Current Work – Kurdish North


CPT in the Kurdish North

After living for 4 years in Baghdad among people who bore the impact of the US invasion and the chaos that ensued, the Iraq team has now become neighbors with the Kurds, the very people who, indeed, greeted the occupation forces with flowers in 2003. Now, some years later, the brutal cyclone of violence in Iraq is leaving the Kurds in yet another turbulent situation, at the hands of those who they called “liberators”.

Brief historical context

The Kurds have a long history of oppression and uprising. They’ve historically been one of the most marginalized ethnic groups in the region. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, lines were drawn through the Kurdish area dividing its population of 40 million between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. Kurdish identity is suppressed in these countries to this day. However, for the moment in Iraq, the Kurds have significant representation in parliament, one of four seats in the presidency, and the right to their language.

In Iraq, the Baath regime in the 1980’s responded to Kurdish uprisings with the genocidal Anfal campaign in which nearly 200,000 Kurds were slaughtered and 5,000 of their villages wiped out. Saddam Hussein also forcibly changed the demographic of Iraqi Kurdish cities like Kirkuk, Makhmour, and Khanikeen, displacing many. There was a Kurdish uprising during the 1991 Gulf War and this was brutally suppressed by Saddam. Then the US and UK forces imposed a “no-fly” zone on the Kurdish north in order to protect the Kurds. The north still lived under economic sanctions imposed by Saddam while the rest of Iraq was suffering under the UN-imposed sanctions on the rest of Iraq. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Turkey would not allow the US to launch its invasion from its territory, the Iraqi Kurds offered the way in, actually forming the front line.

Current political dynamics

Today, due to the fear of losing control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk (now that the majority population is again Kurdish), it seems to Kurds that the central Iraqi government wishes to tighten its grip on the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government area (KRG). The policy of the US is to support a strong central government. Turkey, Iran and Syria all fear that a growing Kurdish autonomy in Iraq will inspire their own countries’ Kurdish populations (20-25 million in Turkey alone). Article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution states that people displaced under the Baath regime should be helped to return to their places of origin and a census should be taken, followed by a referendum to determine to which governorate a given city should belong. Such a referendum, which was supposed to take place by December 31st, 2007, would clearly induct Kirkuk and other “disputed areas” into the KRG, thereby strengthening this semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Yet the Iraqi parliament approved legislation that, following the January 2009 provincial elections, divided power in the provincial council and leadership posts as follows: 32% to Kurds, 32% to Arabs, 32% to Turkmen and 4% to Christians, even though 70% of the city is now Kurdish.[1] In addition, approximately 100,000 Kurds were disenfranchised during the provincial election on other “disputed areas” (80,000 in Makhmour, 16,000 in Khanikeen, and 5,000 in Tuz. CPTers served as election observers.) Tension is building around this issue and Kirkuk has become one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq due to ethnically/religiously-motivated violence.

Kurds are also fearful because of developments in the northern city of Mosul. Mosul is now considered THE most dangerous city in Iraq with an average of one car bomb per day and 10 incidents of violence per day, mostly against the US and Iraqi armies. Al Qaeda is reorganizing in Mosul and Fallujah under the name “Islamic State of Iraq”. There are former Baath Party members operating in Mosul who support Islamic State of Iraq. The Baathist al-Hadba list won 19 out of 37 seats in the provincial election and proceeded to distribute all governmental posts to its own members. 12 seats went to the Kurdish list. Al-Hadba has also requested that Baghdad send the Iraqi army into Mosul to replace the Kurdish military (peshmerga) which claims responsibility for security in the KRG and the Kurdish part of Mosul and other cities in the “disputed areas.”

A hidden war

Iraqi Kurdistan is surrounded on all sides by hostility. It is divided in four by crosshairs, at the center of which is the Northern Iraqi border where a hidden war continues in the mountains. Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) from Turkey and their Iranian associate, Party for Free Life (PJAK), both on the US and EU terrorist list and in armed conflict with their respective governments, use Iraq’s border as a haven for their operations. This war has raged for over two decades, killing nearly 40,000, displacing over a million Kurdish civilians in Southeast Turkey[2] and thousands more inside Iraq.[3] In late 2007 Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan met in Washington with President Bush and an agreement was made to collaborate in renewed attempts to eliminate the PKK presence in Iraq.[4] The military incursions would be based on US military intelligence. Iran’s cross-border shelling, which has been intermittent since 1996, picked up intensity in early 2008 in alleged coordination with Turkey’s attacks. Shelling typically follows sightings of Turkish surveillance planes over Iraq. 

Although political agreements have been made between Turkey and Iraq to limit media attention, the impact these incursions are having on civilian populations can be seen.  CPTers have traveled along the entire northern border interviewing internally displaced persons (IDPs) and exploring possibilities for a project to accompany people who are returning to villages from which they fled. The team has kept regular contact with the United Nations and local Kurdish NGOs that have assisted these IDPs. In some areas they’ve been able to visit the remains of Muslim and Christian villages destroyed by the Turkish bombing and talk to villagers who still live there or come and go to care for crops or animals under the threat of further random attacks. They interviewed a 27-year old woman who lost her leg, families of persons who were killed in these bombings by Turkish military, and people whose family were taken from their villages and allegedly tortured by Turkish soldiers. Testimonies of villagers and government officials have confirmed the destruction of civilian infrastructure such as homes, schools, mosques, churches, and hospitals. Turkish and (and also Iranian) bombing has killed an extensive amount of sheep and cows and scorched villagers’ agriculture. The Turkish military has bombed bridges and planted land mines, cutting people off from harvesting their crops. Bombing continues in areas still inhabited and is audible from some areas where IDPs now live. CPTers have also seen 12 of the numerous Turkish military bases positioned well within Iraqi territory. According to villagers and Iraqi Kurdish security officials, Turkish military at these bases watch their movements, set up checkpoints, strike during the time of planting and harvesting or anytime they observe displaced villagers returning to their homes, and burn agricultural fields for the purpose of “visibility.” Locals experience the Turkish presence as an oppressive occupation.

Based on what CPT and other human rights organizations such as Kurdish Human Rights Project and Human Rights Watch have witnessed and documented, the Turkish and Iranian militaries could be held responsible for violating rules of armed conflict laid out in Protocol 1 Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 1949, relating to the Protection of Victims of International armed conflicts.[5]
(articles 35, 48, 51, 52, 54, 57)

Turkey also fails to comply with its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. It would then follow that the United States is complicit in violations of international law by a foreign military in a country it occupies. Of course, Turkey’s incursions are not taking place without  the consent of the Iraqi central government. The US, Turkey and Iraq have formed a joint commission to solve “the PKK problem.” The commission meets in Erbil, the capital city of the KRG, which apparently advocates little on behalf of its displaced citizenry.  Iraq has, however, as of May 2009, officially condemned Iran’s incursions and attacks on the KRG.

The PKK are also responsible for crimes against humanity. They have carried out acts of terrorism against civilians. Refugees CPT has interviewed at Makhmour camp, who fled Turkey because of their relation to alleged PKK members, own that they once purported faith in armed revolution, but that now they, and the PKK leadership, are calling for a peaceful solution to the conflict. It is worth mentioning that, as of June 2009, the PKK continues attempts to maintain a unilateral ceasefire and is calling on the Turkish government to engage in dialogue. That is something that all peace-advocating organizations should encourage and uphold because there is no military solution to this conflict.    

The CPT Iraq Team’s current work

The CPT team is currently focusing on the IDPs of the Pshdar district in the Sulamaniya governorate. The first steps in the process of helping these people return to their villages will not be physical. They will be in form of recording their stories, the condition of their lives as IDPs and documenting violations of their human rights. As CPT provides independent verification for the international community, UN, and governments as to the impact of these incursions on civilians, something which at this point is almost completely lacking, we are building relationships and working to spread awareness. Although local villagers still do return to their homes even now despite bombs and mortar shells, they do not wish to return with their families to stay unless they have some guarantee they are not walking into a bloodbath. At the same time they express clearly that their lives as IDPs are not sustainable and they await any opportunity to return home.

On a larger scale, CPT has observed a dramatic change in the Kurdish population from unapologetic support for the U.S. military presence in Iraq to anger at the way in which the United States has treated one of its most loyal allies in the Middle East. Kurdish people, who have experienced the Anfal campaign under the Saddam Hussein regime, who were bombed in their villages, are now being bombed in their villages by Turkey and Iran with U.S. support in the form of permission and military intelligence. CPT, therefore, joins its voice with its Kurdish partners to call for dialogue between all parties involved. We call for a peaceful solution. There is no military solution.  

[1] Kurds Object to Iraqi Provincial Election Law

[2]  U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR), 2001, World Refugee Survey 2001: Turkey

[3] Yildiz, Kerim, The Kurds in Iraq, Revised Edition, Pluto, London, 2007, p81.

[4] Kurdish Human rights Project, A Fact-finding Mission in Kuristan, Iraq: Gaps in the Human Rights Infrastructure, July 2008, p.78, November 5, 2007


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