From his thriving downtown St. Paul bistro, Hassan Naqshabandi is counting on the United States to rebuff Turkey if it attempts to invade his native Kurdistan in northern Iraq in pursuit of the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. His view is shared by many Kurds, who, as the friendliest ethnic group in Iraq for the U.S. troops, have relied on the United States for protection since the first Gulf War.
For more background see Eric Black’s “History of Kurds driving future of Iraq war.”
“The United States has protected [Kurds], its strongest ally in Iraq, for more than 15 years. Why would it turn its back on us now?” asked Naqshabandi, 46, owner of the 7th Street bistro.
That’s not how Onder Uluyol, a Turk and a resident of Blaine, sees the recent cross-border fight between Turkey and the PKK, designated by the United States, the European Union and Turkey as a terrorist organization. The PKK, he said, wants to drive a wedge between the United States and Turkey, which are NATO allies.
This month alone the PKK has killed at least two dozen Turkish soldiers and captured eight, parading their images on Kurdish websites.
“Iraqi-Kurdistan is not doing enough to stop this terrorist organization,” said Uluyol, 41, a research scientist. “There’s an enormous public pressure to crack down on the PKK.”
Responding to the mounting pressure, the Turkish parliament recently authorized the military to hunt the PKK, even inside Iraq, unnerving the Bush administration. The tension in the mountainous region near the Iraq-Turkey border couldn’t have come at a worse time for the administration: The Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S. House this month passed the “Armenian genocide resolution,” a symbolic but strong rebuke against Turkey.
In retaliation, Turkey has threatened to curtail its logistical support for the war in Iraq. More than 70 percent of all military hardware and supplies for the U.S. troops travels through Turkey.
Secession vs. federalism
Diplomatic conundrums are not on the radar of Naqshabandi, one of few Kurdish immigrants in Minnesota. Though the PKK doesn’t wield a significant influence among Kurds, he said the underpinning issue is that Kurds have few or no rights in Turkey, Iran and Syria, where they are in the minority.
“Iraqi-Kurdistan is the poster child of what Kurds across the region would like to see one day,” he said. “Thanks to the United States. That was not possible under Saddam Hussein — or any other government in the region.”
Kurdistan is the most stable, self-governing part of Iraq. Reaping the benefit of the federal system set up after the U.S. invasion, the oil-rich region has strong economic ties to Turkey and other neighbors.
Naqshabandi, a former cook for the U.S. troops who helped enforce the no-fly zone during Saddam Hussein’s administration, said U.S. soldiers roam around villages and towns in Kurdistan, sometimes unarmed.
“We see them as liberators,” he said. “Others see them as invaders.”
The PKK and other Kurdish rebel groups in the region call for independent Kurdistan. But Iraqi-Kurds, including President Jalal Talabani, say autonomy is their ultimate goal. Naqshabandi agrees.
“Independent Kurdistan, sandwiched between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, can’t survive in that hostile environment,” he said with a little chuckle.
Uluyol, the Turkish scientist, couldn’t agree more. He contends that Turkish-Kurds will be better off in Turkey once the latter joins the European Union.
“The current Turkish government granted the Kurds more rights than ever,” he said. “Turkey has to improve the conditions of its people before it enters the EU-and the current government is doing everything it can to achieve that goal.”