Sunday, March 05, 2006

Kurdistan

For the past few weeks the Washington Monthly has had a fascinating series on that rarest of things - good news from Iraq. You can read Jonathan Dworkin's reporting on his travels through northern Iraq here. As an account of one of the few tasks the U.S. has actually succeeded at in Iraq, the series is quite interesting, but I think Dworkin is leaning toward the wrong conclusions based on his experience in the Kurdish regions of Iraq.

As Arab Iraq seems to descend closer and closer to all-out civil war, it's tempting to write off the lower 70% of the country for the sake of the Kurds, who seem to be succeeding at creating a viable state in the north. However, there's one overriding problem with partition as a policy option, and that's the existence of large, ethnically-mixed cities like Kirkuk and to a lesser extent Mosul. While these cities haven't exactly been known for their tranquility since the fall of Saddam, neither have they erupted into the nightmares of Yugoslav-style ethnic cleansing that many feared. But the prospect of Kurdish independence (or even regional autonomy greater than what exists now) would probably be the straw that breaks the camel's back, prompting the Kurdish political parties to accelerate the currently ongoing process of Kurdish resettlement in Kirkuk, and likewise leading Arab militants to do everything in their power to scare Kurds out of those cities.

The inevitable Turkish opposition to Kurdish independence is probably the most-mentioned argument against partition, but I don't think this is really such a serious stumbling block. I haven't read anything that would indicate Turkey would actually intervene militarily (rogue Turkish special forces agents aside), and short of that there's not very much Ankara could do to prevent the Kurds from formalizing their independence. Moreover, to some degree the existence of an independent Kurdish state would actually benefit Turkey, by giving those Turkish Kurds who most want to live in a Kurdish country an outlet for their nationalism. With the emigration of many of the most nationalistic Kurds, militant groups like the PKK would have a much harder time finding support in Turkey's Kurdish population.

Nonetheless, the specter of ethnic bloodbaths in Kirkuk and Mosul seems to be a pretty much intractable problem with partition. The Kurdish political parties don't seem to want to give up Kirkuk and neither do the Sunni Arabs. Without the possibility of agreement on that issue, it seems like the Kurds' fate is tied to the rest of Iraq.