Iraq in the summer is a true broiler, although not necessarily more so than what I’d left behind in Oman. Here however, the lack of a reliable supply of electricity meant daily intermittent power cuts while the university electricians transferred to an alternate grid provided by immense electrical generators that sat just inside the blast walls behind the main university administration building. During these transition periods, we would all—teachers and students alike–perspire profusely inside the suffocating space created by the sheet-metal walls of our prefab classrooms. These blackouts were random and could come at any time in any part of the city and eventually became just another routine part of daily life in Iraq.
War=Profits for some
I had an option to ride in a shuttle van from our guesthouse to the university each day, but I chose to walk. I felt safe with heavily-armed peshmerga guards stationed on virtually every street corner and walking gave me a chance to observe the locals in their neighborhoods as they went about their daily routines. During my twice daily strolls—as the sun was rising and setting—I took an interest in the massive generators that were placed either beside an individual house or that appeared to be shared by several houses. At any rate, there were many of these monstrosities in this neighborhood alone and when they were all running, they caused a mighty roar that drowned out all other sounds.
My curiosity led me to casually crane my neck as I passed each house in search of the manufacturer’s symbol on each machine. I noticed that most were made by either a German or a Japanese company. Of course, the origin of the generators wasn’t a surprise since both of these countries are well known for producing high quality products of this kind.
“…but here was further evidence of how foreign corporations and their stockholders were being enriched at the expense of the average Iraqi citizen.”
How interesting, I thought. The people of Iraq are suffering without a reliable electrical system—since many couldn’t afford expensive generators or the fuel to run them—while companies abroad are profiting from their plight.
I was already aware that American corporations such as Halliburton had significantly increased profits due to rebuilding infrastructure that had been all too conveniently destroyed by the Bush Administration’s ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign which had begun in 2003, but here was further evidence of how foreign corporations and their stockholders were being enriched at the expense of the average Iraqi citizen. The lack of a reliable electricity source, which is fundamental to the well-being and economic growth of any country, was a glaring red-flag indicating yet another failure of the American-led War in (on) Iraq.
Kurds and Americans
All the Kurds I’ve interacted with in Iraq—and other countries—have held a favorable opinion of Americans, and credited the US government with giving their people some degree of retribution against the powers within their own country that had suppressed them for far too long. This had been achieved due to the establishment of no-fly zones over Iraqi Kurdistan during the first Gulf War.
While, as an American, it was nice to be living and working in a place where I was welcomed, I couldn’t help feeling sad because it was my belief that the US government would likely end up deserting the Kurds when it no longer needed them, just as other international governments had done in the past.
Iraq’s internal strife
The stories my students told me about the still-strained relationship between the KRG and the Iraqi central government matched what I’d read in the international press. According to my students, the most powerful individual in Iraq was the Iranian foreign minister. You may remember that Saddam Hussein’s controlling Baath party had been made up of Sunni Muslims in a country where Shias formed a majority of the population.
As soon as Hussein’s government fell after American intervention, the Shias grabbed power which in turn gave the Shia dominated Iranian government the opportunity to form Iraqi alliances and therefore gain some degree of control over Iraqi affairs. In other words, the Shia-led Iraqi government preferred to partner with Iranian Shias over the Kurdish people of their own country. This has been historically true in Iraq with Shia and Sunni Arab groups seeking to dominant the government at the expense of each other as well as the Kurds.
Shia control of the Iraqi government has simply led to continued marginalization for the Kurds, who are majority Sunni but had been fervently despised and persecuted by Hussein and the Sunni Baathists. There was a tone of disdain and resignation when my students spoke of Iraq’s Shia-led government and its ties to the Iranian regime. It seems the Kurds have always been the outsiders no matter who was in charge in Baghdad.
Toward Kurdish Independence?
While our classroom discussions only touched on Kurdish independence, it was obvious that my Kurdish students firmly supported this cause. Fast forward to the Kurdish Independence Vote held on September 25, 2017 which saw more than 90% of those who voted in Kurdistan tick the ‘yes’ box on their ballots. This has set the stage for a showdown with not only the Iraqi central government, but with the governments of Turkey, Syria and Iran as well.
Turkey, which has a long history of discrimination against its Kurdish minority, has been fighting a bloody battle against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) within its own borders, which it (along with the USA) designates as a terrorist group. Turkish President Erdogan has said repeatedly that he will use military action against any and all Kurdish groups who attempt to establish a Kurdish State, a threat he repeated just before and after the Iraqi Kurdish referendum.
The Iranian government has also stated its firm opposition to the idea of a Kurdish homeland. Turkey and Iran both fear that the pro-independence vote will rouse their own Kurdish minorities to seek the same. Since the Kurdistan vote, both Turkey and Iran have cut off trade with Iraqi Kurdistan in an effort to punish the people for their ‘yes’ vote. This is a serious threat to the health and well-being of all those who live in Iraqi Kurdistan since most food supplies and other products are produced and shipped from Turkey and Iran.
The Iraq central government has also retaliated against the Kurdish autonomous region by halting all international flights to KRG administered airports which includes Kurdistan’s two busiest in Irbil and Sulaimaniyah. The effects of these sanctions will inevitably bring more pain and suffering on a people who have known more than their fair share.
Why should millions of Kurds, a people with their own language, culture and traditions be forced to remain part of such a country, especially when the other players refuse to share power or the country’s oil wealth?
Western governments (including the USA) have condemned the Kurdish independence vote, stating that such a move would serve to further destabilize an already unstable region. To the Kurds, I’m sure it feels like they’ve been here before as a people.
Kurds—a reliable partner and strong fighting force
The US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria enlisted the Kurdish peshmerga as partners early on. In battle after battle, the peshmerga have proven to be the most effective ground fighting force against ISIS both in northern Iraq and northern Syria. The Iraqi central government left the Kurds alone to defend themselves when ISIS neared striking distance of the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Irbil. The Kurdish ground forces, aided by coalition air power, were successful in pushing ISIS back in a series of decisive defeats.
The Kurds have also been instrumental in the battle against ISIS in Syria where the peshmerga (made up of both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds) have won back most of the northern territory that borders Turkey. Would President Erdogan rather have ISIS as a neighbor than the Kurds?
Now the Kurdish peshmerga are being shunned (as further punishment for their independence vote) by Iraq’s central government forces who are made up of a loose coalition of Iraqi and Iranian Shia militias, along with additional Sunni forces from Iraq. I believe they alienate the Kurdish forces at their own peril. Based on recent history, these groups have proven far less successful at fighting ISIS, and have even turned on each other in the past. And, let’s not forget that it was the Iraqi central government forces who fled Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, leaving behind cash and US-supplied weapons that fell right into the hands of approaching ISIS fighters.
Given the current situation which has seen ISIS fighters on the run and losing large tracts of territory, should the US and its other Western partners side with the Iraqi central government and allow it to stop coordinating anti-ISIS attacks with the KRG and Kurdish peshmerga due to the recent Kurdish independence vote? After all, hasn’t the defeat of ISIS become the number one item on every Western government’s agenda?
Make no mistake about it, I felt that the 2003 American invasion of Iraq was a disastrous mistake and that view has only been reinforced by my experiences abroad over the past fourteen years. Further, I believe that Middle East meddling by Western governments over the past century has only produced negative effects; it has further inflamed age-old sectarian tensions, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Arabs and thousands of Western soldiers, helped produce the terrorist group we know as ISIS and won very little support from average citizens in any Middle Eastern country, that is, other than the Kurds.
I don’t agree with further weaponization of any country or group in the Middle East, regardless of the stated motives. However, I do think the Kurds, who have been loyal partners and who fight for a just cause (remember America’s own fight against tyranny more than 250 years ago), should at least receive verbal support from Western governments who proclaim to fight in the name of freedom for all.
While I don’t know what the future holds for the youth of Iraqi Kurdistan, I wholeheartedly support their aspirations to be able to forge their own destiny free from the oppression of any other regional or international government or group. Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and those we love?
For a more in-depth discussion of the Kurdish Independence movement, view this video from the Council on Foreign Affairs.