Kurdish writer Sabah Salih has an interesting piece on the way the image of the Kurds has changed among European leftists from that of victim to that of collaborator with American imperialism. He suggests that European sympathy for Kurdish nationalism has correspondingly declined.
He says that I oppose the creation of a Kurdistan and advocate keeping the current 18 provinces, which is a position that obviously angers him deeply.
Actually, I don’t feel so strongly about the issue to deserve such a passionate response, and I’m not sure where I wrote something that Dr. Salih took to be so dogmatic.
It is true that I think multi-ethnic states with large numbers of provinces are more likely to remain stable than those with small numbers of provinces. A five-province state where each province is organized by a different ethnic group is open to being torn apart by subnationalist feeling. So for a stable Iraq, I suspect the 18 provinces are a better solution.
The old pre 1971 Pakistan is a case in point– East Bengal seceded to form Bangladesh. And India faced a separatist movement among the Sikhs of its east Punjab.
Plus, the creation of a Kurdistan province would involve a good deal of ethnic cleansing. The Turkmen and Chaldeans won’t live under it, and would flee. Substantial turmoil could wrack Kirkuk. Ethnic hatreds can rise suddenly and spin out of control, as we saw in Serbia and Bosnia.
All that said, it is not as if I have a big stake in the issue. If the Iraqi parliament can be elected, and if it creates a Kurdistan and perhaps some other large provinces for Sunni Arabs and Shiites, so that the country had 5 or 6, it would be fine with me. (This plan was put forward by Muwaffaq al-Rubaie). I suspect the Turkmen will demand an Iraqi Turkmenistan, as well, for their 700,000 or so members. And maybe, like post-1971 Pakistan, an Iraq with 5 or 6 ethnic provinces could hold together. But it could also collapse, as Lebanon did, or as Nigeria did in the late 1960s.
I was at a Kurdish panel in San Francisco at the Middle East Studies Association, and came away really frightened. The attitudes of extreme grievance and nationalist demands typical of the Salih piece were much in evidence in the statements of participants. One lady seemed to me to be looking for big revenge on the Arabs for Halabja. There was absolute rage in the room. Some of it was coming from non-Kurdish ethnic groups who share the Iraqi north with them.
Lakhdar Brahimi’s wise warning of last winter should be heeded. No one starts out to create a civil war; countries fall into them through inattention to key flashpoints. The Iraqi Kurds will not be well served by a large-scale outbreak of communal violence.
As for the subtext here, which is that many expatriate Iraqi Kurds want an independent country of Kurdistan, I think that attempting to create such a thing will provoke big bloodbaths and heavy intervention by Turkey and Iran.