No Friends But the Mountains

By Michael J. Totten

A visit to Kurdistan reveals an autonomous people ready for an alliance with America and Israel.

Kurdistan is the Other Iraq, the Iraq a surprising number of people in the West have not heard of and know almost nothing about. The media mostly ignore Kurdistan, for the same reason they ignore Kansas and Iowa: It is a sleepy and stable place where hardly anything of note happens.
Ethnic Kurds make up around 20 percent of Iraq’s population. They, along with Persians, are indigenous to the upper Middle East, having lived there long before Arabs invaded from the south and Turks from the east. A few live in Baghdad and along the Iranian border east of the capital, and a larger number live in the provinces of Nineveh and Kirkuk. The majority, though, live in the northern mountains, high above the dusty plains of Mesopotamia, in the officially recognized and constitutionally sanctioned Kurdish Autonomous Region. There, the war is already over. In fact, the war was hardly fought there at all. The only Kurdish insurgency in Iraq was against Saddam Hussein, and the only Kurdish terrorists in Iraq were those of Ansar al-Islam—which has since changed its name to al-Qaida—who were driven from the border town of Biyara into Iran in 2003.
The Kurds have their own capital and parliament in the city of Erbil. They have their own army, the Peshmerga, which in Kurdish means “Those Who Face Death.” They have their own police, their own border patrols and checkpoints, and their own immigration and passport control. They have two international airports, with regular flights to and from Europe. They have their own flag, their own diplomats, and their own Department of Foreign Relations. The only things they don’t have are a currency of their own and a seat in the United Nations. In all but name, then, Iraqi Kurdistan is an independent nation.
Erbil, the largest city in Kurdistan, has suffered three terrorist attacks since coalition forces terminated the Baath regime in 2003. The second–largest city, Suleimaniah, was struck only once. The third-largest city, Dohuk, has never been hit at all. More people have been wounded or killed by terrorists in Spain than in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2003. No one has been kidnapped.
Arab nationalism, Islamic radicalism, religious sectarianism, and anti-Americanism are alien ideologies in Kurdistan, rejected root and branch by the Kurds. They have, in fact, forged one of the most aggressively anti-terrorist communities in the world—no small feat, given what is happening just a few miles to the south in Iraq. This conservative Muslim society secures its own cities and territories better than the United States military shores up the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Over the past few years, I have traveled and worked in Kurdistan frequently, often staying there for long periods of time, and have always moved about freely, without need of a gun, body armor, or bodyguards. Americans can go there on holiday, if they so desire, and feel just as relaxed as they would in Canada. Even more so, perhaps: The Kurds are friendlier, and more pro-American, than Canadians. Thomas Friedman wrote a few years ago that “after two years of traveling almost exclusively in Western Europe and the Middle East, Poland feels like a geopolitical spa. I visited here for just three days, and got two years of anti-American bruises massaged out of me.” I felt much the same in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Indeed, it is hard to overstate how pro-American the people of Kurdistan are. They are possibly more pro-American than Americans themselves. If Bill Clinton was America’s first “black” president, people in at least one part of the world say Bush is the first “Muslim” one: He is sometimes referred to in Kurdistan as “Hajji Bush” (meaning that he made the Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca), an undeniably high honor for a Republican Christian from Texas. No, Kurdistan is not a “red state,” and Kurds are not Republicans. Nor does it occur to most of them to prefer America’s conservatives over its liberals. Rather, their warm feelings of gratitude and friendship extend to all Americans and both political parties for having liberated them from the totalitarian dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
If you ask them, it was a real liberation—but one need not ask. Any reference to the Iraq war as an invasion will be quickly corrected. The United States destroyed the Hussein tyranny in 2003, but the slow-motion liberation of Kurdistan in truth began a decade before. After the 1991 Gulf War, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France imposed no-fly zones over Iraq’s Kurdish north and Shia south. American, British, and, initially, French pilots patrolled the skies and threatened to shoot down any Iraqi aircraft they encountered.
Massive uprisings began in the south and north. The Shia were beaten by the regime, as they had always been beaten. Horrible war crimes and atrocities followed. But the Kurds were a force to be reckoned with. They had mountains, disciplined organizations, and battle-hardened fighters with years of experience in guerilla warfare. Civilians fled en masse from the cities to the mountains, Turkey, and Iran, thus clearing the battlefield for the Kurds’ final, epic battle against Saddam Hussein. The Peshmerga then descended from above and fought the Iraqi army in the streets. After bloody clashes, the Iraqi army finally withdrew in 1991. Kurdish villages, neighborhoods, and cities, and eventually all of Iraq’s northernmost provinces were cleared of Baath soldiers and agents. The Kurds have been strictly autonomous ever since, and have lived, to one extent or another, under a protective Western umbrella the entire time.
The Kurds have “no friends but the mountains,” or so an old saying goes. It is hard for Westerners to grasp just how isolated the Kurds feel: They are hated by almost everyone in the region, and ignored by or unknown to almost everyone else in the world. That partly explains their fanatical pro-Americanism: A friend, at last! Israelis, perhaps, can relate.
Iraqi Kurds, though, are much more aggressively pro-American than Israelis. They arguably take their pro-Americanism to the point of absurdity. Fake McDonald’s restaurants with names like “MaDonal” pop up in Kurdistan nearly as fast as real McDonald’s chains devour the landscapes of Western cities. Teenagers wear United States Army uniforms, T-shirts, and pants as a fashion statement—and they do so without irony. Even some of the waiters in restaurants wear button-up shirts with the words us army stitched above the breast pocket.
However, strident Kurdish pro-Americanism is older than the no-fly zones and the liberation from Iraq. As the Peshmerga’s famous guerilla leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani once told Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post, “We can become your fifty-first state and provide you with oil.” That was in 1973.
“Saddam Hussein intended to be the leader of the Arab nation, the whole Arab world,” said Peshmerga general and member of parliament Mam Rostam when I visited him recently in the terror-wracked city of Kirkuk, in Iraq’s Red Zone. “He didn’t want anyone other than Arabs to exist around him. That was his policy.” Saddam said to the Kurds, You are Arabs. The Kurds said, No, we are Kurds.
So Saddam launched the genocidal Anfal Campaign in 1986 to ethnically cleanse the Kurds from his country. “They wanted to remove all the Kurds from everywhere in Iraq,” Rostam said. “They just destroyed whole villages and provinces and moved people into collective towns and concentration camps. Some of the Turkmen villages around here were demolished for the same reason. The point was to make it an Arab area, and no other.”
Iraq’s Kurdish cities were devastated by air strikes, artillery, and chemical weapons. Forests were clear-cut. Concrete was poured into wells. Between 100,000 and 200,000 people were murdered in massacres, and 85 percent of Kurdish villages were destroyed. Tens of thousands, including children, were tortured to death in prison blocks. “All of Iraq suffered terribly during those years,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair of his first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan after the 1991 Gulf War. “But its Kurdish provinces were among the worst places in the entire world—a howling emptiness of misery where I could catch, for the first time in my life, the actual scent of evil as a real force on earth.”

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