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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Kurdish politics, and other confusing headaches.

Links: A. Kurdish political parties trying to resolve presidential debate.
           B. Wikipedia entry for Peshmerga.
           C. Wikipedia entry for PKK.

During my career, I was fortunate enough to work closely with representatives of both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).  In 2003 and 2004, the opposing Kurdish political parties had set aside much of their differences, at least in Baghdad, for the best interests of the greater Iraqi Kurdish community.  Both groups were represented by well-educated, deferential, hard-working people, who were tremendously supportive of the United States and our military forces in particular.  I remember that the PUK had taken possession of two large, adjoining compounds in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad, which they utilized for a variety of purposes, including regular meetings with representatives of U.S. government agencies.  Jalal Talabani, founder and leader of the PUK, maintained a much more elaborate residence in Baghdad, closer to the Karada neighborhood.  My initial visit to the PUK compound brought me into contact with Peshmerga (Kurdish for "one who confronts death") for the first, but certainly not the last time.  The Peshmerga are the military forces for the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan; they attempt to maintain a non-aligned posture with regards to the PUK and KDP, who have, at times, really had a go at each other.  Although I've never seen a female Peshmerga, I've been told that they exist.  This group represents the type of self-reliant, hardy, low-maintenance soldier that we don't see much anymore.  They are brave, well-trained, and move together flawlessly when operational.  That being said, I wouldn't invite them to a candlelight dinner party.  From my experience (forgive the stereotyping), they stink, and although not rude, normally haven't picked up much in the way of manners.  I wrote in my book about a meeting I had once at the PUK house, where we discovered two Peshmerga asleep under the table because of the volume and frequency of their farts.  Aside from the U.S. Armed Forces, I can't think of any group that I would want fighting by my side more than the Peshmerga.

I have at times been accused of being biased towards the Kurds.  I am guilty as charged.  I have no qualms about admitting that I support the Kurdish struggle for an independent homeland.  As a people, they are kind, generous, welcoming, hard-working and very family-oriented.  They can also hold a grudge for a very long, long time.  The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, but the manner of worship in the Kurdish community, regardless of affiliation, is much different than what is normally observed in the Arab world.  Kurds are private about their religious observations, although most Kurds are very observant of Islamic obligations.  They go about their business in such a way as to not draw attention to themselves.  This is a true example of a community that values the private nature of its religious identity.  Sure, the majority are Sunni Muslim, but they don't advocate the use of shura to settle every issue, nor do they feel this automatic disconnect with Christians and Jews.  I understand the reasoning behind keeping Iraq united.  If the Kurds were granted a homeland in northern Iraq, the rest of the country would be in danger of disintegration.  Maybe its time for that disintegration to take place, given that the area that was once known as Babylon, then Mesopotamia, and now Iraq, has not made a great success of ethnic integration.  It might happen with or without the Kurds, especially if the majority Shi'a continue to assert themselves and the Sunni start to consider life inside the Islamic Republic of Iraq.

Turkey's recent decision to end the de-facto cease fire with the quasi-military organization the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), has been a reminder that the ISIS crisis is one of a number of unresolved conflicts in this part of the world, that sit just under the skin, waiting to erupt again.  Northern Syria is home to a substantial number of ethnic Kurds, and the anti-ISIS coalition has benefitted tremendously from their willingness to stand up and defend their own communities.  Even the Turks have benefitted, as Ankara is not keen about having ISIS as a direct neighbor.  But the Turks are experts at separating one group of Kurds from another.  According to Ankara, the Syrian Kurds who fight ISIS tooth-and-nail are not connected to the "terrorist" PKK.  Turkey's decision to conduct bombing sorties against suspected PKK locations was a naked political move on the part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to energize anti-Kurd elements in Turkey before pivotal fall elections.  Not surprisingly, many in the Turkish electorate will scream for vengeance regarding three Turkish soldiers killed in a PKK attack, and not think twice about the Kurds whose murder precipitated the retaliatory ambush.  All the while, the Kurdistan Parliament, which sits in Arbil, is struggling with the never-ending debate over the office of President. The current office-holder, President Masoud Barzani, is the head of the KDP.  In 2009, Barzani was elected with 69.9 % of the vote, and in 2013, the parliament decided to extend his term until 2015.  The five major Kurdish political parties were attempting to resolve the issue of succession, but failed before Barzani's term expired on August 20.  Believe me, Kurdish politics can get very complicated. Its imperative that Kurdistan present a united front, given the renewed trouble with Turkey and the continuing war against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.  The PDK will argue for another extension for Barzani, which, for political expediency, will be supported by the PUK.  The remaining parties do not represent enough votes to budge a joint KDP/PUK effort.  Expect the Kurdistan Parliament to extend Barzani's term to 2017, when it meets to debate the issue on August 23. 

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