By Mohammed Salah Mahdi and Lukasz Firla
After the latest developments in Iraq, from the protests outside the US embassy to the US drone attack, Spring Magazine spoke with Mohammed Salah Mahdi and Lukasz Firla, members of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraqi Kurdistan–about the impact of US and Turkish intervention, how Iraq Kurds have struggled for autonomy, and how people locally and globally can help those fleeing war.
1. One of the justifications of the 2003 Iraq war was to defend Iraqi Kurds. What’s been the impact of the invasion and occupation?
During the 2003 invasion, the first couple of weeks, some Kurds who were living in the disputed areas (oil rich areas with mixed Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian Christians and ethnic/religious minorities populations, which Saddam targeted with his Arabization campaign) had to flee and resettled in the big cities like Hawler (Erbil) and Sulaimani. Some people from the big cities temporarily fled towards the border with Iran and Turkey, as there was fear and uncertainty around the intentions of the US and the possibility of stronger reactions against Kurds from Saddam’s regime because of their support to the US invasion.
The situation for people in the Kurdistan Region was much different to that of people in the south or center of Iraq. There were no Iraqi military bases, therefore no military targets for the invading forces, except in the disputed areas. Kurds in these areas (Kirkuk, Khanaqin and others) were under threat and were living in fear, so many fled out of fear because there was Iraqi military presence.
There was a promise, or hope, that after the invasion the dispute over territories would be resolved between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraqi Central Government. When the new Iraqi Constitution was written in 2005, some leaders tried to solve the issue of the disputed areas. But even having Kurds in the Iraqi central government has not resolved the issue.
Saddam’s regime had an agreement with Turkey to allow temporary military interventions up to 20 km into its border territory to combat the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) fighters. However, after the 2003 US invasion, the Turkish cross-border bombardments and military interventions increased dramatically. Turkey built military bases in the Kurdistan’s territory and launched attacks and bombings. On the other border, Iranian military also increased bombings with the excuse of attacking opposition leaders and fighters on Kurdish territory (PKK, PDKI and others). The fact is that the attacks do not discriminate between combatants and civilians, assassinating mostly civilian Kurds, destroying villages, and forcing civilians to flee. This all represents a continuous violation of the International Humanitarian Law.
These invasions opened up spaces for dictatorial leaders. Before 2003, people used to say that there was only one dictator, whereas today we find thousands of them. The “West” built strong relations based on economic interests with the new leadership of the new Iraqi and Kurdistan governments. Since then, the economy became more neoliberal, with open markets that control the domestic political life and international relations.
2. A previous CPT report quoted a local resident as saying “what surprises me is that Turkey is a member of NATO, and they kill innocent people with US weapons. But the international community is silent” Can you elaborate on the national oppression of Kurdistan by the Turkish State?
The majority of Kurdish population lives in Turkey (over 50%). These Kurds have faced a lot of oppression from the Turkish State for over 100 years. Turkey has always been against the idea of establishing a Kurdish region or state, and not supported any type of sovereignty or self-determination. It is not only against these Kurds living in Turkey, but also those living in other parts. Turkey does not recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government (they call it northern Iraq). Some Turkish nationalists do not recognize the national identity of Kurds, calling them “Turks from the mountains”.
Nowadays, there are some Kurdish parties in Turkey and there are some Kurdish politicians in the Parliament and Kurdish mayors of towns and cities. However, they face limitations in the practice of their political rights, removals from their positions and incarcerations on constructed terrorist charges. In 2015-2016 the Turkish military bombed from the air and from the ground cities and towns with Kurdish majority population inside Turkey, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced up to half a million people. The world powers have stayed silent.
Out of economic interests, KRG leaders opened channels for trade with Turkey, which again has an impact on local economies. NATO members have multi-million dollar military contracts with Turkey. In addition to its own extensive production, Turkish military equipment comes from the US, UK, France, Italy, Belgium, Sweden and other countries. The US-made F-4 and F-16 fighter jets and Turkish drones are the ones that kill and wound civilians in the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi parts of Kurdistan with rockets and bombs made in the US and Turkey. Currently, Turkey works together with the British BAE systems to produce its own fighter jet.
US and Turkish relations thrived during 30 years of Turkish military cross-border operations in Iraqi Kurdistan (IK)—including when Turkey supported the rise of the ISIS—but have been shaken after Turkey bought a missile system from Russia (and not from the US). Money and the so called “security issues” speak louder than human rights violations and ethnically motivated persecution or, when it comes to what Turkey has done in Rojava, an ethnic cleansing.
Turkey has strong political and economic ties with the European Union countries, and has been pushing to enter the EU zone. On one hand the EU mentions human rights violations when ceasing talks on Turkish EU membership. On the other hand the EU’s deeply rooted racism and arbitrary unwillingness to welcome and provide protection to people (amounting to about 0.5% of EU population) fleeing wars and persecution (and held in Turkey) speak louder.
A few years ago, CPT participated in an event and spoke to some members of the EU Parliament about the civilian impacts of the Turkish cross-border military operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. The members of the Parliament seemed to be honestly surprised.
3. How have Iraqi Kurds struggled for autonomy in the years since the 2003 war? Have they made any gains, and how has the US presence affected the struggle for national rights?
The US’s proclaimed ambition was to bring democracy to Iraq through the invasion, so Iraqis could live with a new democratic government. The US did not want Iraq to divide between Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a. Even today, many people think that the best solution is to divide Iraq into three regions or states, due to the diversity of the population. By the liberation of the Iraqi people and creating a democratic government, the hope was that everyone would be equal, encouraging the minorities to be part of the new Iraqi government. The Kurds and other minorities trusted the US that Iraq would be for everyone.
But the outcome was different. There are still tensions between the different populations. Some of the reasons for the situation today are the destruction and societal damage that the US coalition brought on Iraq, and the strong influence of the neighboring countries—such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Kurdish leaders encourage a nationalistic thinking and feeling, by which Kurds have to fight for their own rights and sovereignty.
With the new Iraqi government, after 2003, the KRG was recognized as an autonomous region within Iraq. This decision was generally well received by Iraqi Kurds, and until 2017 the relationship between KRG and the Iraqi Central Government was quite good. But Kurds realized that Iraq was not following the procedures of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, especially regarding Article 140 regarding the issue over disputed areas. After the war against ISIS—when Iraqi forces withdrew from the disputed areas, and the Kurdish peshmerga controlled this area to defend themselves—Kurdish politicians and leaders pushed to have a referendum for independence from Iraq.
Also, the KRG started investing in oil production within its territory without following the Iraqi Constitution and without debating it in the Iraqi Parliament. This was a trigger for the Iraqi Central Government to reduce the budget for the KRG as a sanction. This is the starting point of the current tensions. After the referendum, the Iraqi troops and Hashdi Shaabi (Shia militia, created in Iraq to combat ISIS) attacked the disputed areas and made the peshmerga withdraw. The neighboring countries did not support the referendum, including the US and many Western countries.
4. What was the impact of the Arab Spring on the struggle for national rights? What about more recent struggles–against sectarianism, corruption, and austerity? Have Iraqi Kurds been involved in the recent protests in Baghdad or elsewhere?
The Arab Spring inspired Kurdish activists who organized protests, originally in solidarity in February 2011, and then for the following two months, sending a message to the KRG authorities to stop the corruption and provide justice and equality for its people. The Kurdish authorities responded with violence to the demands of the Kurdish protesters and activists, killing dozens and wounding hundreds in Sulaimani and surrounding towns.
There were protests and demonstrations from 2015 to 2018, when teachers and civil servants demonstrated against the KRG for the budgetary cuts imposed by the Iraqi Central Government and for the unpaid salaries, resulting in an escalation of tensions between the two Governments, leading to the referendum.
Regarding most recent protests in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq, a group of around 20 Kurdish activists, some of whom CPT knows, visited the protesters in solidarity. The Kurdish media is reporting about the protests, and some KRG officials have issued statements against the violence the Iraqi forces are using against the protesters.
5. What are the key industries in Iraqi Kurdistan? What resources does the central government control, and how has that affected the struggle for greater autonomy and national rights?
The key industries are oil and gas (mostly crude oil for export), construction materials (like cement), dams for power and for water consumption, telecommunications (two Kudish companies provide telecommunication services throughout Iraq), limited agriculture and food industry, internal tourism (Iraqis visiting Kurdistan for its water sources, cooler weather and mountains).
KRG controls part of the economy. The Iraqi central government now controls oil and gas extraction and export, the Iraqi general budget, and the use of the aerial space. The development of oil wells and oil extraction is contracted to foreign companies. Two major cement factories near Sulaimani, where the CPT office is, are owned by LafargeHolcim—the biggest cement company in the world. The majority of food and products of daily use are imported from Turkey and Iran.
This has all affected the struggle for greater autonomy, as the Kurds withdrew their demand for independence when the tensions with the Iraqi Central Government started to be resolved. However, it is a card that Kurds can use to pressure the Central Government. If the Kurds insist on their independence, the most likely outcome would be a war between the Kurdish and Iraqi forces. If Turkey and Iran closed their borders, Iraqi Kurdistan would most likely starve very soon.
6. What impact has the latest US bombing in Iraq and threats of war against Iran had on the ground?
Iraqi Kurds have good relations with Iran because of the support they received in the 1990s in their struggle against Saddam’s regime. Also, the Kurds received support from Iran during the war against ISIS. Qassim Soleymani provided great support to the Peshmerga in their struggle against ISIS on the ground, especially in the disputed areas between Iraq and KRG. The assassination of Soleymani shocked the Kurdish leadership. In this moment, for the Kurdish leaders it is difficult to take a stand, either with the US or with Iran.
As long as the US and Iran are using Iraqi and Kurdish territories for their wars, the impact will remain high on every aspect of political, economic and cultural life, imposing more restrictions on the guarantee of the fundamental rights for the civilian population.
7. What work is CPT doing?
Since 2007, CPT has been monitoring and reporting on the Turkish and Iranian cross-border military operations in Iraqi Kurdistan and their impacts on civilians living in the border regions. We partner with families who lost members in the cross-border bombardments and with communities that face loss of livelihoods and resist displacement because of the Turkish and Iranian cross-border operations. We support our partners’ demands for the end of war, justice and compensations for their losses.
Our advocacy work aims to engage local authorities, like mayors and governors, and the KRG and Iraqi government, and foreign organizations present in IK to take action against these bombings and provide adequate support for the affected families, as well as engage people and organizations around the world to join in ending the Turkish state’s atrocities.
After working on it together with our partners for a few months within IK, we will soon be launching internationally our new campaign, “Hear us now! Stop the bombings!”
We also provide protective accompaniment to civil society activists who are under threat of violence, kidnappings or extrajudicial killings and accompany nonviolent protests and initiatives, where we monitor and report on the use of violence by the security forces.
8. Often those arguing for war also oppose refugees fleeing war. What impact does war have on displacing people from their homelands, and what can we do to oppose war and support refugees?
War directly impacts families economically. Their houses are flattened by bombs, their cultivated lands are destroyed. Some people are also taken forcefully by the militias. In the Internally Displaced People and refugee camps, people lose their freedom of movement, and have severe restrictions in the guarantees of their rights. Many camps struggle with severe lack of services and dignity of life.
The lasting psychological impacts on children often leads to persistent trauma that will stay with them even when the war is over. Due to the bombings, many villages have been abandoned, especially close to the borders, forcing villagers to flee to bigger cities where they face severe difficulties finding a living and affording a house, and often end up surviving in extremely harsh circumstances. Many find this situation unbearable and decide to flee abroad, becoming refugees and trying to get, most of the times, to Europe. Those who make it to Europe, then face discrimination and risk of deportation, live in confinement in refugee camps in awfully harsh conditions, and suffer from cultural shock. The family unity is then weakened and oftentimes lost.
Understanding this reality should lead everyone to act with compassion and care towards refugees. Nobody leaves their village or town to travel thousands of kilometers on foot, car or boat, expose themselves to great suffering and risks if it is not because the situation at home is unbearable. Warsan Shire, Somali-British poet, is clear on this: “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” It is true that receiving refugees in your countries might be challenging, but it is important to recognize the responsibility of the international community to refugees.
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