Subir Guin interviews Fisal Khan, a Kurd born in Kirkuk, Iraq, spent most of his adult life in England. He studied at the London School of Economics then York University, and is now at the University of Toronto, working on a Ph.D. dissertation on Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East. He has published and lectured in the States and in Canada and has worked occasionally with the Department of External Affairs.
Khan: Some 19 million Kurds live in the mountainous zone that straddles Iraq, Iran, Turkey and parts of the former Soviet Union. They form the second largest ethnic group in Iraq (3 million) and in Iran (5 million), and one fifth of Turkey’s population of 52 million.
The Kurds are not Semitic, but Indo-European and Aryan in both their language and race.
In the beginning of modern political history Kurdish lands were under the Ottoman empire (now Syria and Iraq), the Shah’s Iran, and Czarist Russia. In 1933 a move was made to invoke league of Nations Article 47 and grant self-determination to the Kurds, but the British, fearing for their oil interests, defeated it.
At the end of the Second World War, in which Iran supported Germany, Britain agreed to allow the Soviet Union to occupy the northern part of Iran, which has an extensive Kurdish population. In 1946 an autonomous Kurdish Republic was proclaimed, backed by the Soviet army. But the Soviets had agreed to move out once the war ended. When they withdrew the Iranian government, under the grandfather of Reza Pahlevi Shah, crushed the Republic.
The Republic made the Kurds realize that they could translate their political aspirations into an actual government. They established the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) with the intention of mobilizing both intellectuals and nationalists. But the KDP was dominated by Mustapha Berzani, the chief patriarch of one of the Kurdish clans. Immediately members questioned the party’s link with land-owning clans. It was difficult to square that party’s socialist agenda with a landowning family. The party itself was weakened by internal strife.
In ’64 the leader of another clan by the name of Telbani was pushed out of the party and escaped to Syria where he formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as an alternative to the KDP. Its aim was to democratize the party, to institute a framework which had a secular aspect to it as opposed to the religious and dictatorial powers of Berzani. The rupture meant that the Kurdish movement was not strong enough to challenge state power.
In Iran a similar situation occurred. The Kurdish Democratic Party formed a united front with the Communist Party. That was quickly suppressed by the late Shah, and infiltrated as far back as 1946-48 by the American secret service. The secret service aimed to check the socialist element within the Kurdish movement and create dissension.
Guin: This is during the time of Mossadeq?
Khan: That’s right. The United States backed the Kurds in Iraq both militarily and financially, especially after the 1958 revolution brought a more pro-Soviet government to Iraq. But to curb the socialist orientation of the Kurds in Iran, they helped the Iranian government, both militarily and financially again, to crush the Kurdish movement there.
Guin: So they were working both sides of it.
Khan: That’s right, from 1948 until 1970, this game was played. Once the Iran-Iraq war started, it became imperative for the Americans to support Iraq to stop Iranian fundamentalism. The United States government at that time abandoned the Iraqi Kurds and concentrated on bolstering Saddam Hussein. But to destabilize the Khomeini government they also increased the flow of arms and supplies to the Iranian Kurds. So the United States changed sides, from supporting Iraqi Kurds to supporting Iranian Kurds.
Guin: How much cooperation was there between the Kurdish movements in Iran and Iraq?
Khan: Cooperation was difficult because of the geographical distribution of the Kurds. There is no real nationalist movement which cuts across the borders. The geography itself has been the kiss of death for a strong, coordinated nationalist movement.
Guin: Once Saddam Hussein was in power why did he concentrate his hostilities on the Kurds?
Khan: The Kurds have always tried to gain political leverage to influence the government in Baghdad, so they sided with the Iranians. Baghdad treated them as traitors.
Guin: Were other minority groups in Iraq suffering the same problems, and did the Kurds have any opportunity to collaborate with them?
Khan: There were the Shia in Basra. But while collaboration took place, it was never extensive because it was always repressed.
Guin: Have the negotiations that Saddam is carrying on with some representatives of the Kurds further polarized the Kurdish community?
Khan: Hussein is trying to further fracture the Kurdish movement by sup-porting both sides. He is trying to abate the extensive world criticism that has been directed against him, and, if possible create a third party within the Kurdish resistance movement. The token gestures he has made to the Kurds are not substantive.
Guin: Can the Kurds reach a settlement with Saddam Hussein with help from the United Nations or the United States?
Khan: The interests of the United States are not furthered by a Kurdish republic with a socialist orientation. Other than the humanitarian aid they are not much interested. The Kurdish leaders seek not just humanitarian assistance but recognition and respect as a distinct community.
Khan: Pluralism is the most important aspect. The Kurds are not so unrealistic as to think that despite their geographic distribution they could have an independent state. What they are aiming for is basic human rights.
Hussein says that he can integrate Kurds only by further industrializing Kurdish areas, building more roads. The Kurdish suspect that this would simply facilitate the entry of tanks.
It’s not that different from the Walloons in Belgium or the Basques in Spain or the Tamils in Sri Lanka. When ethnicity is politicized, contradictions emerge. These peoples are looking for human dignity and participation as world citizens.
Guin: What hopes do you have of getting your voice heard?
Khan: There are not many Kurds abroad, so it’s hard to build an organization that can influence governments. My work with External Affairs has demonstrated the sheer ignorance of many top level officials, who dismiss Kurds as a nomadic, Arabic tribe.
But Kurdish organizations coordinate their efforts with the Walloons and the Basques. And there is a great deal of Kurdish intellectual activity now in Germany. There is a lot of networking in Paris as welt. So the Kurdish community in Europe is gaining more and more acceptance as a cohesive group.
Guin: Tell me, how do the Kurdish men treat women? Is it different from the other Iraqis?
Khan: Good question. Kurdish women are very strong. They do not wear veils. Because the regions they occupy are mountainous, they tend to be independent-minded and more aggressive than the Arab women, and participate more in daily activities. They do however lag behind in political participation: The KDP has, out of its 600 members, only twenty women.
Guin: It seems that many people have an interest in keeping Saddam Hussein in power. Are the Kurds a factor in this?
Khan: Turkey is very concerned about the politicization of the Kurds in Iraq. Their interest is to keep the present government in place in Iraq, since Hussein has the means and the
will to deter any kind of Kurdish autonomy.
Guin: Television audiences in Britain recently had a chance to watch Road to Hell, a BBC Documentary produced by Gwynne Roberts on the disappearance of some 200,000 Kurds in 1988. It was a horrifying account of a systematic plan to decimate this ethnic minority. Why does one hear so little about these abuses on the news?
Khan: I was aware of this massacre. Even more recently, Turkish troops, with the express sanction of the Baghdad government, have been routinely crossing into Kurdistan, picking out young males and executing them. The objective is to reduce the ranks of the Kurds, whose aspirations for a cultural identity are considered destabilizing by the governments of Turkey, Iraq and even Iran.
Guin: This matter seems to be ignored by the media.
Khan: Very few foreign personnel are stationed in the northern regions of Iraq, where these atrocities are taking place. And Washington has no intention of stopping the Turks, who despite their terrible record of human rights violations are, after all, loyal NATO members!
Americans are still waiting for Iraqi citizens to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They are reluctant to be directly involved, as they have no proxy to install.
The U.S. has been making overtures by way of economic and technical assistance to the Iranians, who are anxious to resume contacts with the international community -witness the negotiations which led to the release of Western hostages in December.
Guin: Talk about strange bedfellows!
Khan: There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent U.S. interests. This also explains the symbiotic relationship that now exists between the Saudi administration, the Emirates, and Washington.
Subir Guin is an activist and editor with PEACE.