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The Kurds are an ancient people tracing their roots back to 3000 B.C. With over 40 million Kurds estimated to be spread out in a arc of territory stretching from Syria across Turkey and Iran, they are considered to be the world's largest ethnic group without their own homeland.
At the end of the 1st World War their territories fell victim to the redrawing of the map of the Middle East leaving them dived and stateless. They have survived because of their national pride and culture, which, despite differences in linguistic dialects, allow them to share a common language, folklore, music and festivals distinct from their Arabic, Persian and Turkish oppressors.
For the last century they have resisted all attempts to viciously suppress their identity from banning of their language and the right to hold Kurdish names as in Turkey, who until recently refused to even recognize their existence as distinct form other Turks. And worse still when they became the victims of mass killings during the regime of Saddam Hussein.
But times are changing and largely because of the relative peace and prosperity enjoyed in the autonomous region of northern Iraqi Kurdistan. Ever since 1991, they have enjoyed a level of self-government through the British and US no-fly zone and since the fall of Hussein the country has flourished economically, politically and culturally. Although key participants in the Iraqi government, they already enjoy virtual independence. They have control over their own substantial oil fields and the Army and Police are made up overwhelmingly of former Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas – ferocious mountain fighters over whom the central Iraqi government and military has no control or capacity to challenge and whom the US has had to depend on for cooperation in sustaining peace in the North.
Turkey charges that the Iraqi Kurdish authorisations are harbouring and allowing thousands PKK guerrillas (Turkish separatist Kurdish insurgents) on their territory from which they are able to find safe haven, raise finances, take advantage of the possibilities to organize and to instigate cross border raids on Turkey across the Candil mountains which separate the two countries. Iran has also made similar complaints against the Pejak group of Iranian Kurdish guerrillas who are attacking Iran and Iran has already retaliated with incursions and attacks on their bases. (The Pejak group although formerly a terrorist organisation is supported by the CIA as part of US efforts to de-stabilize the Iranian regime.)
In Eastern Turkey some 37,000 people have died in the conflict over Kurdish rights. The PKK has recently increased its attacks on Turkish troops and civilian, the deaths of some 13 troops and 30 civilians recently has outraged Turkish public opinion and added to pressure for Turkish incursions and/or an all-out invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan. Last weeks vote by the Turkish parliament to give permission to the Turkish army to invade or take any measures necessary against the threat from the PKK has stemmed from theses recent events.
However, the underlying reasons for Turkey considering an invasion lie in the pole of attraction, which Kurdish Iraq acts as for the 15 million Kurds within Turkey's borders. Iraqi Kurdistan attacks as a magnet drawing together the Kurdish Diaspora and offering hope of a unified independent homeland for all Kurds. This is literally fuelled by the enormous oil wealth Iraqi Kurdistan posses and which makes a homeland a feasible economic, social and cultural potentiality.
Although the present Kurdish leaders proclaim that they are content with autonomy the situation remains extremely volatile. Especially because of the internal issue of Kirkuk, a city on the frontier of Kurdistan which is largely Kurdish, but with large Sunni and Shiite and Turkmen minorities. The city has huge oil wealth and it will be subject to a referendum before the end of the year, after which it is likely that the Kurds will proclaim it their capital instead of Erbil. The inter-communal violence that may ensue is added to the threat of Turkish incursions. Turkey is vehemently opposed to Kirkuk becoming formerly Kurd as it would be seen as the final jewel in the oil crown that could lay the basis for overall independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. This will especially be the case if the situation in Southern Iraq and the country as a whole continues to deteriorate and the government is trapped in stalemate, especially over the distribution of oil wealth nationally.
An imminent invasion is not ruled out after the parliamentary vote (some 507 to 19 in favour), but the coming winter snows across the mountain ranges makes it a less viable option than Spring time. It is probable that incursions and attacks by Special Forces will be stepped up with the use of aerial bombardment at the moment. An all-out invasion would not necessarily be successful and the Turkish troops could find themselves as bogged down as US forces are I the rest of Iraq.
Thousands of PKK guerrillas are said to be massing in the mountains to counter-attack and if the Turks were to invade they could find themselves in combat with formidable and well-armed troops of the former Iraqi Peshmerga guerrillas, with the official forces of the Iraqi army and police, which they control, engaging in combat with the Turks. Mayhem would follow and the Iraqi government and US forces would be helpless to intervene. Furthermore, such an invasion, which is openly supported by Syria, could embolden both Syrian and, especially Iranian forces, to likewise invade, in order to carve up the area between them - de facto-redrawing the map of the centre of the Middle East.
The US and Iraq have vehemently opposed any moves and have tried vainly to promise to somehow clamp down on the PKK activities in the region. But these are viewed as hollow promises, without the means or will to back them up and measures which are already to little and too late. To make matters worse the recent vote in the Congress to name the mass murder of Armenians by Turks in 1915 an act of genocide has further infuriated Turkish sentiments and alienation from the US. This could result in the closure of vital air roots that supply some 70% of the US war effort in Iraq, creating a logistical disaster for the US.
The Kurdish issue will not be waved away by some magic wand of diplomacy. War is inevitable at some point in the near future. But fighting the proud and aspiring Kurds may prove to be an even greater debacle for the Turks and their neighbours than even Iraq is for the US.