdish culture, evident to a first-time visitor in dress and in a propensity for lavish Friday picnics, makes it feel like a different country.

It isn’t the fact that the Kurdish flag flies proudly next to the Iraqi flag. (The old one – the new one hasn’t caught on any better here than it has in the rest of Iraq.) It isn’t even that the US Occupation Forces who are posted in the area are strangely invisible, or that there is unanimity among the cab drivers polled by my travel companion that Suleymania is good and completely safe these days. “Suleymania is heaven,” says one man emphatically. You don’t get that very often in Baghdad.

No. It is a head wreck because it becomes very easy to understand why the Kurdish majority in this region -- who some in the anti-occupation movement have found it so easy to disparage, dismiss and ignore for collaborating with the US-led occupation -- has decided that it is a worthwhile bargain to accept US intervention in order to preserve space in which to determine their future as a self-governed nation. It is a space they fought for in the 1991 uprisings, and a space that they have been able to develop over the past thirteen years of relative autonomy from Saddam and the Ba'athist regime in Baghdad that brutalized them for years before.

We go to visit the Women’s Information and Culture Center, one of the many women’s centers that have emerged in that space. They publish a newspaper and do media and awareness work around women’s issues, including honor killings and forced marriages. But Runak Faraj, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, is less interested in discussing the Center’s activities than in setting things straight for the two anti-war activists sitting in her office. “We would have liked to explain to the people who were against the war and the sanctions that they should try to live the way we lived. The majority of Kurds would be happy to have the US forces stay. … Because of many years of war and struggle, we were all alone. The only force stronger [than the regime in Baghdad] is the US force, so we wanted them to stay and help us.” Referring to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, she says, “This is the first chance for the Kurdish people to be free.”

The unfortunately-named Civilization Development Organization, one of a proliferating number of local NGOs based in the city, has relationships with a number of international organizations and funding agencies. The staff at CDO receive us graciously and take us to visit their newest project, the renovation of a building formerly used by the Ba'athist Intelligence Service to house a ‘Democracy Training Center.’ “After the liberation of Iraq, many new groups were established. In Kurdistan, we had 12 years of experience in democratization” [after the 1991 uprisings and the establishment of the US-enforced no-fly zone], says Atta Mohamed Ahmal, General Director of CDO. “We saw that it was necessary to [use our experience to] help the rest of Iraq.”

So in July, the completed training center will host forty delegates who have been recruited from Iraqi NGOs all over the country who attend lectures given by Kurdish, Iraqi and international lecturers on the principles of human rights and democracy, while living in old mukhabarat jail cells that have been converted into dormitories. “We had to put in the windows ourselves,” says Ahmal, “because before there were only walls – very strong walls.” For Ahmal, the transformation of the location is a sign of hope for a new era of democracy in Kurdistan and for the rest of Iraq. I swallow my skepticism, partly a reaction to the fact that project is funded by the Research Triangle Institute International, under the civil society development program they are carrying out across Iraq as a contractor for the CPA and USAID. Isn’t this engineering of ‘civil society’ by foreign funders just a form of soft imperialism, the prettification of occupation?

The nearby National Museum is also housed symbolically in the converted Security Headquarters of the old regime. Photos of what our Kurdish guides refer to as the period “when we were under occupation” in the late 80s line wall after wall. Not much prettifying here. There are pictures of Kurdish martyrs handcuffed to poles, murdered publicly by the Ba’athist regime in order to intimidate the rest of the population. The photos display the faces of the many disappeared, and of house demolitions in some of the 5000 Kurdish villages destroyed by the regime. The ugly face of occupation, so similar in different places, at different times.

There is a picture of a decapitated man, handcuffed to a pole. He is flanked by three smiling Ba'athist soldiers, one of whom is flashing a victory sign. It is the day after the pictures of US reservists torturing and humiliating detainees at Abu Ghraib prison have started circulating in the media. Occupation – the attempt to completely dehumanize the people whose land you occupy.

The Ba'athist occupation of Kurdistan and dehumanization of the Kurds involved the forced displacement in Kirkuk and other strategic areas, detention, torture, the destruction of over 5,000 towns and villages and ultimately, the genocidal Anfal campaign during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war that systematically killed over 100,000 Kurds and included the deployment of chemical weapons on the Kurdish population. During the March 16th 1988 attack on the town of Halabja, only the most famous of the Anfal offensives, over 5,000 people were massacred and 11,000 injured by the gas.

Maybe all uprisings are similar too, I think as our guides proudly point out the peshmerga in a series of photos taken on the first days of the Kurdish uprising in 1991. There is a picture of kids dancing on an abandoned and burnt out Ba'athist tank, and I think of the kids I saw dancing on a burnt out US humvee in Sadr City three and a half weeks ago. There is also a series of pictures taken several weeks into the uprising, when the Ba'athists sent in heavily armed troops in an attempt to put it down. They show thousands of people fleeing into the mountains toward the Iranian border, where many sought refuge. I think of the long line of families that fled Falluja for Baghdad last month, when the uprising began and US marines began slaughtering.

In Baghdad recently, I have sensed a growing fear among average people – a fear not only induced by the terror spread by Occupation Forces in the prisons and in the neighborhoods, but also by the uncertainty about who will ultimately take power in the capital. In Suleymania, there is less fear – again, product of thirteen years of relative autonomy from Baghdad and a year of what people univocally refer to as liberation. But there is a clear undercurrent of anxiety that a government based in Baghdad will again seek to control this region and that genocidal policies will be implemented to decimate the Kurdish population once again. On a week in which an ex-Republican Guard general is sent into Falluja to pacify the resistance, it is a difficult anxiety to dismiss.

The Kurds are determined that this anxiety will not become reality. Their determination is perhaps one reason that the Referendum Movement has proven to have such strong grass-roots support here. Founded last July, the Referendum Movement has collected over 1,850,000 signatures in favor of a referendum on whether Kurdistan should secede, or remain a part of a federalist Iraq. The vast majority of the people we have spoken to here say they would prefer to remain a part of Iraq in the sort of federalist arrangement provided for in the transitional constitution – but only if that arrangement is genuinely accepted and respected by the rest of the country. For the leaders of the Referendum Movement, what is important is that the people of Kurdistan are able to choose democratically the route that will best allow them to pursue their goals as a society.

Perhaps it is easy for the anti-occupation movement to scoff at the Kurdish political parties for joining the US-picked IGC. Perhaps as anti-imperialists we believe that the Kurdish people in Iraq – who seem to genuinely support their PUK and KDP leaders on the IGC – have made a deal with the devil, and that it is almost inconceivable that the devil won’t sell them out when it suits him. I admit that I almost choked when our guide at the Halabja memorial told us “In those days of the attack, the mountains were our only friends. Now we have a very powerful friend in the United States.” Perhaps none of this addresses how Arab-Kurdish tensions could be addressed constructively in a future Iraqi state, federalist or otherwise.

But if we are going to oppose the injustice that is the US occupation of Iraq by appealing to the right to self-determination of Iraqi people, we also have to actively support the right to self-determination of the Kurdish people in Iraq – even if we don't much like how they're going about achieving it. And that is why visiting Kurdistan is a head wreck.

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This report was written by Andréa Schmidt for the Iraq Solidarity Project. The Iraq Solidarity Project is a Montreal-based grassroots initiative to provide direct non-violent support to Iraqis struggling against the occupation; strengthen the mobilization against economic and military domination and anti-war work in Quebec and Canada; and build links of solidarity between struggles against the occupation of Iraq and struggles against oppression in Canada and Quebec.

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