The war in Iraq has kindled fears that a “war within a war” could break out in northern Iraq between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey, which fears increased Kurdish autonomy. For the U.S., the goal is to prevent the war in Iraq from triggering bloodshed between these two U.S. allies, while launching its own front in northern Iraq.
The Iraqi Kurdish capital of Arbil became a ghost town last week before the outbreak of war, as thousands of frightened residents closed their businesses and headed to the mountains. Fire and civil defense units held emergency rescue drills. Roads north of Arbil were packed as families squeezed into cars, buses and pick-up trucks loaded with all the possessions they could carry. The Kurds feared not American bombs, but Iraqi attacks.
Roskam Mohammed Karim decided to move his whole family away.
ROSKAM MOHAMMED KARIM
“We are going to the mountains because we are afraid chemical weapons could be used against us. I am afraid we could lose our lives, especially the lives of our small children.”
Kurds also left the Baghdad-controlled city of Kirkuk, which Kurds consider the heart of their ancestral lands. They said they were facing increasing oppression there in the days before the war. Some said that Iraqi soldiers had placed mines in and around oil fields in the area.
Iraq’s Kurds have lived precariously under Saddam Hussein. Fifteen years go, in March 1988, Hussein’s forces dropped poison gas on the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja, killing 5,000 men, women and children.
Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds again in 1991 to put down an uprising. Following that, U.S. and British warplanes began providing protection in a “no-fly” zone, allowing the Kurds to set up a semi-autonomous area in Iraq’s three northernmost provinces.
About four million Kurds now live in this mountainous area, covering some of the historic Kurdish land of Kurdistan, which also extends into parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Armenia.
“If there is going to be a war, we Kurds will fight. For 50 years we have defended our land and villages.”
The 20 million Kurdish people are the world’s largest stateless ethnic group, and it’s their aspirations for autonomy that Turkey finds threatening.
Iraqi Kurds say they can continue to govern their own area within a democratic Iraqi state. But Turkey has expressed fears that autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds will re-ignite Turkey’s own separatist Kurdish rebel movement, a 15-year campaign that left at least 30,000 people dead.
American troops have begun arriving at airfields in the north, analysts say in part to prevent Iraqi soldiers from setting afire the oilfields of Kirkuk and Mosul, and also apparently to discourage Turkey from sending troops into the area.
Turkish artillery pieces have been moving closer to barracks near the border with Iraq. But Turkey has said in recent days it has no intention of taking military action.
For their part, Iraqi Kurds have been training at bases in northern Iraq. They say they will resist any intervention by Turkey, whether it takes place during the war or in a post-Saddam Iraq.
Zahir Hassan, is a Kurdish militia commander in northern Iraq.
ZAHIR HASSAN, KURDISH MILITIA COMMANDER
“We are fully ready for any eventuality and any attack that may be targeted against our country, Kurdistan. We will give everything, including our lives, to save our country.”