While the recent events in Iraq are extremely troubling and illustrate the folly of this administration’s approach to the country, one development in the past few days should not be a cause for worry. This New York Times article portrays the Peshmerga advance in Kirkuk as deepening the fracturing of Iraq and puts it on par, in a sense, with ISIS’ advances in Mosul and Tikrit.
That kind of thinking is wrongheaded, and here’s why.
I’ll admit my bias up front, I’m very partial to the Kurdish people. I spent close to eight months with them in 2009. Our battalion was responsible for the security of the city of Kirkuk and the areas to the north and east, which encompassed mainly Kurdish regions. I’ll get into the geopolitics of our mission in a bit, but I want to relate a couple stories first.
The Kurds love Americans. The day Michael Jackson died I was headed to a city council meeting in the city of Chamchamal, east of Kirkuk. Our patrol pulled into the city, parked in our normal spot, and I dropped my flak vest and helmet and walked toward the meeting. We had nothing to fear from the Kurds – not a single US soldier has ever been killed in Kurdish territory to my knowledge – and I did not want them to think I was afraid of them.
While walking toward the city council building, I was approached by a ten or eleven year old boy. This happened often, usually they just want to say hi and shake my hand.
This time he bowed slightly and said, in English, "I’m sorry."
I said, "Sorry for what?"
He raised his head, "I heard he died this morning. You must feel terrible."
This stopped me in my tracks, "Who died?"
He looked at me, confused. "Michael Jackson. He died this morning. Haven’t you heard?"
I turned to the group around me and asked if that was true. No one else had heard it either. You don’t get to consume as much pop culture as you’d like when you’re deployed.
The boy told us what he knew about Jackson, and I thanked him before he left. If this exchange illustrates anything – beyond how popular Michael Jackson is outside of the United States – it’s that it could not have happened anywhere but in a Kurdish controlled area.
I’ve been asked, in all seriousness and more than once, about the possibility of Kurdistan becoming the 51st state. When we pulled into villages or towns children would flock to our vehicles just to wave and say hi. I’ve had to disrupt more than one impromptu soccer game between our soldiers and Kurdish children who wanted to play. When one of our vehicles had a mechanical failure in Kurdish territory we spend an enjoyable evening waiting for maintenance to show up by playing with what appeared to be every child in town. I still have a video of that night.
The Kurds hate Arabs. Saddam tried his best to kill as many Kurds as possible, conducting an endless series of operations against them in the mountainous region north of Kirkuk and gassing them in Halabja and elsewhere. One of the most popular television shows in Kurdish regions was an hour long drama, produced in Sulaymaniya, that detailed Iraqi Army atrocities against the Kurds. Think of the TV series "V", but with Saddam Hussein as the invading alien overlord. Everywhere I went, if they weren’t watching American movies or television shows, they were watching this show.
The police chief of a town called Shwan, north of Kirkuk, drove me through his district one day. I asked him to give me a tour and show me anything he thought was noteworthy. He’d fought against Saddam with the Peshmerga and showed me where they used to ambush Iraqi Army patrols. He took me to the aptly named "Valley of Death" on the road to Taq Taq. Showed me the homes the 12th Iraqi Army division had destroyed and were being rebuilt again.
The Peshmerga commander of the Brigade east of Kirkuk tried to teach me the Kurdish language. I’d gotten pretty good with Arabic on a previous tour but couldn’t get the hang of Soriani Kurdish. He spoke four languages, including Farsi, and would laugh at the dumb American. He’d taken Kirkuk almost 20 years earlier after the 1991 Gulf War and as we drove through the city he pointed out the "bad neighborhoods", which almost always meant the Arab neighborhoods.
Iraq hasn’t conducted a census in Kirkuk since 1957 because no one really wants to know who lives there. The last census numbers say the city is about 48% Kurdish, 29% Arab, and 21% Turkish. I suspect the Arab number has gone up while the other two numbers have gone down, but that’s not based on anything other than Saddam’s murderous reign and a feeling. The Kurds don’t want a new census because they stake their claim on the old one: Kirkuk is a Kurdish city. Arab Iraqis wouldn’t be thrilled with a new census because it might validate the Kurdish claim, and they don’t want to lose the oil revenue Kirkuk brings in. The Turks just wish the other two would just stop fighting. Incidentally, I visited one of the few Christian churches in Kirkuk while I was there but I don’t know if it still stands, there have been bombings since.
Our mission in 2009 was to act as a buffer between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga in Kirkuk. Iraqi Police were responsible for security in the city, neither the Iraqi Army or the Peshmerga were allowed inside the city limits. Part of my job was to get the pulse of the Peshmerga – there were fears that full scale conflict between them and the Iraqi Army was eminent. But as long as we were there the two sides were going to play nice. They knew we’d step in if anything were to happen.
In 2011 the "Golden Lions" made their debut. This unit was made up of both Peshmerga and Iraqi Army forces which were designed to build trust while keeping an eye on each other. But a battalion of 380 folks would have a hard time securing a city the size of Kirkuk so undoubtedly that job remained with the Kirkuk Police. If the stories of Iraqi soldiers deserting their posts are true, those desertions likely came from this unit, and it is therefore not surprising that Peshmerga troops would shoulder the burden after they left.
The Kurds have always had designs on Kirkuk, but were dissuaded from acting on those designs by American presence and the likelihood of full scale conflict with Iraqi Army forces. If the 12th Iraqi Division has folded in the face of ISIS, which seems likely based on news reports, then the only logical step for the Kurds would be to secure Kirkuk.
In many ways this is a good thing, both for the Kurds and for the country of Iraq. The Kurds and ISIS will never cooperate – there is too much hate there. But the Kurds may cooperate with the Iraqi government to push ISIS out of Kirkuk and Nineveh province. If Iraq gives them Kirkuk city.
In a way the ISIS offensive may be the catalyst that helps the Kurds and Arabs solve the problem of Kirkuk. Except for the oil – and their hatred of Kurds – the Arabs don’t much care about Kirkuk. But the Kurds consider the city part of their territory, their homeland, and they’ll never give it up. I can see a very plausible scenario where the Iraqi government enlists the help of the Peshmerga to fight ISIS, and in return the city of Kirkuk is given over to Kurdish rule.
This would be a step forward for Iraq, not a step backwards. The Kurds may want to separate themselves as much as possible from the rest of Iraq, but at least they are very pro-American and decidedly anti-jihadist. The Kurds aren’t perfect – I have a few stories I haven’t written about their backwards belief system – but in a region of bad choices they are our best bad bet. If the city of Kirkuk is in their hands that is a good thing for Iraq.
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