Kurds Build Their Own Identity: U.S. Provides a Long-Awaited Taste of Peace and Freedom

Article excerpt

Julia Duin is a writer for The Washington Times.

Americans may be vilified in much of Iraq, but in the 15,000 square miles encompassing Iraqi Kurdistan, wedding parties pose with U.S. soldiers, American flags are posted proudly on dashboards, and officials beg visiting Americans to tell Washington to establish a permanent military base here. "That would send a message to everyone not to do anything to the Kurds," said a visiting professor at the 14,000-student Salahaddin University in this sprawling north-central city.

Thirty years of political oppression, poison gas attacks, and outright genocide by the former Ba'athist regime in Baghdad have led northeastern Iraq's 4.5 million Kurds to rethink all of their alliances. Some even suggest contacting the Israelis for advice. Although most Kurdish Muslims instinctively distrust Jews, some say Israelis would be eager to help bolster a Kurdish democracy in the Middle East. Jews inhabited Kurdistan starting with the Babylonian exile in 597 B.C. and ending in the 1950s, when many returned to Israel.

Others say Kurds are flirting with Zoroastrianism or atheism, as Islam is seen as the religion of their Turkish and Arab oppressors. Evangelical Protestant missionaries who are quietly planting churches in the major Kurdish cities report flickers of interest. Copies of the New Testament, or at least portions of it, are available in both Kurdish dialects, and Campus Crusade's Jesus Film has been on Kurdish television several times.

The evangelistic Dallas-based Daystar Television Network can be seen in any Kurdish home with a satellite dish. The Amman, Jordan-based Manara Ministries, a Christian agency that conducts relief work in northern Iraq, estimates 200 Kurds have converted to Christianity in 20 years and that Erbil has at least one Christian bookstore. Other Christian agencies in the region agree numbers remain in the low hundreds, but thousands have received evangelistic literature and have had some contact with Christians.

Kurds have substituted their own red, yellow, green, and white flag in place of the national Iraqi flag on flagpoles everywhere. In the few places the Iraqi flag is displayed, it is the de-Islamicized pre-1991 version before Saddam Hussein added "God is Great" in Arabic to the red, white, black, and green banner.

"Some people are blaming Islam for what's happening to us," one college professor mused. "But I think the fault is with the British who divided our land after World War I. We have tolerated this bitter reality, but we have never accepted it."

The Kurdish penchant for independent thinking begins with its "Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan" sign at the Iraqi-Turkish border--a calculated insult to Turkey, which has limited human rights for many of its 15 million to 20 million Kurds and whose border guards lecture travelers that "Kurdistan" does not exist.

Kurdistan is an unofficial nation-state encompassing at least 25 million people in the 74,000-square-mile mountainous region encompassing chunks of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It is the world's largest ethnic group without a country of its own. Kurds were promised a country in the August 10, 1920, Treaty of Sevres that divided the former Ottoman Empire among Britain, Turkey, and others, and gave independence to Armenia.

However, the treaty drafted in Sevres, France, was ignored by Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, who did honor the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that established Turkey's present borders but partitioned Kurdistan into four parts. Kurds generally were oppressed in all their host countries, resulting in the establishment of exile communities in Europe and the United States. Iraqi Kurdistan blossomed after the 1991 Gulf war, when overflights by British and American fighter jets generally kept Saddam's forces at bay.

Today, some Baghdad residents are moving their homes several hundred miles north to tranquil Kurdish cities such as Dohuk, where legions of peshmerga--Kurdish militia--patrol the city streets and man checkpoints on rural routes. …