Iraq's Resilient Minority

Shaped by persecution, tribal strife and an unforgiving landscape, Iraq's Kurds have put their dream of independence on hold-for now

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Meantime, the villagers get by as they always have, farming, smuggling and taking jobs with the police.

Kurds, scattered across international borders, have traditionally been well positioned for smuggling. In northeastern Iraq, where the landscape is dominated by soaring mountainsides dotted with the black tents of nomadic shepherds, I encountered an unattended horse trotting along with a bulging pack strapped to its back. This was one of the aeistri zirag, or “clever horses,” trained to travel alone across the frontier with loads of contraband, such as alcohol, into Iran.

From 1991 to 2003, when Iraqi Kurdistan offered a way around the U.N. trade embargo, a good smuggler-horse was worth as much as a car. At that time, the roads leading to Habur were slick with oil leaking from the tanks on thousands of trucks smuggling crude to Turkey. Kurds at the Habur River checkpoint levied millions of dollars in fees each month. Happy to see the Kurds support themselves, Western powers winked at this flagrant sanction-busting.

In addition, anyone with good connections to powerful Kurds and the ruling elite in Baghdad made huge amounts of money smuggling such basic commodities as cigarettes from Turkey shipped across Kurdish territory to Baghdad. These fortunes may account for much of the frenetic construction activity around Kurdish cities.

Tribal alliances still bring money and power to their adherents. The Barzani clan, headed by Massoud Barzani, dominates the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, is led by an energetic intellectual named Jalal Talabani. The two groups fought side by side in the 1991 uprising that followed Saddam’s defeat in the Gulf War. Then both Kurdish factions came home to rule under the shelter of American air power in the respective areas they controlled, Barzani in the northwestern corner of Iraqi Kurdistan, Talabani to the east.

Rivalry turned to civil war in 1994, over land disputes and, some say, spoils from oil smuggling. The fighting raged on and off through the summer of 1996, when Talabani enlisted military support from Iran and soon had Barzani on the ropes. Desperate, Barzani made a deal with the devil himself —Saddam Hussein—who sent Talabani’s forces reeling.

In 1998, the U.S. government persuaded the two parties to sign a peace agreement. They cooperated—with each other and with the United States—through the 2003 war and the negotiations on the Iraqi constitution. Barzani agreed that Talabani could become president of Iraq. Meanwhile, Barzani was given authority as president of the Kurdish Regional Government.

The two sides no longer shoot it out, though there have been scattered and unpublicized armed clashes as recently as this past February. But divisions remain deep and persistent. The city of Irbil is festooned exclusively with portraits of the Barzani family, while portraits of Talabani watch over the streets of Sulaimaniyah, the PUK capital. Barzani’s Irbil is somewhat dour, with the few women visible on the streets almost invariably clad in enveloping black abayas. Talabani’s Sulaimaniyah appears more vibrant, with a lively literary and musical scene and some of its women in Western fashions.

“Sulaimaniyah is the cultural heart of Kurdistan,” said Asos Hardi, the crusading editor of Hawlati, a weekly newspaper based in the city. “It’s relatively new, founded only 200 years ago. Irbil is 9,000 years old, and very traditional. No one has ever seen Barzani’s wife. Talabani’s wife is very active and visible, the daughter of a famous poet.”

Like many Kurds, Hardi, known to his youthful staff as “the old man,” despite being only 42, shares the common distrust of the Arab Iraqis who ruled here for so long. “If we can live in this country with proper rights, why not?” he said. “But who can guarantee our future?”


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