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Iraqi Chaos May Give Kurds a State

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Cross-posted from Consortium News

As Iraq unravels amid Sunni-Shiite sectarian warfare, the chances have increased that the relatively peaceful and prosperous Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq may break off and form an independent Kurdish state, a long-treasured dream of the Kurdish people who also inhabit parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Kurdish and Middle East Scholar Edmund Ghareeb believes this possibility could be the major story emerging from the chaos unfolding across Iraq and Syria. Ghareeb spoke with Dennis J Bernstein on Pacifica Radio's Flashpoints show. A scholar at American University in Washington, he has written extensively about the Kurdish movement...

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DB: You said today "The 21st Century is likely to be the Kurdish Century in the Middle East. There is both great opportunity, right now for the Kurds, perhaps the greatest in recent history, and serious threats."

EG: Well, the Kurds are going to be a major player, whatever happens in Iraq. To a certain extent a great deal will depend on what kind of a stand do the Kurds take in this vicious, fierce fighting that's taking place between the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant ... that's taking the fighting in Iraq....

But for the Kurds, I think there are three major forces. Of course, there is the [Iraqi] government, there are the forces of the Islamic State and its allies. And there are the Kurdish forces. The Kurdish have in the last two decades, established their own autonomous region. They have established a secure region, compared to what's been going on in Iraq. Their economy is thriving. They have their own pesh mergas, ... their own military force. And so they have an effective military force in Iraq.

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And they have recently taken over the city of Kirkuk, which they had been claiming for quite a while. Kirkuk is a very important city, for a variety of reasons. For instance, [it is] one of the more cosmopolitan cities in Iraq, it used to have, and to a certain extent still does [have] many different ethnic and religious communities. But, what makes Kirkuk very important, one, is that it is the center for the northern fields ... Iraqi oil fields. And before the discovery of the oil fields in the south, that was Iraq's main oil field.

And there are probably, still today, somewhere between 17% and 20% of Iraq's oil is in that area. The Kurds have claimed this, as their own Jerusalem, in a sense. The Turkoman, another ethnic community, which at one time, used to be protected by Turkey and used to look to the Turkish government for support also claimed Kirkuk as have Arabs.

So as a result of this, you have now the control of this area by the Kurds, as well as the important, the disputed areas, in other parts of Iraq. What this says, if the Kurds can keep this area ... then they might be able, if they wished to do so, and many of them have been saying that ... "Maybe this is the time." They might be able to establish an independent state of their own, which has been the Kurdish dream for many, many decades. The Kurds had not been able to achieve that, and there is question whether they will or not be able to achieve it now.

But if they decide to move in that direction, then that means that the Iraq, that we used to know, is finished, and for sure. Because that will leave only the Sunni areas, and the Shiite areas, which are basically at each other's throat. And if that fighting continues, then we are likely to see the end of Iraq.

DB: Now, unlike in prior days, there seems to be some support from the Turkish government for an independent Kurdistan, on the one hand, of course, there are 5 million Kurds, as you point out, in Iraq now, or Kurdistan, and 20 million in Turkey, so if the Turkish government supports the state next door, this could be trouble for Turkey. You want to talk about this complicated situation?

EG: Absolutely. And I think this is fascinating, in a sense, what's going on. On the one hand, we have seen a real improvement in the relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish regional government. Which is the autonomous government, Kurdish government in Iraq. The Kurds have had problems with the central government in Baghdad. They've had disputes over oil revenues. The Kurds have wanted to explore the oil, for oil in their own region, and they wanted to be able to export it. And Turkey has been sympathetic to that view. And in fact we have recently seen oil, for the first time, about the equivalent of two tankers, have been sold through Turkey, Kurdish oil, or oil from the Kurdish region.

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So that is one problem which has brought the Kurds and, the Iraqi Kurds and the Turkish government together. The second factor is that the Turkish government and the Iraqi government have not seen eye-to-eye on a number of issues; whether it's Syria, whether it's a question of trade with the Kurds. And, in fact, the Iraqi government has threatened to bring what they consider to be the illegal act by Turkey of buying oil from Iraq without the approval of the central government in the International Arbitration Court.

So, there is bad blood between the two governments. On top of that, Turkey needs the Kurds of Iraq to help in its efforts to achieve dialogue and perhaps reconciliation and the beginning of a resolution of the problem of the Turkish Kurds. And, so the Iraqi Kurds have been trying to play the role of the mediator between the Turkish government and the Kurds.

And the last item, which is very important, is also that Turkey would like to diversify its oil [supplies]. Turkey is energy poor, and therefore if it could get more oil from the Kurdish region then that would strengthen its economy and would sort of relieve them from relying on Baghdad or on other oil and energy rich countries, whether it's Iran, or whether it's Russia. So there are complicated games being played. But at the heart of it, if the Kurds decide to go ahead and establish an independent republic of their own, an independent state, then there is going to be trouble.

There are many Turks who are very much opposed to the present government's efforts to negotiate with the Kurdish population and with [Abdullah] Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers Party, which is a party which had been fighting against Turkey since 1984. And there are many Turks who worry, as you pointed out correctly, that if the 5 million Kurds in Iraq can establish their own state, why can't the 20 to 22 million Kurds in Turkey do the same thing, and emulate their brethren in Iraq?

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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