Terror Strike on the Kurds

February 18, 2004 Topic: Terrorism

Terror Strike on the Kurds

Similarities between the bombing that ripped through Iraqi Kurdistan Sunday and the November attacks in Istanbul are so striking that the earlier tragedy seems now to foreshadow the latter.

Similarities between the bombing that ripped through Iraqi Kurdistan Sunday and the November attacks in Istanbul are so striking that the earlier tragedy seems now to foreshadow the latter.

Both bombings were largely explained as being the work of Al Qaeda. For most American observers, this settled the matter succinctly: terrorism, Al Qaeda, Islamic fundamentalism.

This characterization may not be wrong, but it is so narrow and distorts part of the reality - something central to the risks U.S. soldiers and others face in Iraq.

Attacks in Iraq's Kurdish region and in Istanbul were both primarily homegrown -- a dynamic that could be obscured given the possible ties with the internationally connected Al Qaeda. Both were allegedly perpetrated by ethnic Kurds (or at least groups that are mostly Kurdish). Kurdish perpetrators share a similar Islamic ideology that is widely at odds with that of their other Kurdish brethren.

Also, both groups are believed to have been financed at one time by countries in the region. The financial support for these unpredictable and dangerous groups demonstrates how Byzantine national security strategy can be in the Middle East. It also demonstrates to what extent Kurdish issues are a vortex of regional concern, particularly for Turkey, Iran and Syria-all of which have Kurdish minorities.

Finally, they are also indicative of how fragile even the currently unstable situation in Iraq remains, and to what degree the current occupation inflames older hostilities.

The attacks in Kurdish Iraq are believed to have been perpetrated by Ansar al-Islam, a mostly Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist group that is opposed to the secular, democratic, pro-American and pro-occupation stance of Kurdistan's two main political parties.

Ansar al-Islam is widely believed to have been partly financed by Iran over the years to undermine Kurdish stability in Iraq. A successful, autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region could give Iranian Kurds greater impetus to demand autonomy of their own and provides an example of an effective, secular state along Iran's border.

Iraqi Kurdish officials aren't keen to acknowledge that the attacks, which have killed at least 101 people, probably involved Kurds themselves. The Wahhabi Islamic ideology of Ansar is anathema to most Iraqi Kurds, and they have been quick to point to a connection between the bombers and Al Qaeda.

If this connection is proven, it would be only part of the story.

The Kurdish bombers and planners in Turkey, meanwhile, were part of Turkish Hezbollah (even if they have re-branded themselves) and are also Islamic fundamentalists. These terrorists, amazingly enough, are widely believed to have been financed by the Turkish government itself until about 1999 -- a strategy that seems akin to extinguishing a fire with gasoline.

Why? In the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish government was mainly concerned about another Kurdish militant group, known as the PKK - a secular group seeking independence from the rest of Turkey. When the Islamic Hezbollah fighters began battling the PKK, the Turkish government is believed to have provided Turkish Hezbollah with all the firepower and immunity it desired.

In 1999, Turkey reached a cease-fire with the PKK -- and with an eye on EU membership and significantly improved its treatment of its sizeable Kurdish minority -- it began cracking down on Turkish Hezbollah. The terrorist attacks in Istanbul on Jewish and British targets are probably a reaction against both that crackdown and the Iraqi occupation. They also demonstrated the heightened ferocity of fundamentalist Kurds -- something that should have set off more alarm bells in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Although the past alliance between Turkish Hezbollah and the Turkish government has been widely documented, many news reports failed to point out this important dynamic, which demonstrates how explosive Kurdish issues have been in the region.

A Nov. 27 article in The New York Times points out that the bombers had "strong connections to Turkish Hezbollah," but fails to mention the connection of that group to the Turkish government.

In order to understand the risks to America and other military personnel in Iraq, it is important to understand the nature of native grudges. The combination of old hostilities, anger over the occupation of Iraq and Al Qaeda's influence is combustible.

Resolving how to give Iraqi Kurds the autonomy they seek without inflaming other countries in the Middle East will be a complicated task for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The question remains, then, just what did our "intelligence" warn about these risks?


Ximena Ortiz is the 2003-2004 recipient of the Pulliam Editorial Fellowship. She is writing a book, "The War, According to the World," on the global policy repercussions of the Iraq war.  This article first appeared in United Press International.

This column appeared in United Press International's Outside View and is used with permission.