The Fight of Their Lives: The White House wants the Kurds to help save Iraq from ISIS. The Kurds may be more interested in breaking away.

Under the threat of ISIS, the Kurds appear remarkably united in their eagerness for an independent state. Still, beneath the surface is a deep current of frustration with Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leader of the other major party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.). The feeling runs deepest among the young, who see the region’s new oil wealth flowing to small cliques gathered around the two men.

On the evening of August 8th, Najat Ali Saleh, a former commander of the Kurdish army, was summoned to a meeting with Masoud Barzani, the President of the semiautonomous Kurdish region that occupies the northern part of Iraq. Barzani, a longtime guerrilla fighter, was alarmed. Twenty-four hours before, fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had made a huge incursion into the Kurds’ territory. They had overrun Kurdish forces in the western Iraqi towns of Sinjar and Makhmour, and had surged as far as Gwer, fifteen miles from the capital city of Erbil. At the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, they had seized the controls, giving them the ability to inundate Baghdad with fifteen feet of water. The Kurdish army is known throughout the region for its ferocity—its fighters are called peshmerga, or “those who face death”—and the defeat had been a humiliation. “We were totally unprepared for what happened,” Saleh told me. Kurdish leaders were so incensed that they relieved five commanders of their posts and detained them for interrogation. “It would have been better for them if they had fought to the death,” he said.

Saleh, a veteran of the Kurds’ wars against Saddam Hussein, was being called back into service. His orders were to retake Makhmour and keep going, pushing back ISIS fighters wherever he found them. Working quickly, he gathered several thousand soldiers, surrounded the city, and went in. By the next day, Makhmour was in Kurdish hands; in the following weeks, the Kurds forced ISIS fighters out of twenty surrounding villages. When I saw Saleh, on a recent visit, his men had just recaptured a village called Baqert. With mortars still thudding nearby, he exuded a heavy calm, cut by anger. I asked him if he’d taken any prisoners. “Only dead,” he said.

The fighting between ISIS and the Kurds stretches along a six-hundred-and-fifty-mile front in northeastern Iraq—a jagged line that roughly traces one border of Iraqi Kurdistan, the territory that the Kurds have been fighting for decades to establish as an independent state. With as many as thirty million people spread across the Middle East, the Kurds claim to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a country. Iraqi Kurdistan, which contains about a quarter of that population, is a landlocked region surrounded almost entirely by neighbors—Turkey, Iran, and the government in Baghdad—that oppose its bid for statehood.

The incursion of ISIS presents the Kurds with both opportunity and risk. In June, the ISIS army swept out of the Syrian desert and into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. As the Islamist forces took control, Iraqi Army soldiers fled, setting off a military collapse through the region. The Kurds, taking advantage of the chaos, seized huge tracts of territory that had been claimed by both Kurdistan and the government in Baghdad. With the newly acquired land, the political climate for independence seemed promising. The region was also finding new economic strength; vast reserves of oil have been discovered there in the past decade. In July, President Barzani asked the Kurdish parliament to begin preparations for a vote on self-rule. “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us,” Barzani said.

Since 2003, when the U.S. destroyed the Iraqi state and began spending billions of dollars trying to build a new one, the Kurds have been their most steadfast ally. When American forces departed, in 2011, not a single U.S. soldier had lost his life in Kurdish territory. As the rest of Iraq imploded, only the Kurdish region realized the dream that President George W. Bush had set forth when he ordered the attack: it is pro-Western, largely democratic, largely secular, and economically prosperous. President Obama recently told the Times that the Kurdish government is “functional the way we would like to see.”

Still, the Administration, bound to a policy it calls One Iraq, is quietly working to thwart the Kurds’ aspirations. American officials are warning companies that buying Kurdish oil may have dire legal consequences, and the warnings have been effective: the Kurdish regional government is nearly bankrupt. And yet, as the peshmerga work to force ISIS out of Kurdish territory, they have been supported by American jets and drones, and by American Special Forces on the ground. In August, President Obama ordered covert shipments of arms to the Kurds. By the end of the month, Kurdish forces had taken back much of the territory that they had lost to ISIS, and were preparing operations to reclaim the rest.

Obama has spoken carefully in public, but it is plain that the Administration wants the Kurds to do two potentially incompatible things. The first is to serve as a crucial ally in the campaign to destroy ISIS, with all the military funding and equipment that such a role entails. The second is to resist seceding from the Iraqi state. Around Washington, the understanding is clear: if the long-sought country of Kurdistan becomes real, America’s twelve-year project of nation building in Iraq will be sundered. Kurdish leaders acknowledge that the emergence of ISIS and the implosion of Syria are changing the region in unpredictable ways. But the Kurds’ history with the state of Iraq is one of persistent enmity and bloodshed, and they see little benefit in joining up with their old antagonists. “Iraq exists only in the minds of people in the White House,” Masrour Barzani, the Kurdish intelligence chief and Masoud’s son, told me. “We need our own laws, our own rules, our own country, and we are going to get them.

On March 16, 1988, Nosreen Abdul Qadeer, a sixteen-year-old newlywed in the Kurdish town of Halabja, was helping her mother prepare lunch for guests when she heard a series of explosions. This was unremarkable: the government of Saddam Hussein, then at war with Iran, had lumped the Kurds in with its foreign enemies. But the planes that day were flying unusually low, barely above the treetops. “I could see the pilots inside, taking photos of the city,” she said. The family rushed to the basement to wait out the bombardment.

A few minutes later, Qadeer noticed that her family members’ eyes were turning red. Then an eerie smell seeped under the doorway and down the stairs. One moment it reminded Qadeer of apples, the next of rotten eggs. When the shelling stopped, she and her family went outside. “Children were vomiting in the streets,” Qadeer said. “People’s noses were running with blood. Goats and chickens were on the ground choking to death.”

As people around her collapsed, Qadeer began to run, and found herself with a group of people she didn’t know. As they hustled toward the edge of town, they turned into the wind, discovering that it was easier to breathe that way. Qadeer urged strangers to keep moving, even as they passed the dead. She found many of the stragglers laughing deliriously as they expired. One was a boy, seated on the ground, who refused to budge. “Let me do my homework!” he said. “Let me do my homework!” That night, as the group prepared to sleep in an abandoned building, Qadeer began to lose her eyesight, and her memory started to fade. Her husband, Baktiar, found her, and placed tea leaves over her eyes to ease the burning. The next day, the group, with nearly everyone blind, began to move again, roping themselves together so that no one would be lost. A few days later, Qadeer awoke in an Iranian hospital, lashed to a bed. She was blind, burned, and bleeding from her vagina. But, she said, “I was not dead after all.” Twenty days later, her vision began to return. It was only then that she and the others realized that they had been attacked with chemical weapons.

I met Qadeer, who is now forty-two, at a museum in Halabja dedicated to the victims of the attack, which Saddam’s government carried out with sarin and mustard gas. As many as five thousand people died in the assault, including seventeen of Qadeer’s relatives, making it one of the most vicious acts of Saddam’s reign. An audiotape recovered after the fall of his regime recorded the raspy voice of Ali Hassan Al Majid, the dictator’s cousin and the orchestrator of the attack. “I will kill them all!” Majid says. “Fuck the international community! I will fuck the father of the international community!”

People from Halabja still suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by the chemical weapons: a resident of the town dies every four months from the residual effects. “I don’t have a normal life,” Qadeer told me. “If I go without my medicine, it is like the first day for me.” Like many women who survived the attack, Qadeer struggled to bear children; one was born with a hole in his heart and died a few weeks later. It was not until 2000, twelve years after the attack, that Qadeer was able to conceive successfully; she now has three healthy children. “All I ask for is a bright life for my children,” she said. “The person inside me died long ago.”

In the years after the attack, some of her rare moments of satisfaction came from the demise of Saddam Hussein. After his arrest, in December of 2003, Qadeer watched his trial every day on television; if she missed it, she would stay up until 2 A.M. to watch the second broadcast. Part of her wishes that he were still around: “I think the best revenge would have been for him to see what we have accomplished here in Kurdistan.”

Decades of mass trauma, mostly inflicted by the government in Baghdad, have generated a momentum toward statehood that seems nearly unstoppable. For Masoud Barzani, a lifetime of massacres and betrayals has relieved him of the obligation to help save Iraq for someone else’s benefit. “We tried our best to make a new Iraq, based on a new set of principles,” he said. “We spared no effort to help make this new Iraq work. But unfortunately it has failed. So our question to our doubters is just that: How much longer should we wait, and how much longer should we deny our destiny for some unknown future?”

Iraq was created in 1920, in the postwar settlement that established the modern Middle East. From the start, it was an unstable amalgam of three former provinces of the Ottoman Empire: a predominantly Shiite one in the south, a Sunni-dominated one in the center, and a largely Kurdish one in the north. Though many national groups in Europe and the Middle East gained statehood, the Kurds were split among the new states of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey and the ancient one of Iran.

Barzani was born in 1946 in the closest thing to an independent state that the Kurds have ever known: the Mahabad Republic, an autonomous region in northern Iran. Mahabad was supported by the Soviet Union, which was occupying large swaths of Iran. When the Red Army withdrew, under Western pressure, the republic collapsed. At the time, Mustafa Barzani, Masoud’s father, was the leader of the Kurds. He was forced to flee, leaving behind his wife and infant son, and they were not reunited for twelve years. Mustafa Barzani is still revered across Kurdistan, his portrait adorning walls in homes and teahouses. To Masoud, he was a remote figure, a man whom everyone but him seemed to know. “Masoud grew up away from his father, not knowing him, and yet his father was the most famous man among all the Kurds,” Shafiq Qazzaz, a friend of both men, said.

In the mid-nineteen-seventies, with the backing of the Shah of Iran, Israel, and the Central Intelligence Agency, Kurdish rebels secured a large self-governing area in northern Iraq. Mustafa Barzani, charismatic but unsophisticated, saw the Americans’ interest as a guarantee of victory. “My father never trusted the Shah, but he had total faith in America,” Masoud told me. Then, in 1975, the Shah made a separate peace with Saddam and cut off support to the Kurds. Mahmoud Othman, one of Mustafa’s closest advisers, recalled that the Shah announced his decision in a meeting, so dispassionately that he never raised his voice: “He said he’d made a deal and that, unfortunately, a third party had lost—and that was us, the Kurds.” When the Shah withdrew his aid, the C.I.A. and the Israelis quickly followed. The Iraqi Army surged back in, and more than a hundred thousand Kurds fled the region. A few months later, Mustafa received a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer. He spent his last years in the United States. Before he died, he wrote to President Jimmy Carter: “I could have prevented this calamity which befell my people, had I not fully believed in the promise of America.” The moment still resonates; Henry Kissinger’s name is known, and reviled, by nearly every Kurd. “It took Masoud a long time to regain his trust in the United States,” Qazzaz said. “He felt his father had died from the betrayal.”


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