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Invisible Nation

Auteur : Quil Lawrence
Éditeur : Walker & Company Date & Lieu : 2008, New York
Préface : Pages : 370
Traduction : ISBN : 978-0-8027-1611-8
Langue : AnglaisFormat : 160x240 mm
Code FIKP : Liv. Eng. Law. Inv. N°2653Thème : Général

Table des Matières Introduction Identité PDF
Invisible Nation

Invisible Nation

Quil Lawrence

Walker & Company

The dramatic story of the Kurds and their quest to create a nation, which in many ways will determine how the turmoil in Iraq plays out.

The American invasion of Iraq has been a success—for the Kurds. Kurdistan is an invisible nation, and the Kurds are the largest ethnic group on earth without a homeland, comprising some 25 million moderate Sunni Muslims living in the area around the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Through a history dating back to biblical times, they have endured persecution and betrayal, surviving only through stubborn compromise with greater powers. They have consistently yearned for official statehood, and now, as one of the accidental outcomes of its invasion of Iraq, the United States may have helped them take a huge step toward that goal.

As Quil Lawrence relates in his fascinating and timely study of the Kurds, while their ambition and determination grow apace, their future will be largely dependent on whether America values a budding democracy in the region, or decides to yet again sacrifice the Kurds in the name of political expediency. Either way, the Kurdish north may well prove to be the defining battleground in Iraq as the country struggles to hold itself together.

At this extraordinary moment in the saga of Kurdistan, informed by his deep knowledge of the people and the region, Lawrence’s intimate and unflinching portrait of the Kurds and their heretofore quixotic quest—their long history mingling with the controversy and complex realities of the present—offers a vital and original lens through which to contemplate the future of Iraq and the surrounding Middle East.

Quil Lawrence is the Middle East correspondent for BBC/PRI's The World, and has spent much of the last seven years in Iraq and Kurdistan. He has reported for National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor, and has won awards for his reporting from Colombia, Sudan, and Iraq. This is his first book.



The Prodigal Republic
(Mr. Talabani Goes to Washington)

On September 13, 2005, Jalal Talabani, the first democratically elected president of Iraq, walked beside President George W. Bush past an honor guard into the East Room of the White House. Talabani might have marveled that when he had started his struggle against the government of Iraq, Harry Truman strode these same halls. Now the septuagenarian Kurdish guerrilla, in a tailored suit and silk tie, came to represent Baghdad in Washington and at the U.N. General Assembly. Bush introduced him to the assembled press corps, and Mr. Talabani delivered the first of two messages he carried to the White House.

“Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President, for your kind remarks. It is honor for me to stand here today as a representative of free Iraq. In the name of the Iraqi people, I say to you, Mr. President, and to the glorious American people, thank you, thank you, thank you,” Talabani said in his near-perfect English.

The two men could not be more different. Fit and trim, Bush kept a constant laddish grin, displaying the sheer confidence that had carried him through his entire presidency. Talabani, laboring under the weight he had gained since he stopped running around mountains, wore a more bemused smile under his white mustache. Bush was born in 1946, the same year a teenage Talabani joined a student underground resistance against Iraq’s monarchy. By the rime Bush went away to boarding school, Talabani was an important lieutenant in the guerrilla war against Baghdad that would consume the next four decades of his life. Improbably, both men were presidents now and they needed each other badly. Talabani wanted to make sure that America would finish the job it started in Iraq, after two years of bumbling occupation. Bush desperately wanted someone from Iraq to do what Talabani had just done—thank him and assure him that the Iraq invasion was not a historic blunder.

Talabani gave his gratitude without guile; the people who supported his presidency truly felt indebted to America. Not Arab Iraqis, whose affection for the United States by that time had disintegrated along with their own sense of security in cities like Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. Rather, Talabani spoke sincerely on behalf of the millions of Kurds in the north of Iraq, for whom America still seemed a friend and a liberator. The Kurds had turned out in great numbers on Iraq’s Election Day and supported the American agenda as a block. And Talabani’s second message went directly to them, without President Bush even noticing.
Used to fielding questions in four languages, Talabani called on a journalist from A1 Arabiya satellite news. After the exchange in
Arabic, Bush quipped, “I’m not sure if I agree or not.” The Washington correspondents laughed. They thought it even funnier a few moments later when Bush yielded the last question to his guest. Tdabani picked an overlooking reporter from the Voice of America and then feigned mild surprise when the question came not in English or Arabic, but Kurdish. Talabani begged President Bush’s indulgence.

“Yes, answer his question—perfect,” Bush said with mock exasperation, oblivious to the history being made. He let Talabani finish and without waiting for a translation, said, “On that cheery note, the press conference is over.”

Bush ushered Talabani back out of the hall, between two tall rows of flags, American and Iraqi. But Kurds all over the world were cheering. The reporter, an old friend of Talabani’s, had asked a question about the United Nations, but that didn’t matter. After a century of struggle, a head of state had spoken Kurdish in the White House. Jalal Talabani had planted the flag of Kurdistan in Washington, D.C.

Saddam Hussein’s regime ended for most on April 9, 2003, when American soldiers used a tank retriever to pull down his likeness in Baghdad’s Firdus Square. For millions of ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq, the regime ended the following day, when they pulled down a similar statue in the northern city' of Kirkuk. The difference was that the Kurds pulled down the statue by themselves, without an American soldier in sight. From that day on, the history of Iraq and of its northern Kurdish zone diverged like alternate realities—one a sort of dream, the other a nightmare. Americans now sit transfixed by their entanglement in the horrible civil war unfolding in Arab Iraq, hut they scarcely notice that Iraqi Kurdistan is slowly realizing all of America’s stated goals for the region.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group on earth that has no homeland. When European powers shared out the Ottoman Empire after World War I, they promised hut never delivered a state to the millions of Kurds living around the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Today they might number more than twenty-five million, but a precise figure is impossible to calculate, because none of the four countries wants to fully recognize them. About four and a half million live inside what is now Iraq, which has been the crudest host, the only country that ever subjected them to outright ethnic cleansing. Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims, although nationalism has generally overshadowed currents of religious fundamentalism—-after all, their oppressors, the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks, have always been Muslims as well.

As Iraq and the region brace for a monumental conflict between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, the Kurds have no natural side.
During the dark days of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Arab world never lifted a finger to protect them as co-religionists. The Shiites in Iran sheltered diem at times, but always with a clear self-interest. Through a history that dates back to biblical times, Kurds have survived by compromising with greater powers, but it’s no secret that they’ve always desired a country of their own. Several of their greatest leaders in the twentieth century turned to America, the land of freedom and self-determination, to aid them in reaching that goal. Each time American promises fell victim to political expediency, leaving the Kurds holding the bag. America’s sad record of betraying the Kurds changed, however, through two accidents, made by two presidents named Bush.
The first accidental liberator of Kurdistan was President George H. W. Bush. At the outset of his 1991 Gulf War, Bush had no intention of becoming the protector of the Kurds—or the Iraqis, for that matter. Bush desperately wanted to keep the 1991 Gulf War short and neat. After restoring Kuwait’s monarchy, he tried to put the Iraq djinn back in the bottle, but his rhetoric about freedom and a new world order sent a different message. Believing the American army was at their back, the Kurds and Shi’ite Arabs rose against the dictator. Fearful of empowering Iran and destabilizing the region, Bush told his half-million troops to remain behind their line in the sand. Once Saddam realized—to his amazement— that he had survived, he embarked on his last great wave of atrocities, slaughtering the rebels in the thousands.

Bush and his team of realists might have ignored the killings, but their own propaganda about human rights snared them. After declaiming to the world that Saddam had once “gassed his own people”—the Kurds—Bush couldn’t abandon them completely. Along with France and Britain, the United States sponsored a tiny safe haven in northern Iraq, where a no-fly zone kept the Kurds safe from Saddam. It was the hare minimum, but enough. Bush had prepared the fertile ground, and the seed of modern Kurdistan sprouted.

The Kurdish safe haven was supposed to serve Washington’s Iraq containment strategy, a launching pad for the harassment of Saddam Hussein. But there was an unintended consequence: one of the most successful nation-building projects in American history. The Kurds held elections, set up their own social services, and started educating their children in Kurdish, not Arabic. They banned the Iraqi flag and the currency with Saddam’s face on it. It wasn’t always pretty, but for tire next dozen years Kurdish leaders stumbled their way toward political maturity. America’s policy amounted to benign neglect, doing little more than patrolling at thirty-five thousand feet, but when the Kurds expanded their tiny safe zone across all of the ethnic Kurdish north, the American air support effectively expanded with them. Though the Kurds constantly pressured for more assistance, the laissez-faire approach may have served them in the long run, keeping them from developing a culture of dependency on Washington.

By early 2003, the Kurds had pushed the limits of shadow statehood as far as they could, living off blackmarket oil smuggling and whatever Saddam allowed the U.N. Oil-for-Food program to let through. Some aid organizations set up shop, but no foreign company considered investing in a country that might not be there in the morning. After half a generation in limbo, their fate wasn’t clear until another accidental nation builder came along. President George W. Bush set out to finish the job his father had started, and again, unwittingly, he succeeded at a different task. The destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the collapse that followed left Kurdistan as the only fully functioning part of Iraq. The Kurds will never willingly go back—America has played midwife to a Kurdish homeland that cannot be unmade, save by catastrophe. That catastrophe could begin with American departure.

I made my first trips to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan in the spring of 2000 as a freelance journalist, and have returned over the past eight years for the BBC. Despite many other assignments in the interim, I have been unable to turn away from either of the two histories unfolding in Iraq. Like anyone who knew Iraq under Saddam, I wished for the kind people I met to find freedom and happiness after he fell. Certainly I never dreamed that life could get worse than it had been under such a dictator. The joyful chaos of Iraq’s liberation quickly wore away under the relentless daily defeats of civility7 and humanity. My trips there became a catalog of car bombs, simmering hatreds, and endless. American missteps. At the scene of massacres, survivors cursed whatever evil force was determined to prod Iraqis into a fratricidal civil war, and then like players in a Greek tragedy, they rushed to fulfill that prophecy. Believers in the new Iraq felt their optimism crushed and their hearts broken—it would be dishonest not to count myself in their number.

With each disaster that befell Iraq, the Kurds took a step forward. On the day Iraq’s army was abolished in May 2003, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, son of the Kurds’ greatest rebel leader, attended a graduation ceremony for Kurdish military cadets. In the rest of Iraq the abolition of the army meant hundreds of thousands of angry, insulted, unemployed men on the streets. For Kurdistan it meant that their sixty thousand irregulars now ranked as the second largest military force inside the country (smaller than the U.S. military presence, but bigger than the British army contingent inside the coalition). As death squads terrorized Arab Iraqis into silent complicity, Kurdish civilians flooded their security forces with telephone tips about any suspicious activity. As the count of American soldiers killed in action approached four thousand, not a single one of them had been killed inside the Kurds’ three provinces. Construction cranes sprouted across the skylines of Kurdish cities. Cement factories worked at capacity—they also filled the south’s endless need for ugly concrete blast walls to surround government ministries and homes. Kurdistan inaugurated its own parliament, selected a cabinet, and ratified a regional constitution. New exploration for petroleum in the north began before Baghdad had even restored prewar levels of oil production.

Iraq’s war started killing journalists and aid workers, and like most other outfits, the BBC limited its reporters’ mobility. The golden year of reporting Iraq, when I could drive to Fallujah in my own car, ended in early 2004. From that point on, the only way to safely travel was to make the compromise of embedding with U.S. troops. When the roads became too dangerous to drive from the south, the Kurds opened up daily flights to Baghdad as well as Amman, Istanbul, and Frankfurt. As the Iraqi government went back to its arcane visa rules, the Kurdish officials simply stamped my American passport with a smile. At their airport as well as their border crossing from Turkey, the Kurds put up a banner reading “Welcome to Kurdistan.” The second or third time I crossed under it, I realized that while my colleagues and I were chronicling the destruction of Iraq, we were witnessing the creation of Kurdistan.

Kurdistan has everything the Bush administration promised for Iraq. It’s a Muslim state that is pro-democracy', pro-America, and even pro-Israel. So in a dearth of good news, why isn’t the United States crowing about this one great achievement in Iraq? Because Kurdistan’s success could be cataclysmic. Like no event since the 1948 creation of Israel, a declared Kurdish state within the borders of Iraq will unite the entire region in opposition, from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf. National liberation is a zero-sum game, and Syria and Iran have already seen unprecedented disturbances by their own Kurdish populations, inspired by the freedom Kurds now enjoy inside Iraq. Most important, Turkey, America’s NATO ally, has fought a bloody war against Kurdish separatists for decades. The Turks see an independent Kurdistan in Iraq as an existential threat and have promised to intervene if Kurdistan grows too strong. The Iraqi Kurds understand this better than anyone, and have been willing so far to limit themselves to virtual statehood. No force within Iraq can stop them at the moment, and the forces outside have been kept at bay by the presence of the American army.

When the Kurds offered their troops to aid the invading coalition in 2003, they thought for sure their luck had changed. After decades of betting on losers, it seemed the Kurds had finally hit the jackpot. But as Iraq’s war becomes a regional conflagration, there’s room for doubt. Iraq’s Shi’ite Arab parties accept aid and influence from Iran. The Sunni Arabs can count on the same from the wealthy Gulf kingdoms. After their collaboration with Americans has marked them as traitors to other Iraqis, and as apostates to Islamic extremists, the Kurds now fear the United States is feeling in the dark for an exit.

Iraq may yet recover its footing and Baghdad take its rightful place as a peaceful, vibrant, and opulent Middle Eastern capital. If it does, the Kurds might enjoy an autonomous zone inside Iraq, contributing their diversity to Iraq’s mosaic and enjoying the country’s vast wealth of oil, land, and rivers. I hope for this outcome, because it would cost so many fewer lives than the other possibilities. Far more likely, the madness in Iraq will continue and the Kurdish zone will be pulled into the fray or overreach as battle lines are drawn. And then America will have to decide if its prodigal republic is worth saving. Some realists may see Kurdistan as the perfect location for a residual U.S. force in the region to stare down Iran and keep a hand in Iraq. Kurdistan is the only place in the region still welcoming the idea of an American base. True believers in promoting democracy may see Kurdistan as the best place in the region to nurture the seed of representative government. Kurdistan could then become an albatross around Washington’s neck: the country it helped create and must defend.

More probably, political realists coming into Washington to clean up the mess will look at the Kurds the way the world powers always have, as a small, expendable player in their great game. I have never heard a moral argument against the Kurds’ right to a homeland, but it’s hard to imagine America is willing or able to embark on another moral crusade in Iraq, one with even less regional support than the invasion. Betraying the Kurds will likely be just part of the ugly price of escaping from Iraq, but the ramifications of throwing away America’s most natural ally in the region may be far greater than in the past.

This book draws on eight years of reporting on Iraq and the Kurds, as well as on the politicians in Washington whose decisions carry such heavy consequences so far away. It’s inevitable that my perspective has been skewed by the many months of hospitality offered to me by Kurds, but this book is not intended to push their agenda. Rather, I hope it can help explain the vital role the Kurds play in the drama unfolding in this new, volatile Middle East. More than anywhere this understanding is needed in America—the country that accidentally enabled Kurdistan’s creation and could just as carelessly cast it to the winds.

Chapter One

The Stolen Sheath

I am a bare dagger!
My Motherland is a stolen sheath.
Don’t think I am bloodthirsty.
Go; find fault with the one
Who unsheathed me.

“The Dagger,” by Kurdish
poet Abdullah Pashew

Kurdistan would surely be a powerful and recognizable country today had its most famous son not been stolen away by a higher calling.

In the first half of the twelfth century, in the Mesopotamian city of Tikrit, the greatest Muslim warrior in recorded history was born to a family of soldiers. He would live to unite the lands of Islam and drive the Christian crusaders out of Jerusalem, and reign over his empire with tolerance and generosity. In keeping with their luckless history, no one seems to remember that Saladin was a Kurd.

Salah al-Din al-Ayubi, “Saladin,” followed in the footsteps of his uncle to become a soldier, then as now, an esteemed profession among Kurds.1 Through a combination of bravery on the battlefield and a genius for picking his battles, Saladin established the Ayubbid Caliphate in 1171 and ruled Egypt, Syria, and parts of Iraq. His conquest ended the divisions inside the Muslim kingdom, which had allowed the crusader army to enter and brutally sack Jerusalem eighty years earlier. Knowing his enemy well, he taunted the Christian Knights’ chivalry until they foolishly marched …

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