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Iraqi Kurds Struggle With Their Past -- and Hussein

History of political and tribal conflict sets back efforts to gain sympathy and build democracy.

February 21, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — Ali Askeri was a mercurial mountain fighter with a bandoleer and a Kalashnikov. He battled the Iraqi regime in the '70s, but in the end it was his fellow Kurds who executed him with a rocket-propelled grenade.

One of the killers -- in a comment destined for folklore -- quipped: "A big gun for a big man."

The Kurdish past echoes with tribal wars, murder and vengeance. Over the last six years, living in a northern enclave protected from President Saddam Hussein's forces by U.S. and British warplanes, the Iraqi Kurds have suppressed historical tendencies and built a quasi-democracy. Their currency is staked to the dollar. Satellite television brings them pornography and the Arabic version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

The U.S. wants the "Kurdish experiment" to be a touchstone example for Iraq's other ethnic and cultural groups in forging any post-Hussein federated government. But the 1978 murder of Askeri by rivals and a civil war that killed about 3,500 Kurds during the 1990s are reminders that the harsh rhythms and troubled legacies of these mountains linger beneath talk of capitalism and globalization.

This region is known as Kurdistan, and in many ways it is really two distinct areas. One is controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, the other by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. Each has a 50,000-strong militia and its own views on democracy. Under pressure from the U.S., the two parties formed a parliament last year. But sometimes even their technology divides them: A cell phone bought in PUK territory will not work in the KDP region, and vice versa.

"The history of struggle between the KDP and the PUK is longer than their history of peace," said Shaho Saeed, a professor at Sulaymaniyah University. "The question no one can answer is whether this semipeace between them is genuine or a tactical move to please the West. Our leaders have a tendency not to respect their signatures."

And animosity between them has often turned lethal. Askeri was killed by KDP comrades after he broke away to form the PUK. But his son, Shalaw, who was wounded during the civil war, believes that the treachery of the past must be overcome.

"You cannot take revenge into your hands," said the younger Askeri, the PUK's agriculture minister. "You need to fight, but not in a war. We will beat the KDP in elections.... There is pressure on both parties to build a strong, democratic Kurdish state. If we don't do this, we lose the sympathy of the world."

Throughout the last century, the Kurds at times have had the world's compassion. But they have seldom won the world's respect. Perceived promises of an independent state after World War I were blocked by regional powers. Most of the 25 million Kurds today live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Language and political differences have contributed to keeping them apart. And in northern Iraq, home to 3.5 million Kurds, parties such as the KDP and PUK evolved from alliances between tribes and guerrilla groups.

The two parties' leaders -- Massoud Barzani of the KDP and Jalal Talabani of the PUK -- are revered by their followers. Both men's resilience embodies the Kurdish struggle. Some political analysts suggest that the two are so dominant that Kurdish democracy -- for good or bad -- is filtered through the personalities of these guerrilla leaders, who have been transformed into what are essentially big-city mayors. Both have been accused of pocketing millions of dollars from oil customs taxes and other party funds.

Barzani and Talabani were fierce in fighting Hussein. They were also tough on each other. When PUK guerrillas were defeating KDP forces in 1996, Barzani -- desperate not to lose territory -- asked Hussein to send in the Iraqi army to rout Talabani's fighters. It was a stunning ploy: requesting help from the dictator whose forces eight years earlier had killed 5,000 Kurds with chemical weapons in the town of Halabja.

Barzani then looked to Turkey, which also deployed forces to battle the PUK. Talabani was accused of turning to Iran for backing.

The civil war highlighted how neighboring countries manipulated the turmoil to keep the Kurds divided. This hampered moves toward independence and revealed that suspicions between Kurdish factions were so high that brief alliances with international enemies were preferable to unity.

"A lot of hands are involved in Kurdistan," said Fakher Maraan, KDP deputy minister of reconstruction and development. "Iran, Iraq and Turkey will not leave us alone. We could become a clean stream if our outside enemies didn't come with a stick and muddy the waters."

In many ways, the autonomous region of northern Iraq is a success. The Kurds have built a free-market society. Land Cruisers and Mercedes-Benzes jockey alongside tractors and donkey carts. Money changers gather on the corners. The PUK and KDP have made progress on representative democracy, education and security.

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