Kevin McKiernan: From cowed to confident

  • Article by: KEVIN MCKIERNAN
  • Updated: October 31, 2007 - 5:56 PM

Twenty years ago Kurds readily submitted to Turkish authority. Today, they're ready to resist, even though doing so could be costly.

I was briefly detained by Turkish troops inside Iraq in the early 1990s, during a Turkish cross-border operation targeting sanctuaries of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The raids were common in those days -- though largely unknown to the outside world -- and I was trying to capture the news on video.

Iraqi Kurds didn't react with noisy protests at the time, as they did recently when 15,000 demonstrators took to the streets after the Turkish parliament voted to authorize similar incursions. Back then, the Kurds were living in the shadows, and the Turkish army crossed the border at will.

As the armored convoy rumbled through the nearby town of Zakho, damaging streets with their tank treads, local Kurds seemed more terrified than angry. My hired driver pleaded for me to put the camera down.

The soldiers pulled our taxi over and ordered the driver to get out and put his hands on the hood. I remained inside, making feeble references about international boundaries and the army's lack of jurisdiction: "I am an American journalist," I appealed to a corporal at my window. "This is Iraq, not Turkey." The soldiers threatened to transport us to their garrison across the river, but in the end, fortunately, they did not. I managed to record part of the encounter on my camcorder, which I'd left running on the seat.

There are some 25 million Kurds in the Middle East, a population spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, and nationalist Kurds like to argue that a Kurdish homeland could provide a key to regional stability. The 23-year-old PKK uprising in Turkey that is spilling over the Iraq border and destabilizing U.S.-Turkish relations, however, may prove just the opposite.

More than likely, the PKK is hoping that hardliners in the powerful Turkish army prevail and that the current crisis leads to a full-scale invasion. While the guerrillas would lose large numbers of fighters, the incursion would represent a big step toward "pan-Kurdism," the long-held dream of uniting disparate Kurdish factions in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. An invasion would also shore up the declining influence of the Turkish generals, which the recent rise of Turkey's Islamic-led government has sidelined.

But the enterprise would be costly, and large numbers of Turkish soldiers would die as well.

I've visited PKK sanctuaries in Iraq on MountQandhil, the rugged mountain that straddles the Iraq-Iran border. The area has long been a haven for guerrillas, but the clock is ticking if Turks intend to launch a ground offensive this year. With hundreds of bomb-resistant caves honeycombing its slopes, the high mountain retreat is often impregnable by early November, when the passes are blocked by snow.

The Iranian counterpart of the PKK, Kurdish militants called P.J.A.K., also have camps on MountQandhil. Years ago, the same mountain provided sanctuary for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani when his forces were fighting Saddam Hussein's troops. Other groups, including Ansar al-Islam, the Al-Qaida affiliate, have also used Qandhil as a safe harbor.

Yesterday, I telephoned northern Iraq and spoke with my former driver and bodyguard, Saman (not his real name). He told me that some 3,000 Iraqi Kurds had already fled their villages to escape cross-border shelling from Turkey and the seemingly imminent troop incursion. How, I asked him, could the lightly-armed Kurdish militia resist a vastly superior Turkish army, the second most powerful in NATO? Also, given reports of Kurds stockpiling food, I wondered, was he afraid for his family?

Saman is not a stranger to war. A few years ago, when terrorists tried to kill a Kurdish official he was guarding, he was shot 23 times--and survived. American surgeons operated on Saman after another physician, a friend of mine from high school in St. Paul, pulled strings at a Boston hospital. Saman said he hoped U.S. troops would protect the Kurds if necessary, but he conceded that it might be wishful thinking. Still, he emphasized, the Iraqi Kurds of today were not the meek, impoverished people of the 1990s. "This is my country now," he declared. "Turkey [should] not come here."

This much is true: In the last few years, Iraqi Kurds have moved from the shadows to the stage. Today, they are America's best -- perhaps only -- friend in Iraq, with territory largely immune, at least so far, from the chaos in the rest of the country. While their militant Kurdish cousins in the PKK risk spoiling some or all of what they have gained, Iraqi Kurds might put aside differences with the PKK if the Turks invade. They have achieved a homeland in northern Iraq in all but name. They may be unwilling to let foreigners break up their streets again, at least without a fight.

Kevin McKiernan is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas and is the author of "The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland."

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