Australasian Spartacist No. 233
For a United Independent Kurdistan!
Iraqi Kurds Vote for Independence, Baghdad Seizes Kirkuk
The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1120 (20 October), newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S.
OCTOBER 17—Three weeks after Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum, the U.S.-trained and-supplied forces of the Baghdad regime, supported by Iranian-backed Shia militias, took control of the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields from the Kurdish pesh merga, which is also trained and supplied by the U.S. As pesh merga forces retreated, Iraqi troops moved in, taking the city of Kirkuk itself and tearing down Kurdish flags. The Iraqi government’s assault is a clear reprisal for the September 25 referendum and a slap in the face of the Kurdish people’s longing for independence. The situation has the potential to explode, especially if Baghdad’s forces continue north into Iraqi Kurdistan.
As Baghdad captured Kirkuk, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) denounced as “shameful” the “silence” of their American imperialist patrons. In fact, while Trump declared, “We’re not taking sides,” a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad endorsed the Iraqi government’s actions: “We support the peaceful reassertion of federal authority, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, in all disputed areas.” Washington had earlier condemned the independence referendum, as did virtually all the regional powers. As we have repeatedly asserted, the Kurdish nationalists’ alliance with U.S. imperialism—most recently by acting as ground troops in the U.S.’s war against the Islamic State (ISIS)—sets up the masses of Kurdistan for more betrayals.
The historically Kurdish city of Kirkuk was captured in 2014 by pesh merga troops tied to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as the Iraqi army disintegrated in the face of ISIS. The PUK co-governs the KRG alongside its more dominant bitter rival, the Kurdistan Demo-cratic Party (KDP) led by KRG president Massoud Barzani. While in the October 16 assault there were some skirmishes between pro-Baghdad forces and elements in the pesh merga, Iraqi troops retook Kirkuk without much of a fight.
According to the KDP, a secret deal was worked out between pro-Baghdad forces and the PUK to give up the city and its oil fields to Iraqi forces. Today, KDP forces also withdrew as Iraqi troops captured more territory that had been taken by the pesh merga in 2014. As with all the alliances and maneuvers that both the KDP and PUK routinely carry out with the imperialists and regional powers, it is the Kurdish people who will pay the price.
In last month’s referendum, the Kurdish people made clear their desire for independence from their national oppressors. The referendum was held in territory administered by the KRG and in disputed areas then held by the pesh merga, including Kirkuk. Voters were asked in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish and Assyrian: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the Region’s administration to become an independent state?” With a turnout of over 72 percent, the referendum passed with an overwhelming 92.73 percent voting “yes.”
As Leninist fighters against national oppression, we welcome the referendum and its result, while giving no political support to the bourgeois nationalists. Voting “yes” was the only principled position for Marxists committed to the struggle for working-class rule in the Near East and elsewhere. As for Kirkuk and other historically Kurdish areas, we would have no opposition to their going over to the KRG or an independent Kurdistan. Kirkuk in particular has undergone massive “Arabization” over the past several decades, especially under Saddam Hussein, with Kurds expelled in large numbers and replaced by Arabs. In recent years, it has been the Kurdish nationalists who have expelled Arabs and others. Today, it is the Kurds being driven out, with thousands fleeing Kirkuk in fear of pogromist attacks. Whatever the formal status of such mixed cities, we vehemently oppose “ethnic cleansing” or forced population transfers of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians and other residents.
Kurdish Nationalist Stooges for U.S. Imperialism
The carve-up of the Near East by the British and French imperialists following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I resulted in the Kurdish nation being denied a state of its own over the last century. Divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, Kurds have endured the suppression of their language, culture and history and have been the victims of brutal repression by both the imperialists and local capitalist regimes.
The Kurdish people have a long history of struggle against their oppressors. But their bourgeois-nationalist leaders have just as long a history of sacrificing these struggles for illusory support from the imperialists or their regional lackeys. The very Kurdish leaders who called last month’s referendum are an obstacle to Kurdish independence, and they had no intention of implementing the referendum’s outcome. Both the KDP as well as the PUK have long been in a military alliance with U.S. imperialism, acting as its willing tools. To maintain that alliance, they have subordinated the struggles of the Kurdish people for independence to the interests of U.S. imperialism.
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the KDP and PUK operated under U.S. command and then served as military auxiliaries to the occupation forces. More recently, they—along with Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey—have enlisted in Washington’s crusade against the reactionary ISIS jihadists. The fact that Kurdish fighters have fought alongside the U.S. in suppressing Iraq’s Sunni Arabs has served to reinforce anti-Kurdish prejudices among Arabs in the region, to further fuel communalism and to maintain the national oppression of the Kurds.
As Marxists, we underline that U.S. imperialism is the greatest enemy of the world’s working people and oppressed, not least the Kurds. Thus, while we despise everything that ISIS stands for, we understand that the blows it strikes against U.S. military forces and their proxies are objectively in the interests of the international working class. These proxies include the PYD’s military and the pesh merga as well as the Baghdad regime’s army and the Iraqi Shia militias. U.S. out of the Near East!
The very premise of the Kurdish nationalists’ alliance with the U.S. is to sacrifice any struggle for independence. U.S. imperialism is a committed enemy of the Kurdish masses. When Saddam Hussein was gassing Kurdish civilians in Halabja in March 1988, he was an ally of the U.S. After America’s rulers turned on their former client during the first Gulf War in 1990-91, they sought to rouse the Kurds (and Shias) against Hussein, and then abandoned them as he brutally suppressed them.
The U.S. is opposed to Kurdish independence, which would redraw the map of the Near East, and has made clear that it will not countenance anything beyond “autonomy” in a unitary—and therefore inherently oppressive and Arab-dominated—Iraq. When Barzani announced the referendum, his Washington paymasters rebuked him. A September 15 White House statement condemned the referendum as “distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS.”
Today, with ISIS on the verge of defeat, the military situation in Iraq is evolving. As journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote in a September 29 article in the London Independent, “The US no longer needs the Iraqi Kurds as it did before the capture of Mosul from Isis in July,” which he notes was taken by the Iraqi army, not the pesh merga. He added: “The military balance of power is changing and Baghdad, not Irbil [the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan], is the gainer.” Once the imperialists deem their stooges in Kurdistan of little value, they will discard them, as they have repeatedly done before.
The multinational and multiethnic proletariat of the Near East must be won to the struggle for a united, independent Kurdistan. This struggle includes defending the right of Kurds in the individual countries to secede. Anti-Kurdish sentiment is promoted by the regional powers to cement their rule over their “own” workers. By championing Kurdish self-determination, the working class of the region would be taking a stand against their own capitalist exploiters and helping to undercut U.S. imperialism’s capacity to manipulate the Kurds’ grievances to further its interests. This perspective requires the forging of internationalist workers parties that fight for a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan, part of a socialist federation of the Near East.
Vultures Circle Kurdistan
For the KRG, the motivation for the referendum was not the struggle for independence. In 2014, the Iraqi government of then prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a consummate Shia-Arab sectarian, withheld virtually all funding to the KRG. The KRG responded by stopping oil deliveries to the central government, instead selling the oil directly to Turkey via a new pipeline. With negotiations stalled, KRG leaders hoped that the referendum would provide them a bargaining chip to wrest more financial concessions and greater autonomy from Baghdad. It remains to be seen how such negotiations will proceed given recent events in Kirkuk.
In Iraqi Kurdistan itself, the economic situation is dire; some 30 percent of the population live below the poverty line. In addition to losing funding from Baghdad, the KRG has expended a great deal of resources on the U.S.-led war on ISIS and is suffering from the decline in oil prices. The region is on the verge of bankruptcy, with government employees receiving their pay sporadically. In October 2015, teachers, hospital workers and others in the public sector held strikes and protests to demand three months of back pay. The KRG responded by unleashing riot cops.
In addition to growing disillusionment with the corruption and graft of both the KDP and the PUK, there is widespread anger at Barzani himself, whose term of office expired in 2015. Since then, he has unilaterally extended his term, suspended the KRG parliament and is ruling by fiat. By launching this referendum, the KDP was aiming to restore its credibility ahead of KRG presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next month.
Whatever the intentions of the KRG leaders, the referendum has jolted Iraq’s neighboring countries—in particular Turkey and Iran. The rulers of these countries, as well as the embattled Syrian regime, fear that any expression of separatism in Iraqi Kurdistan could ignite similar movements among their “own” Kurds. Shortly after the referendum, Turkey’s would-be sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been waging a brutal war of annihilation against the PKK, flew to Tehran to meet with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Both leaders emphasized, “We will not accept changing borders in the region.” Turkey has threatened to shut down its border with Iraqi Kurdistan and to “starve” it by refusing to purchase oil. Working in collaboration with the Baghdad regime, both countries have reinforced their troops along their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan.
The only regional power that supported the referendum is Israel, whose government, which lords it over the oppressed Palestinian people, declared, with no sense of irony, that Kurds have a right to self-determination. There is a long history of cooperation between Israel’s Mossad and the Barzani clan, which has also worked with the CIA and Britain’s MI6. Tel Aviv sees an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as a potential base for operations against Arab regimes, and especially against Iran.
Israel’s support for the referendum has been seized on by anti-Kurdish forces in the region. A rally by Turkish chauvinists in Ankara on September 15 raised banners declaring, “We Won’t Allow a Second Israel.” Likewise, in a meeting with Turkey’s Erdogan, Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that his country would not allow the establishment of “a new Israel in the region.”
For the Kurdish nationalist leaders, the national aspirations of the Kurdish people are little more than a negotiating tool. But for the Kurdish masses, the referendum represented a concentrated expression of their desire for independence. And the impact of that vote has the potential to spiral out of the control of those who set it in motion. In Iranian Kurdistan, under martial law conditions and the fierce tyranny of the “Revolutionary Guards,” thousands of Kurds courageously took to the streets to support the referendum; dozens were arrested. The referendum drew a line between Kurds throughout Kurdistan and the imperialists and regional tyrants.
For Leninist Parties in the Near East!
Recent events in the region underline the historical fact that Iraq is not a nation, but a patchwork of different peoples and ethnicities cobbled together by the imperialists. The borders of Iraq were arbitrarily drawn to encompass oil concessions, forcing together hostile populations. The British imperialists are historically most responsible for dismembering the Kurdish national body; it was Britain that created “Iraq” in 1921 and then forcibly incorporated the Kurds into it.
But Kurds are not simply victims. The struggle for Kurdish independence has the potential to upend the entire set of relations established by the colonial powers and today defended by the regional regimes and the imperialist overlords. The fight for Kurdish self-determination will shape and be shaped by the future struggles of the region’s proletariat. The aim of national liberation could itself be a motor force for a proletarian upsurge. Kurdish struggle in Iran could shake up the entire structure of that theocratic prison house of peoples, where the Persian-chauvinist regime presides over a population nearly half of which is non-Persian. In Turkey, the struggle for proletarian revolution is inconceivable without a fight for Kurdish self-determination. Anti-Kurdish chauvinism is a key pillar of Turkish nationalism and the Turkish capitalist state.
We seek to link the struggle for Kurdish independence with the fight to overthrow capitalist rule throughout the Near East. Kirkuk has a history of militant Kurdish workers struggles. But for the most part, the Kurdish proletariat is to be found outside of Kurdistan, including in the industrial centers and mining regions of Turkey. It is in the urban centers, among the industrial proletariat, that the power exists to lead the Kurdish people, and all the exploited and oppressed of the region, to freedom.
The future of the working class of the Near East will not simply be determined in that volatile region, but is intimately tied to the struggle for workers rule in the imperialist centers. As part of the proletariat of the Near East, Kurdish workers can play a leading role in bringing down the rotten structure set up to serve the imperialists. The millions of Kurdish and Turkish workers in Germany can serve as a living bridge linking the struggle for independence to the fight for socialist revolution in the Near East and West Europe.
Such a perspective must be brought to the proletariat of the Near East through the instrumentality of Marxist leadership. What is desperately needed is the forging of revolutionary Leninist parties committed to the equality of all nations and peoples. We fight to build workers parties that are sections of a reforged Fourth International, parties that will fight for the liberation of all the oppressed as a vital part of the struggle for workers rule.