ONCE AGAIN, as the Kurds find themselves in the middle of a high-stakes game of international poker, it is not clear if they are a player in it or just a chip on the table pushed around by the big powers who hold all the cards.
Throughout the past century, as the Kurds have been dominated by regional rulers and used by Western powers, their elusive goal of an ethnic homeland has remained just out of reach. Despite their strategic importance in the current dispute with Iraq, there is no indication the Kurds will get any closer to making that dream a reality.
With a population estimated at 25 million, the Kurds are said to be the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland. The country of Kurdistan exists only in hopeful longings, the map of an imaginary land that takes in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Still, the Kurds have a few cards to play. Though some dispute it, the Kurds say their land includes Kirkuk, location of some of the richest oil deposits in Iraq. And Kurds control the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, giving them an important say over the fate of water in the region.
In the run-up to this war, the 5 million Kurds in Iraq have been talked up as fierce foes of Saddam Hussein, the ethnic and geographical equivalent of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan that was so crucial to the defeat of the Taliban.
But the Kurds are fiercer foes of Turkey, a country considered an important ally of the United States as it prepares for the conquest of Iraq. Negotiations to ensure Turkey's cooperation have centered on two issues - money and the Kurds. The Turks want cash and assurances that the United States will not arm and encourage the nationalistic aspiration of the Iraqi Kurds in a way that might spill over to the 10 million Kurds who make up a quarter of Turkey's population.
Latest reports indicate that the United States has agreed to Turkish demands to prohibit an autonomous Kurdish region in the north of a post-Hussein Iraq - lest it give Turkish Kurds any ideas - and to allow Turkish troops to come into Iraq and monitor disarmament of Kurdish militias after the fight is over.
Add to that the fact that the Kurds have been double-crossed by the United States twice in recent years, and that every time they seem to be advancing their cause they disintegrate into internal squabbles, and a picture of the tangled web of Kurdish politics begins to emerge.
"They've been fairly regularly screwed throughout history," says Larry P. Goodson, director of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College. "That's kind of what you do if you work in the Middle East - before your career is over, make sure you screw the Kurds at least once."
But all too often they have been their own worst enemy.
"They remain a minority split across several countries, and they are not happy about it," says Monty G. Marshall, a senior research associate at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It is not clear if anything will make them happy. They are a very independent bunch of people."
If there was a high point in the history of the Kurds, who have occupied this mountainous region for thousands of years, it came in the 12th century. That was when a Kurd named Saladin became a legendary Islamic warrior, driving the Crusaders from their Holy Land conquests - and then treating those Christian subjects with much more kindness than they had shown Muslims when taking Jerusalem 88 years before.
Saladin ruled a land that extended from his homeland in what is now Iraq to Egypt. Coincidentally, he was born in Tikrit, the hometown of Hussein. But after Saladin's death in 1193, his Kurdish heirs resorted to bickering. "Mountain people are very independent groups of people," Marshall says, noting similar disunity among Afghans. "That's why they live in mountains."
After World War I, the victors carved up the spoils in a way that left most of the Middle East under British and French control, taking over from the Ottoman Turks whose empire had sided with the Germans.
Under the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, maps in the region were to have included Kurdistan under principles calling for ethnic self-determination. But in 1923, the final Treaty of Lausanne made no mention of the Kurds. Partly that was because the Turks and others had asserted their authority on the ground, staking out de facto control over Kurdish areas. It also was because the British, who hoped to administer the new Kurdish state, were not given a hero's welcome.
As David Fromkin writes in A Peace to End All Peace, his 1989 book on colonial division of the Middle East: "The Kurds are an ancient mountain people who have never known unity, and whose energies have been channeled into violent quarrels with neighbors, especially Arabs and Armenians. A British attempt to organize them in 1919 resulted in three uprisings, as the Kurds turned against the British newcomers; soon afterward, British troops pulled back from Kurdistan, too."
Fromkin records that in the summer of 1919, three young British captains were killed in Kurdistan. An experienced replacement sent from India was killed a month after he arrived.
"They had no outside champion," Madeline Zilfi, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Maryland, College Park says of the Kurds' standing at the post-World War I treaty negotiations. "They were always described as a group that was tribal and factionalized. There was no way the Kurdish representation was going to go anywhere."
In the final map, about half the Kurds ended up in Turkey where they faced a regime determined to repress them politically and culturally, outlawing their language and other aspects of Kurdish identity. This led to violent uprisings over the decades.
In the 1990s
In the 1990s, perhaps 30,000 died - mainly Kurds - in a revolt led by Abdullah Ocalan and his Revolutionary Kurdish Labor Party. Ocalan was captured in 1999. Pleading for his life he called for the armed struggle for independence to convert to a political struggle for rights within Turkey. Ocalan was sentenced to death, though he was not executed. Relative peace has prevailed since.
Fifty years after losing out on the post-World War I mapmaking, the Kurds in Iraq thought they had another opportunity. In the 1970s, the United States was interested in weakening the Iraqi rulers who were allies of the Soviet Union, enemies of Israel, threats to the stability of this oil-producing region and foes of the Shah of Iran, a U.S. ally.
"The U.S. encouraged Kurds in the north to destabilize the Baghdad regime," says Zilfi.
Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was a prominent figure in this plan. "The message from Kissinger was that we are offering - and he would not say to what extent, but it was certainly understood by the Iraqi Kurds - a promissory note," Zilfi says. "If you rise up in sufficient numbers, there will support coming from the U.S. for your ambitions."
Money and weapons came to the Kurds in Iraq through Iran. But in 1975, the shah signed a treaty with Iraq, getting what he wanted: control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In return, the shah stopped helping the Iraqi Kurds. The United States cut off aid. The Kurdish opposition was brutally repressed by Baghdad.
"The Kurds were sold down the river, quite literally," says Louis J. Cantori, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The Kurds have every reason to distrust practically everyone they deal with. They have no reason to give anybody the benefit of the doubt."
In 1981, the Kurds were caught in the war between Iraq and Iran. Kurdish villages were wiped out by poison gas. Though much as been made of Hussein's use of this outlawed weapon, Cantori says there is evidence the Iranians killed Kurds this way, too.
Their most recent betrayal came at the end of the 1991 gulf war. As Hussein's army was in full retreat, the United States encouraged dissidents to rise up in opposition. Both Shiite Muslims in the South and the Kurds in the north did just that. But they received no support from the United States and again faced widespread slaughter at the hands of Hussein's helicopter gunships.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled across the border into Turkey causing great consternation among the Turks. Avoiding another refugee flight in this new war is one of the reasons the Turks give for wanting to send troops into the Kurdish areas of Iraq.
Some good things
Despite these problems, the Iraqi Kurds have done pretty well during the past decade. With the Americans enforcing a no-fly zone above Kurdish territory and keeping Hussein's troops at bay, the Kurds have carved out significant autonomy. A combination of legal trade and illicit smuggling has provided a relatively prosperous economy. Their two feuding warlord leaders - Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, and Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - even agreed to cooperate.
The two fell out in the mid-1990s, and in 1996 Barzani gained the upper hand by getting Hussein's forces to attack Talabani supporters.
For now, though, prosperity has brought relative peace. The U.S. war plans could disrupt that, particularly in the Kurds' view, if the Turks are allowed to send troops across the border.
"The bottom line is that the Kurds are in a position right now to look suspiciously on anything that might alter the status quo," says Cantori. "It might be in the best interest of the Kurds if they want to keep their cohesion and keep their economic well-being to sit this one out."
But if they don't, it could vastly and dangerously complicate America's dreams of holding together a single Iraq.