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Will a US War Free the Kurds?

Right now, it suits the U.S. government’s purposes to support the Kurds–in part because they have the only armed forces in Iraq opposed to the current regime. But Washington and the West have a long record of betraying the Kurdish people.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country. Their total population is around 26 million–with about half living in Turkey and most of the rest in Iran, Iraq and Syria.

At the end of the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East collapsed, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson promised to create a Kurdish state within two years. This promise, however, was soon forgotten, as Western powers competed to control the region’s oil.

British planes gassed and bombed Kurdish villages in Iraq in order to enforce the borders that the colonial rulers of London wanted. “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas,” said Winston Churchill, Britain’s war secretary at the time. “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.”

Meanwhile, the Turkish government brutally repressed Kurds living in its territory, denying them freedom of language and culture. This violated international treaties, but the Western powers supported the Turks, who were seen as a vital ally in preventing the spread of the Russian revolution.

At the end of the Second World War, Kurds in northern Iran briefly set up their own republic. But the government in Tehran soon crushed this experiment, with the backing of the U.S. and Britain.

In the early 1970s, as tensions between Iran and its neighbor Iraq increased, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed to support a plan devised by the Shah of Iran to encourage an uprising by Kurds in Iraq. By 1975, Kissinger had secretly channeled $16 million in military aid to the Kurds, who believed that Washington was finally supporting their right to self-determination.

But the following year, the House Select Committee on Intelligence issued the Pike report, which revealed that the U.S. never had any intention of supporting a Kurdish state. “Documents in the Committee’s possession clearly show that the President [Richard Nixon], Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state [the Shah of Iran] hoped that our clients [the Kurds] would not prevail,” the report concluded. “They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally’s neighboring country [Iraq]. This policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting.”

After Iran and Iraq resolved their border dispute at the 1975 OPEC summit, however, the Iraqi government was told that U.S. support for the Kurds would now be withdrawn. The Iraqis immediately launched an aggressive campaign against Kurdish rebels. “The insurgents were clearly taken by surprise,” the congressional report recounted. “Their adversaries, knowing of the impending aid cut-off, launched an all-out search-and-destroy campaign the day after the agreement [with Iran] was signed. “The autonomy movement was over, and our former clients scattered before the [Iraqi] central government’s superior forces.”

As Iraq wiped out the remaining rebels, the Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani sent a message to Kissinger. “Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way, with silence from everyone,” Barzani said. “We feel, your excellency, that the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards our people, who have committed themselves to your country’s policy.” Kissinger, however, thought otherwise, and sent no reply.

According to the Pike report, “Over 200,000 refugees managed to escape into Iran. Once there however, neither the United States nor Iran extended adequate humanitarian assistance. In fact, Iran was later to forcibly return over 40,000 of the refugees, and the United States government refused to admit even one refugee into the United States by way of political asylum, even though they qualified for such admittance.”

As usual, Kissinger had no trouble justifying this cold-hearted behavior. “Covert action,” he explained to a congressional staffer, “should not be confused with missionary work.” As the Pike report concluded, “Even in the context of covert actions, ours was a cynical enterprise.”

This cynicism continued into the 1980s, when, after the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah, the U.S. began supporting Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq–even after Baghdad used chemical weapons in its war on Iran.

During the course of the war, both Iran and Iraq carried out brutal massacres of their own Kurdish populations. In 1988, as the war was winding down, the Iraqi army carried out its murderous and now infamous gas attacks on rebellious Kurdish villages, which it accused of aiding Iran.

In response, some members of Congress called for an end to U.S. military aid to Iraq and other mild sanctions. But these measures were vigorously opposed by both the Reagan and Bush administrations, which called them “premature” and “misguided.”

It was only after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that Washington’s concern for Kurdish rights suddenly reappeared–during the build-up to the last Gulf War. George Bush Sr. proclaimed that Saddam Hussein was the new Hitler and said that the U.S. was fighting to free the Iraqi population.

But at the end of the war, when Shia Muslims in the South and Kurds in the North rebelled against the regime, the U.S. abandoned them–even permitting the Iraqi military to use helicopter gunships to crush the insurrections. Washington preferred a unified Iraq under Saddam to successful rebellions that would have split the country and strengthened Iran.

After the war, the U.S. and Britain unilaterally established no-fly zones in the North and South of Iraq, claiming that these were intended to protect the Kurds and the Shias. But the real reason for the no-fly zones was to box in Saddam–in the hope that he would be replaced by a more compliant dictator.

Although Kurds in northern Iraq have taken the opportunity to establish a degree of autonomy for themselves, the area is far from a safe haven. The U.S. permits the Turkish military to cross the border and kill Kurdish rebels whenever it pleases.

Though Washington condemns Iraq for its treatment of the Kurds, it has supported Turkey’s equally brutal repression of its own Kurdish population, where more than 30,000 Kurds have been killed in the past two decades.

The U.S. may tolerate Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq for the time being. But it refuses to recognize the Kurds’ right to a state in the region, because that could weaken allies such as Turkey, making it more difficult for Washington to maintain control.

Weak leadership and antagonisms between competing factions have greatly weakened the Kurdish struggle for freedom. But after a century of Western betrayals, one thing is sure–the Kurdish people must rely on their own struggle, not Washington’s false promises, to win liberation.

PHIL GASPER writes for the Socialist Worker.

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