IRAQ: Terrorizing Kurds
Ximena Ortiz «View Bio

Similarities between the bombing that ripped through Iraqi Kurdistan at the beginning of the month and the November attacks in Istanbul are so striking that, the earlier tragedy could, with the benefit of hindsight, be taken as foreshadowing the latter.

Both bombings have been attributed to Al Qaeda. For most American observers, this settled the matter succinctly: terrorism, Al Qaeda, Islamic fundamentalism.

But while that characterization may not be wrong, it is so narrow as to distort reality – a reality that is particularly central to the risks US soldiers and others face in Iraq.

The attacks in Iraq’s Kurdish region and in Istanbul were primarily home-grown, allegedly carried out by native Kurds – an important distinguishing feature that risks being obscured by attributing blame to Al Qaeda.

The groups to which both sets of attackers were thought to belong share a similar Islamic ideology – one that is widely at odds with that of their other Kurdish brethren.

Both groups are believed to have been financed at one time or another by countries in the region – a fact that demonstrates the Byzantine nature of national security strategies in the Middle East, as well as the extent to which Kurdish issues are a vortex of regional concern, particularly for Turkey, Iran, and Syria, all of which have Kurdish minorities.

The attacks in Kurdish Iraq are believed to have been carried out by Ansar Al Islam, a mostly Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist group that is opposed to the secular, democratic, pro-American, and pro-occupation stance of Kurdistan’s two main political parties.

Ansar Al Islam is widely believed to have been partly financed by Iran over the years, in an effort to undermine the strength of Iraq’s Kurds: a successful, autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region could give Iranian Kurds greater impetus to demand autonomy of their own, and provide an example of an effective, secular state along Iran’s border.

Iraqi Kurdish officials are not keen to acknowledge that the attacks, which killed at least 101 people, probably involved Kurds themselves. The Wahhabi Islamic ideology of Ansar is anathema to most Iraqi Kurds, who have been quick to point to a connection between the bombers and Al Qaeda.

But even if such a connection is proven, it would be only part of the story.

The Kurdish bombers and planners in Turkey, meanwhile, were part of Turkish Hizbullah (rebranded or not), who are also Islamic fundamentalists. These terrorists, amazingly enough, are widely believed to have been financed by the Turkish government itself until about 1999.

Why?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish government was mainly concerned about another Kurdish militant group, known as the PKK, a secular group seeking independence from the rest of Turkey. When the Islamic Hizbullah fighters began battling the PKK, the Turkish government is believed to have provided them with all the firepower and immunity they desired.

In 1999, when Turkey reached a cease-fire with the PKK – and, with an eye on possible EU membership, significantly improved its treatment of its sizeable Kurdish minority – the government began cracking down on Turkish Hizbullah. Hence the November terrorist attacks on Jewish and British targets in Istanbul were probably a reaction against both that crackdown and the US-led occupation of Iraq. The attacks also demonstrated the heightened ferocity of fundamentalist Kurds – something that should have set off alarm bells in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The risks such interwoven relationships pose to US and other military personnel in Iraq come down to a combination of old hostilities, anger over the occupation of Iraq, and Al Qaeda’s continuing influence.

Resolving how to give Iraqi Kurds the autonomy they seek without inflaming other countries in the Middle East will be a complicated task for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

An interesting point of reflection for Western governments is just what their ‘intelligence’ told them about these risks.

Ximena Ortiz is the 2003-2004 recipient of the Pulliam Editorial Fellowship, and author of a forthcoming book, The War, According to the World.