Amid conflicts, Iraqi Kurds retain ties with neighbors
IRBIL, Iraq — Iraq’s Kurds say they are surrounded by enemies, foreign and domestic, and are victims of centuries-long persecution. But if history has left them wary of their neighbors, geography and economics has left them dependent on them, too.
In the rolling, golden mountains of northern Dohuk province, the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing hummed with traffic on a recent afternoon, heat radiating from the asphalt, and a cloud of diesel fumes hanging over the area.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s only legal land crossing along the Turkish border, it is one of the busiest ports of entry in the country, accounting for much of the estimated $6 billion in trade between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish region, according to a 2008 report released by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In a rural area not far from the line of Turkish cargo trucks lined up at Ibrahim Khalil, there are visitors who are much less welcome. Well inside the borders of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous zone, Turkish tanks sit in dug-in positions, ostensibly to battle the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an Iraq-based militant group in the midst of a decades-long guerrilla campaign against Turkey.
Many Kurds see the occupation as a slap in the face to their hard-fought autonomy.
“The Turkish people must stay on their land, live in peace, and let us live in peace,” said Maj. Gen. Ahmed Fazladin, who commands Kurdistan’s border forces.
Between ethnic rivalries, government saber-rattling, and a simmering border war, Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and its neighbors have plenty of disputes, but behind the scenes Kurds have quietly worked to nurture a détente to keep their borders open for tens of millions of dollars of trade vital to the economy.
‘They all hate us’
The three-province area in Iraq’s north, known as Kurdistan, has a roughly 600-mile border that touches Syria, Turkey, and Iran, with Turkey and Iran being the region’s biggest and most problematic trading partners.
Turkey, with its large, restive Kurdish minority, has long been the biggest obstacle to the Kurdish dream of a sovereign Kurdistan. The Turkish government has made clear such a move would be treated as a threat to its national security. Turkish policies restricting speaking Kurdish and wearing Kurdish traditional clothing, not to mention the occasional military incursion into Iraq, have only hardened feelings.
Iran, too, has a largely Sunni Muslim Kurdish minority who complain of persecution by the Shiite-dominated theocracy. Both Iran and Turkey regularly lob artillery at Iraq, they say to fight the PKK and the anti-Iranian Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) guerrillas. The explosives have had a devastating effect on the largely agrarian Kurdish population, causing thousands of farmers to flee the mountains.
“Iran, Turkey, Syria — they all hate us ... and want to destroy this little project,” said Maj. Gen. Muhammad Ali Taha, commander of the Kurdish Peshmerga (Kurdistan’s military) in Dohuk province.
Made in Turkey
The animosity is never so great as to bring calls to close the lucrative border crossings that connect Kurdistan to its neighbors. Pick through the trinkets in the many bazaars, and you will find “Made in Turkey” labels again and again.
The small, landlocked region depends heavily on cross-border trade and officials who speak in damning terms one minute will follow up by acknowledging the need for at least cordial relations.
“It’s very necessary for Kurdistan to have investment from Iran,” said Maj. Goran Saleh Khalid, a Kurdistan border patrol officer who works in an area heavily affected by both Turkish and Iranian shelling.
Kurdish Regional Government leaders have led delegations to both Iran and Turkey, and a group of Kurdish border officials are slated to head to Tehran soon to discuss military and trade issues. Military leaders on both sides of the border also quietly have their own backchannels, a system that may have prevented fighting earlier this month, when the Turkish military started shelling very close to a Kurdish border fort under construction in the area.
The Kurdish colonel, Hussein Tamar Hussein, said he called his Turkish counterpart and told him he would storm the Turkish position if the shelling continued. The bombardment stopped.
“They don’t want me to build up any new border forts because they don’t like it, but it’s our country,” Hussein said.