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The Kurdish identity in Iraq: negotiation as a method for intrastate conflict

By: Saeed Kakeyi
February 03, 2008

Abstract
The Kurdish conflict in Iraq has attracted grown international interest and concern after the end
of the Cold War. The factional Kurdish fighting in Iraq with encouragements from regional
powers meant the destruction of the unique Kurdish identity emerging after the 1991 Gulf War.
However, thanks to the international third-party negotiations and mediations, Kurds were able to
leave their infightings behind and focus on rebuilding homeland like never before.

Introduction
Before the 1991 Gulf war, the Kurdish struggle for self-determination had largely been in retreat.
Repeated defeats over the past century by the Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian ruling
governments, with the complicity of the world’s previous bipolar regimes, Kurdish conflict
become worsened more and more.
The results of the 1991 Gulf War and the “CNN effects” on world politics, have both
given the Kurds an astonishing opportunity to internationalize their sufferings (Robinson: 2002,
63). The Kurdish political elites within the Kurdistan Front in Iraq showed how advanced their
nationalist struggle was and approved their lawful fights for self-determination; this time more
sharply than since the end of World War.
The Kurds in Iraq, six million people, are part of a larger nation estimated to be around
forty million Kurds. Their greater homeland, Kurdistan, become divided by the European
colonials early in 1920s between the newly created states of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Since the creation of Iraq in 1923, Kurds in Iraq engaged in revolts one after the other in
hopes to resolve their identity conflict with the central governments of Iraq.
By the end of the Cold War and onward, Kurds in Iraq faced menace challenges and
matchless opportunities. Within this conflicting environment, Kurds were able to set up a unique
national identity; a little shy than a nation-state. How did they do it? What methods of conflict
prevention have they been using? Did they reach any positive outcomes? This paper will address
these and other related questions, arguing that it is interest which mainly entails conflict.

Definition of conflict
During the last four decades, notable amount of literature produced to define, analyze and
manage conflict. Although most of these literatures focus on interstate conflicts, there are some
candid tries debating intrastate and ethnonational conflicts.
According to Thomas Grisham, Anthropologist David Levinson (1994) defines conflict
as a dispute between individuals or groups of people over access to or control of economic,
political, social, and personal resources. He then describes ethnic conflict as originating from
culture, religion, and physical features of language (Grisham: 2006, 143-144).
Michelle LeBaron defines conflict as “interpersonal interactions that occur in the contexts
of cultures” (LeBaron: 2001, 2). She furthers that “[t]he exact influence of culture will differ
from person to person as no two individuals from the same country, region, religion, socio-
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economic class, gender or generation will exhibit the same constellation of cultural behaviours
and attitudes” (LeBaron, 2001).
Both, Levinson and LeBaron, underline culture as a dynamic force generating conflict.
However, known that culture is a by-product of low-context literate orb which pulses individual
values and beliefs in a rhythmic order; therefore, nonrhythmic pulses of values and beliefs which
fluctuate—common in high-context oral orb—have to be because of something other than
culture. The “other,” this paper argues, is “interest.”
Interest motivates a person to act the way he or she acts. Interest has no face, color or a
bounding shape. It comes from a person’s own anatomy and grows by merging with interests of
other associates whom the person feels passionately belonging to. The associational belonging,
therefore, can either be real or imaginary. Real, when it is closely netted by interests of
preserving shared loyalty (family kinship, relatives, clan, tribe, qabila and people—nation),
honor (dignity and pride), property (land, livestock and natural resources), native language
(accent, dialect and language), history (ancestry), ethnonationality and beliefs (religious orders
and sects). As for imaginary belongingness, it is when insecurely netted by interests of
preserving self, regulated immediate family, socioeconomic status and state-nationality
(country).
As explained in the discussion above, any attempt to temper with these nets, it will affect
the preserving interests, and it will cause undeniable conflict. For instance, almost all suprastate,
intrastate and ethnonational conflicts in underdeveloped and developing countries rooted back to
the nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial exploitations. Kurdish conflict provides solid
evidences to this argument.

Origins of Kurdish conflict
Though Indo-Europeans in origin, Kurds also have a rich oral tradition and socially interact by
collectivist mind-set (Nabaz: 2000, 5). Similar to other Muslim nations, Kurdish national
interests influenced by three levels of decision-making: Civil, Tribal and Religious.
As they were subjects of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, Kurds shared some
common interests with the other Otto-Muslim subordinates for about three hundred years. This
relatively harmony state of affairs empowered the Kurds to establish and run effective semi-
independent Kurdish principalities (Kreyenbroek and Sperl: 1992, 14). From strictly religious
Muslim point of view, such state of affairs was possible due to Prophet Mohamed’s saying that
"the only difference between an Arab and a stranger, between a black and a white person, is in
his degree of piety" (Gad Al-Haq: 1995, 7). Therefore, as Jabb, Loitta et al. stated, Islam was the
prevailing identity of the Ottoman Empire (2007, 34).
However, as feudalism grew in Kurdistan, Kurdish tribal decision-makers gained over
their matching religious rivals in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Ottoman rulers
linked this transformation to the grown influence of the Russian feudalism in the area. Besides,
having lost Greece in 1828 and unable to control the Balkans, chastened Ottoman army attacked
the Kurdish principalities one after the other; setting series of Kurdish revolts during the rest of
the century (Kreyenbroek and Sperl: 1992, 14). Therefore, this reality contradicts Dogu Ergil’s
overstretching assumption that for the sake of a unitary “Muslim nation,” Kurds did not consider
their ethnic identity to supersede their religious beliefs (2000: 123 cited in Jabb, Loitta et al,
2007: 34).
Western scholars with solid authorities (Martin van Bruinessen, 1978) (Robert Olson,
1991) (David McDowall, 1997) and many others have all attribute that “Kurdishness” was the
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dominant perceived identity of all Kurds regardless of their communal indifferences. The most
telling record of Kurdishness as the common identity among the Kurds during the early Ottoman
era, found in the Sharafname—a historical book written in Kurdish, completed in 1597, by
Sharaf Khan of Bitlisi. Besides, if it wasn’t for his Kurdishness, why did Ahmadi Khani (1650-
1706), a poet and scholar, think and write in Kurdish of subordinating all the Ottomans, Persians
and Arabs to his Kurdish King (Kreyenbroek and Sperl: 1992, 49), only if the Kurds politically
united?
Among others’ heavily influenced by the predation theory, Ergil’s distortion and denial
of historic facts is yet another example of interest as the main cause for ethnonational conflict.

Kurdish nationalism as an enduring conflict
As mentioned earlier, the European colonials, especially Great Britain divided Kurdistan early in
twentieth century into its current political nonexistence based on potent interests in its vast oil
deposits. Such nonreciprocal action sparked many sequential violent revolts headed by feudal-
tribal and moderate religious Kurdish influential leaders mainly in Iraq and Turkey. Almost all
pre-World War II Kurdish revolts were brutally put down making lives of the surviving Kurds
miserable. The only positive outcome seen was the emergence of Kurdish nationalism within the
circles of young civil decision-making intellectuals (Vali: 2002, 7-8).
The independent Republic of Kurdistan (also known as the Republic of Mahabad), came
into existence in northwestern Iran January 1946, prepared the stage for the pan-Kurdish civil
decision-makers to play their active part. According to Fereshteh Koohi-Kamali, the significance
of Kurdistan republic was its civil- intellectual strata’s ability to incorporate some Kurdish tribal
and religious decision makers to manage Kurdish affairs effectively (Kreyenbroek and Sperl:
1992, 178). However, unable to compete with exploitative interests of the western superpowers
in strengthening and preserving their puppetry monarch in Iran, the Kurds republic was crushed
by the Iranian forces eleven months later. Unfortunately, the Kurds once again felt to have “no
friends but the mountains”, or so an old Kurdish saying goes.
After World War II, the competing struggle between the Kurdish religious and tribal
decision-making echelons invigorated the maturing of the radical Kurdish civil decision-making
stratum (Sakko: 1987, 47). The program of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), established in
August 1946 and later changed its name to Kurdistan Democratic Party, correlated its struggle
for national identity with class based arguments of communism. This popular tendency was not
unique to the Kurds of divided Kurdistan. Rather, it was also a method used by national
liberation movements all over the world (Sakko: 1987, 63-64). It is worth mentioning here that
this was until recently the immediate reason for the denial of Kurdish identity by decisions made
in the European and North American capitols.
To this end, the inability to resist the glamorous communist promises for self-
determination ended in political rifts; and brought humiliating consequences on the Kurdish
leaderships in Iraq. The deadly division occurred in 1964 within KDP’s politburo members,
unleashed at least two related Kurdish internal wars. The first war started in 1966 between the
tribally oriented forces of the legendary Mustafa Barzani (deceased father of Masoud Barzani—
the current President of Kurdistan Region in Iraq) and the class oriented forces of the poet and
novelist Ibrahim Ahmad (deceased father-in-law of Jalal Talabani—the current President of Iraq)
(Osman: 2001). The second internal fight, which this paper will cover later, ignited in 1994
between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), chaired by Jalal Talabani, and the KDP, headed
by Masoud Barzani.
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Post-Cold War and the progression of Kurdish nationalism
Immediately after the Cold War, the Kurds took advantage of the weakening of Saddam
Hussein’s regime because of the 1991 Kuwait liberation war to push forward their struggle once
again, freeing most of Iraqi Kurdistan in March 1991. With shy blessings from members of the
United Nations (UN), specially the United States (US), Baghdad crushed the Kurdish uprising
with ruthless brutality; causing over two million Kurds seek refuge beyond the borders of Iran
and Turkey. Their plight, thanks to the effective media coverage which created international
outcry; Turkey obliged to open its borders to the fleeing women and children and forcing the
international community to set up a temporary “Safe Haven” enclave near the Syrian-Turkish
borders within Iraq. While this taken place, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership engaged in failed
negotiations with Saddam’s regime.
Tempting to bend the Kurds on its terms, the Iraqi government pulled off its personnel
and disintegrated all of its service providing institutions. However, Kurds managed to fill the
vacuum with limited support coming from international Nongovernmental Organizations
(NGOs) often securitized by Turkish authorities.
In 1992, the Kurdish leadership in Iraq called for elections in their region resulting in the
establishments of the Kurdistan National Assembly (KNA) and the subsequent Kurdistan
Regional Government (KRG). These remarkable Kurdish developments troubled the regional
powers; especially, Turkey, Iran and Syria. For these states, the existence of any form of a
Kurdish identity in their neighborhood interpreted as a direct threat to the unity of their
respective countries. Accordingly, undermining the fledgling Kurdish democratic institutions
was their ultimate goal. Therefore, banking on the ideological rivalries between the KDP and the
PUK, functioning with scarce resources, Turkey and Iran respectively drove the rivaling parties
with direct arms supplies into yet another internal war in 1994 (Osman: 2001).
The toll of the bloodshed was high. Kurds protested the madness of “brother killing”
worldwide, and threatened to boycott the warring parties if they do not stop killing one another
for the “others” (Turkey and Iran). Meanwhile, the US and the United Kingdom (UK), engaged
in enforcing and protecting the “No Fly and No Drive Zone” in northern Iraq, threatened to halt
their operations if the warring factions do not agree to hold negotiations. Though it was late, the
KDP and the PUK finally realized that their lust for power cannot be achieved through the proxy
war of others. Thus, for the first time in Kurdish history, Kurdish political elites agreed to try
modern intrastate conflict prevention methods (Osman: 2001) and (Gunter: 1999: 67-109).
After various rounds of negotiations hosted by France, UK and the US, the 1998
Washington Agreement signed by the leaders of the KDP and the PUK and witnessed by
Madeleine Albright (former US Secretary of the State Department) became binding. It provided
the Kurds with the much-needed international political respect (Osman: 2001).
The sober implementation of the Washington Agreement brought relative normalcy to the
embattled Kurdish nation. Scars of war dashed away with rebuilding competitions; thanks to the
UN’s Oil for Food Program that allocated thirteen percent of Iraq’s oil sales for Kurdistan region
(O’Leary: 2002). Trust slowly starts building again. Factional KRG split put in motion to reunite.
So, the Washington Agreement shows all to well that internal conflicts, much like intrastate
conflicts, can become managed and resolved effectively only if third-party stakeholders kept
away from (O’Leary: 2002). Above all, with the onset of the Iraq War in 2003, Kurdish people
have come to the center stage in world politics as never before, not mainly as victims, but as
brave and determined fighters for democracy and national rights.
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Kurdish conflict in post-2003
The active participation of the Kurdish Peshmarga (Freedom Fighter) forces with the US led
Coalition Forces in removing Saddam’s regime from power was a turning point in Kurdish
history. Their professionalism and disciplinary conducts not only eroded the traditional
rebellious nametags wrongfully stigmatized with, but also earned them the highest respects
soldiers can get; Medals of Honor. Likewise, with political acumen and technical competence at
running government institutions, Kurdish politicians cemented a global position of enormous
strength (Rubin, 2008). Representatives of KRG have been getting proper diplomatic treatments
with no less than nation-state representatives deserve. Further, Kurds have also been trying to
brake into the icy bath of the UN’s nation-states’ club by officially having a Kurdish permanent
representative seat.
These positive developments are signs of a “unique” Kurdish identity which hold true
value for Kurdish advanced achievements leaping from their position on solving the Kurdish
conflict in Iraq by peaceful and democratic means; negotiation, mediation and arbitration. While
these steps seem painstakingly difficult to walk through, Kurdish leaders do realize that they are
much better for gaining agreeable—win-win—rights than banking on bloodshed—win-lose—
outcomes.

Conclusion
This paper provided that prior to the 1991 Gulf war; the Kurdish struggle for self-determination
had largely been in retreat and that the end results of almost all Kurdish revolts were brutal
making lives of the surviving Kurds miserable. Many on-again and off-again negotiations revolts
started by Kurdish tribal and religious leaders with limited scope of national aspirations.
However, once the Kurdish civil decision-makers come on the center of the stage, contemporary
negotiation opportunities of were taken into considerations, but not after two major internal
fights between Kurdish political factions.
As this paper argued, the Washington Agreement and its sober implementation, not only
prevented internal Kurdish conflicts, but also brought relative normalcy to the embattled Kurdish
nation who has surprisingly made it way to gain a unique identity just a little short of a nation-
state within the state of Iraq.

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