In Northern Iraq, the Kurds Find Success Amid Struggle

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Sign the petition for Iraq's three-region solution April 9, 2008 In Northern Iraq, the Kurds Find Success Amid Struggle 

The New York Times - By William Grimes

The script for Iraq was supposed to go like this: The dictator  topples; the oppressed masses celebrate; democracy  takes root; and the United States, showered with gratitude,  embraces a new, pro-Western ally in the hostile Middle East.

That’s exactly what happened, Quil Lawrence argues in  “Invisible Nation,” but you have to look north to see it, in the  three Kurdish provinces of Iraq. “Americans now sit transfixed by their entanglement in the horrible civil war unfolding in  Arab Iraq, but they scarcely notice that Iraqi Kurdistan is  slowly realizing all of America’s stated goals for the region,”  he writes.

The Kurds, protected by an American-sponsored no-fly  zone during Saddam Hussein’s last years in power, got a  head start on the nation-building process that has convulsed  the rest of Iraq. Quietly, and happy to be left alone, they have developed a semi-autonomous enclave that is pro-democracy, pro-American and even pro-Israel. It is Muslim but not theocratic. There is no insurgency, and no American soldiers have been killed there. Almost by accident, Mr. Lawrence writes, Iraqi Kurdistan has turned out to be “one of the most successful nation-building projects in American history.”

How this happened is Mr. Lawrence’s subject, as he sifts through events taking place in northern Iraq at a time when the attention of the world was focused on calamitous events farther south. It is a story well worth telling, although Mr. Lawrence, the Middle East correspondent for the BBC/PRI radio program "The World," offers more of a chronology than a narrative. 

He begins, sensibly enough, with a brief overview of Kurdish history and an answer to the irritating question inevitably put to every Kurdish spokesman: What exactly is a Kurd? Much hinges on the reply. For years the Turkish government simply denied the existence of its millions of Kurds, calling them “mountain Turks who have forgotten their language.” 

In fact, the Kurds are a distinct, ancient ethnic group with their own non-Arabic language who inhabit parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Like the Palestinians, they are a people without a homeland and are much less likely than the Palestinians to get one. This is the discordant note in Mr. Lawrence’s otherwise upbeat account, a little-engine-that-could story in which courageous, determined Kurds, overcoming repeated betrayals by the Western powers, manage to create from the ruins of Iraq a virtual state that cannot become actual without throwing the entire Middle East into chaos.

Mr. Lawrence spends most of his time describing the rise of Kurdistan’s two great, clan-based parties and their incessant jockeying for position in the post-Hussein era. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, led since 1975 by Massoud Barzani, competes with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by its founder, the exuberant and charismatic Jalal Talabani. Even experts can discern no difference in their programs. 

The intrigues and bickering between the two parties defy comprehension, but Mr. Lawrence dutifully notes every twist and turn of events. This quickly becomes tedious. In the end the parties wind up running separate domains within Kurdistan — right down to the region’s two incompatible cellphone networks — with Mr. Barzani as head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Mr. Talabani serving as president of Iraq. 

On the debit side, both parties operate by cronyism and tolerate levels of corruption that are standard in the Middle East but appalling to Western nations. On the plus side, both have cracked down hard on Islamic extremists. Mr. Lawrence gives a rousing account of the Patriotic Union’s campaign against Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamist group, with members of the pesh merga, the redoubtable Kurdish militia, fighting together with American special operations troops.

The Americans and the pesh merga worked together well, despite starkly different tactical styles. The Americans liked to move forward deliberately, secure their ground and then call in air strikes for the next assault. The pesh merga, rather than moving the ball down the field 10 yards at a time, preferred to strike suddenly, seize momentum and chase the enemy at high speed, accepting heavy casualties as the price of victory. At the same time, they rarely showed up before 7 a.m. for battle and routinely broke for lunch. Still, the collaboration succeeded.

Mr. Lawrence describes “soft partition” as the Kurds’ best bet. Only 2 percent of Kurds wish to remain part of Iraq, but a declaration of nationhood would bring armed intervention from adjacent powers. By lying low and taking advantage of continuing strife between Sunnis and Shiites, Mr. Lawrence writes, they can continue to develop separately and, with a little luck, persuade the United States to build a permanent military base in Kurdistan.

“The key was to keep American patronage, and to do that, they would need to stay a tiny bit invisible,” Mr. Lawrence writes, reading the mind of the Kurdish leadership. “The Kurds could have a country in everything but name, and that way none of the neighbors could accuse them of trying to redraw the map.”

For the first time in nearly a century the Kurds hold a winning hand — from which they need to discard the trump card of nationhood. Mr. Lawrence, a sympathetic but not uncritical observer, makes it easy to root for a people whose struggle has long seemed, to quote Neville Chamberlain on Czechoslovakia, “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” For a change, the Kurds now have a chance at something.

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