Workers Vanguard No. 871

26 May 2006


U.S. Out of Iraq Now!

The U.S. Occupation and the Kurdish Question

For a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan!

Under the U.S. occupation of Iraq, ethnic antagonisms rooted in the imperialists’ carve-up of the Near East and stoked by decades of bourgeois-nationalist rule threaten to erupt in an all-sided orgy of bloodletting. The bombing of the Shi’ite Al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra in February touched off an explosion of communal violence between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims that left hundreds, mostly Sunni, dead. Almost daily, the bodies of victims of communal militias or the Shi’ite-dominated police force turn up in and around Baghdad, often hideously tortured and finished off execution-style. Tens of thousands have fled their homes in the face of “ethnic cleansing” of mixed villages and neighborhoods by Sunni, Shi’ite or Kurdish forces. This comes on top of the brutal massacres, massive arrests and widespread torture carried out directly by U.S. forces.

The latest expression of Washington’s cynical claim to be bringing “democracy” to Iraq is a puppet government, announced on May 20. As with the previous government, it is dominated by Shi’ite and Kurdish parties at the expense of the minority Sunni Arabs, whose leaders played a dominant role under the regime of Saddam Hussein. The ministries of defense, the interior and national security have still not been filled because each ethnic group fears the murderous consequences if its rivals get control over the armed forces and police.

The imperialist occupation has fostered reactionary forces in Iraqi society, from Islamic fundamentalists and rival clan leaders to virulent bourgeois nationalists. With these forces now at each other’s throats, the stage is set for civil war within Iraq’s borders and significant destabilization beyond. Sunni Arab leaders across the Near East are bristling over the fact that in Iraq, for the first time in centuries, an Arab country is dominated by Shi’ites. The Wahabi rulers of neighboring Saudi Arabia, where the population of the oil-rich eastern region is predominantly Shi’ite, view with alarm the growing influence of Shi’ite Iran in southern Iraq. The Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has amassed some 250,000 troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, in the southeastern Kurdish region along the Iraqi border, aiming to stifle any stirring of Kurdish independence.

The deepening sectarian bloodshed underlines the fact that Iraq is not a nation but rather a patchwork of different peoples and ethnicities carved up by the British imperialists out of the Turkish Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. The borders of Iraq were arbitrarily drawn to encompass imperialist oil concessions, forcing together historically hostile populations. In such a society, stable bourgeois-democratic rule can be nothing more than a pipe dream. Absent the working class emerging as an independent political force in a struggle against neocolonial rule, each of these populations can come to power only by oppressing the others and in alliance with U.S. imperialism.

This is exemplified by the Kurds, whose nationalist leaders actively collaborated with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, offering their Kurdish militias (the pesh merga) as an auxiliary to U.S. military forces. Today, the two rival Kurdish bourgeois-nationalist parties, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), act as pawns of the U.S. occupation forces. Since 1991, a semi-autonomous Kurdish region has existed in northern Iraq, first under cover of a U.S.-enforced “no fly zone” and now under direct U.S. military occupation.

This is a cynical parody of self-determination for the Kurdish people, who have endured generations of oppression at the hands of various colonialist and nationalist regimes. The Kurdish nationalist leaders in Iraq have subordinated themselves to the American-led occupation forces. And many Iraqi Kurds mistakenly look with favor on the occupation as a guarantor against Arab conquest. Any fight for Kurdish independence that does not take as its starting point opposition to the occupation and to the nationalist parties that serve it will necessarily be subordinated to the occupation.

Iraqi Kurdistan: Oil and Ethnic Conflict

Numbering some 30 million people, the Kurds constitute the largest nation in the world without a state of its own. Kurdistan includes the expanse of rugged mountains and parched valleys that straddles the remote reaches of four different countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Thus, to achieve Kurdish self-determination requires the overthrow of four capitalist states.

From bombing and gassing by British planes in the 1920s through the brutal repression under Saddam Hussein’s rule to Turkey’s current war of annihilation, the people of Kurdistan have been the victims of repression, forced transfers and massacres by the colonial powers and local capitalist regimes alike. The Kurdish people have a long record of struggle against their oppressors. Their feudalist and bourgeois-nationalist misleaders have just as long a record of sacrificing these struggles for illusory support from the imperialists or their regional lackeys.

When U.S. forces drove out Falluja’s Sunni population and devastated the city in late 2004, the Iraqi troops that supported them were largely the Kurdish pesh merga combined with some Shi’ite units from the south. Soon afterward, the same combination aided U.S. forces that overran the mixed Kurdish-Arab city of Mosul after it had been seized by Sunni insurgents. Around that time, former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter commented that the only effective unit of the Iraqi army was the 36th battalion, “a Kurdish militia, retained by the US military because the rest of the Iraqi army is unwilling or unable to carry the fight to the Iraqi resistance fighters” (Al Jazeera online, 9 November 2004).

In Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, which is portrayed by the U.S. occupiers as a model for the rest of the country, pesh merga backed by U.S. troops have attacked Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs as well as the Turkmen and Christian Assyrian minorities, seizing their property and driving them out by the thousands. The wave of terror began immediately after the U.S. occupation and surged after the January 2005 elections, in which the PUK and KDP consolidated their control over the provincial government. A focal point in the conflict is the battle to control the city of Kirkuk, which lies atop huge oil reserves. In fact, some 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves are located in the Kurdish region.

To suppress Kurdish nationalism and dilute the Kurds’ political strength in this oil-rich region, successive Sunni Arab governments in Baghdad systematically expelled Kurds from Kirkuk and surrounding areas and replaced them with Arabs from the south. “Arabization” was intensified by Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War, when hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forcibly driven out of their homes.

Now the Kurds are reversing the process. The PUK and KDP have repatriated as many as 300,000 Kurds to the outskirts of Kirkuk in rapidly expanding settlements, effectively adding hundreds of thousands of voters ahead of a referendum on the status of Kirkuk scheduled for the end of 2007. The repatriations have provoked bloody confrontations between Arabs and Kurds. In recent weeks, hundreds of Shi’ite militia have moved into Kirkuk to jockey for position, setting the stage for more bloodshed.

Kurdish Liberation and Permanent Revolution

With U.S. support, the two Kurdish nationalist parties have held sway over the people of the region through fear and terror. As Time online (17 March) reported: “Kurdistan is a veritable police state, where the Asayeesh—the military security—has a house in each neighborhood of the major cities, and where the Parastin ‘secret police’ monitors phone conversations and keeps tabs on who attends Friday prayers.”

The KDP, which dominates Erbil and Dohuk provinces, and the PUK, which controls Suleymania province, both have their own militia. Demonstrations are banned, and journalists are regularly arrested and beaten. The writer Kamal Karim, an Iraqi-born Kurd with Austrian citizenship, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after accusing Barzani of corruption and abuse of power. After an international outcry, his sentence was reduced to 18 months and he was later pardoned.

But the Kurdish people in Iraq are hardly a homogeneous mass lined up in support of their nationalist leaders. A March 16 demonstration in Halabja, where Saddam Hussein’s regime launched a poison gas attack in 1988 that killed some 5,000 people, exposed the anger against the nationalist leaders simmering beneath the surface of Kurdish “unity.” As officials gathered for a day of mourning on the anniversary of the 1988 atrocity, thousands of angry Kurds took to the streets to protest corruption, tyranny and neglect. Pesh merga fired on the demonstration, killing a 17-year-old demonstrator. Enraged protesters reached a monument and a museum commemorating the victims of the gas attack and set the museum on fire.

It is a measure of the depth of popular rage that the protesters burned a monument commemorating their own suffering. The BBC (18 March) reported that the monument had become a focus of popular anger because, according to residents, “officials have used the atrocities for their own political ends, but they have seen little in return.”

The March 16 protest was the latest in a series of demonstrations and student strikes across Iraqi Kurdistan against corruption, unemployment, poor services and lack of housing. Despite the $4 to $5 billion that the regional government receives from the central government, none of it trickles down to the impoverished population. Much of the region remains underdeveloped, with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. Disappointed and frustrated with the nationalist parties, many students and other youth are turning to the Kurdistan Islamic Union, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Kurds are not simply victims of national oppression and repeated betrayals by their nationalist leaders. As we pointed out in a two-part series, “The Kurdish People and the U.S. Occupation of Iraq” (WV Nos. 804 and 805, 23 May and 6 June 2003):

“There is a sizable Kurdish working class with a history of militant struggle in the oil fields of Kirkuk and other strategic centers. But for the most part the Kurdish proletariat is to be found outside of Kurdistan in such industrial centers as Istanbul and the mining regions of southern Turkey, as well as Baghdad—at least before it was starved by sanctions and bombed to rubble. It is in the urban centers, among the industrial proletariat, that the power exists to lead the Kurdish people to freedom.”

In the colonial and semicolonial countries in the epoch of imperialism, only the proletariat in power can achieve the tasks that were historically addressed by the classic bourgeois-democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as national emancipation, land to the tiller and formal equality before the law. To open the road to socialism, proletarian revolutions in the Third World must be linked to the fight for the overthrow of capitalism in the advanced industrial countries of Europe, North America and Japan. This understanding, the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution, encapsulates the experience of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

As part of the multinational proletariat of the Near East, Kurdish workers can play a leading role in bringing down the rotten structure set up to serve the imperialist overlords. Kurdish and Turkish workers in Europe, especially in Germany, can serve as a living bridge linking the Kurdish struggle for independence to the fight for socialist revolution in the Near East and the advanced capitalist countries of West Europe. This struggle requires the leadership of internationalist workers parties, which will inscribe on their banner the call for a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan, part of a socialist federation of the Near East.

Forge Proletarian Revolutionary Parties!

The rulers of Turkey, Iran and Syria are unanimously hostile to any serious concession to Kurdish nationalism in Iraq, fearful that this would inspire Kurds throughout the region to seek independence. This is especially true of the Turkish ruling class, which since the mid 1980s has been waging a campaign of annihilation against the Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). For decades, Turkey was a favored recipient of military hardware from the U.S., serving as a key outpost in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

From 1984 to 1999, the Turkish military killed some 37,000 people and forcibly transferred hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Kurdish villagers, burning and razing thousands of their hamlets. For years, the central government banned the use of the Kurdish language in schools and in publishing and broadcasting. Speaking Kurdish in public was outlawed. The Kurdish people were officially referred to as “mountain Turks,” their villages’ names changed to Turkish names.

The Turkish bourgeoisie has introduced cosmetic reforms intended to appease the European Union (EU), as part of Ankara’s bid for EU membership. Thus the regime cynically allowed Kurdish-language classes in private schools, which very few of the impoverished Kurds can afford to attend. Kurdish radio broadcasts were limited to four hours per week and television broadcasts to two hours.

With hopes of joining the EU now dwindling, the Erdogan regime is trying to deflect anger over rising unemployment, a deteriorating economy and allegations of graft and corruption by whipping up chauvinist hatred of the Kurds. In the past 18 months, the upsurge in Turkish chauvinism has frequently boiled over into vigilante violence and attempted lynchings of both Kurds and leftists.

Meanwhile, the Turkish state has stepped up its repression in the southeastern Kurdish region, from military operations against nationalist guerrillas to suppression of popular protest. Erdogan has explicitly threatened that “the security forces will intervene against the pawns of terrorism, no matter if they are children or women” (BBC News, 1 April). Like Turkey, Iran has amassed thousands of troops along the Iraqi border, where they regularly shell positions of the Iranian militant Kurdish group PEJAK, which took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkish, Persian and Arab workers must be won to the need to uphold the national rights of the Kurds and the rights of other oppressed peoples, thus opening the road for joint workers struggle against their common capitalist oppressors. This perspective is diametrically opposed to the petty-bourgeois nationalist program of the PKK, now also known as the People’s Congress of Kurdistan or Kongra-Gel. Despite its claim to be a “Marxist-Leninist” national liberation movement, the PKK is vehemently opposed to a program of proletarian-internationalist struggle and consequently ends up looking to the good graces of imperialism. Thus the PKK has repeatedly called on the UN, the EU and even the U.S. to pressure Turkey to resolve the Kurdish question. The PKK even embraced the U.S. occupation of Iraq, proclaiming its desire to “establish a dialogue with Washington on joining its campaign of democratisation in the Middle East” (Financial Times, 15 April 2003).

Founded by Abdullah Öcalan in the 1970s, the PKK has long waged a courageous struggle against the far better equipped Turkish army, winning mass support among rural Kurds and among Kurdish workers in Turkey, West Europe and elsewhere. For the PKK, guerrilla war was a means to pressure the Turkish bourgeoisie to grant concessions. And as it increasingly tailored its politics to the reactionary climate of the post-Soviet world, the PKK abandoned its call for an independent Turkish Kurdistan, asserting that “Kurdish reality should be acknowledged in a united democratic Turkey” (Kongra-Gel News Bulletin, 12 November 2004).

The PKK supported Ankara’s bid for membership in the EU, calling on the European imperialists to sponsor a “dialogue” between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish regime. These are the same imperialist powers that denied asylum to PKK leader Öcalan as he was being hounded by Turkish security in the late 1990s. The U.S. provided the intelligence that led to his abduction by Turkish commandos in Kenya. Like the U.S., the EU considers the PKK a “terrorist” organization. Germany has long banned the PKK and a range of Kurdish political, cultural and social organizations.

Raising the call for self-determination for Iraq’s Kurdish people is the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (WCP-Iraq), which has a certain base in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2003, these reformists called on the United Nations to “safeguard free conditions” in Iraq while calling for the withdrawal of U.S. and British occupation forces. The UN is nothing but an instrument serving the interests of the imperialist powers. It is the same institution that for 12 years, beginning in 1990, imposed sanctions on Iraq, killing some 1.5 million people. It was UN weapons inspections that helped pave the way for the U.S. war of occupation. Over the last year, the WCP-Iraq’s main initiative has been the creation of the Iraq Freedom Congress (IFC), whose program boils down to the call for a “secular, unifying government”—i.e., the continuation of capitalist rule with a “democratic” veneer.

In greetings to a 1984 conference of Kurdish militants in Europe, a Spartacist representative laid out the alternative to the history of betrayals by bourgeois nationalists and reformist left organizations:

“We understand that the struggle for a United Socialist Republic of Kurdistan will be shaped by and in turn shape the future of the revolutionary proletariat of the whole region toward a socialist federation of the Near East. Our model is Lenin’s Russia of 1917-1924 where the Bolsheviks offered the national minorities the option and the advantages of association with the Soviet Federation. For our part, we are dedicated to the forging of the internationalist party of worldwide proletarian revolution and speak to you in the understanding that the future of humanity depends on its construction.”

WV No. 362, 14 September 1984