In spite of escalating violence in Iraq, the very region that served as the gateway for al-Qaeda in Iraq is now one of the most secure areas in the country. Iraqi Kurdistan, formally the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has taken the opposite trajectory than most of Iraq. While the rest of the country was under the secure repression of Saddam Hussein, Kurdistan suffered from government-sponsored chemical attacks on Kurdish civilians. Moreover, while Kurdistan in the years prior to the war served as an open gate for al-Qaeda terrorists, among them Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, terrorist insurgents had not yet infiltrated the entire country. Now, however, the Iraqi capital and most of Iraq have steadily descended into terrorist and sectarian violence while Iraqi Kurdistan has flushed out foreign fighters (aside from the PKK, which they support) and flourished, both politically and economically. The reasons for this are many and varied, but require a concerted effort to be sustained.
At the cusp of the U.S.-led invasion, the most severe threat to the Kurdish region was Ansar al-Islam. Many analysts believe Ansar al-Islam had established links with al-Qaeda through al-Zarqawi upon his entry into Iraq through Kurdistan. Ansar al-Islam, formed out of the remnants of Jund al-Islam, had the stated objective of defeating the secular Kurdish leadership and installing Islamic rule in Iraq’s Kurdish area. Ansar al-Islam, and its off-shoot Ansar al-Sunnah, had targeted KRG officials in the past and had control over remote villages in Kurdistan’s mountainous terrain. Ansar al-Islam carried out a targeted assassination campaign and killed the former Assyrian governor of Irbil, Franso Hariri, in 2001 and attempted to assassinate top PUK official and now Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih in 2002 (Terrorism Monitor, December 20, 2005).
The political dynamic changed after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, however, and the Kurdish leaders recognized the opportunity to gain power, legitimacy and autonomy. This was the prime motivating factor behind the resolve to rid Kurdish areas of Salafi groups. By cooperating with coalition forces, and U.S. intelligence in particular, the KDP and PUK made a concerted effort to root out Ansar al-Islam and similar Salafi elements from the Kurdish region. This effort was mostly successful. Ansar al-Islam melted away and its members migrated to other groups operating largely outside of the KRG. Yet the threat was not entirely gone.
On February 1, 2004, Ansar al-Sunnah launched simultaneous attacks on PUK and KDP offices during Eid celebrations. Approximately 109 people were killed and 200 others wounded. KRG Deputy Prime Minister Sami Abdul Rahman and a prominent Turkish businessman were among those killed. Many have said that this was Kurdistan’s 9/11. It was another wake up call that the KRG had to do more to eradicate terrorism from the region. The terrorist attacks also occurred during a critical point in political negotiations over the interim constitution in which the Kurdish representatives were trying to negotiate as much autonomy as possible for the Kurdish region under the new Iraqi government. The Kurdish representatives were determined not to let the growing insecurity in the country get in the way of their long-held political objectives. Thus, Kurdish officials gained new resolve. In a press statement issued the day of the attack, Barham Salih, then prime minister of the KRG in Sulimaniyah, stated, “The KRG, will use all the powers available to it to find and prosecute those behind today’s terrorist incidents. It will spare no effort to keep Iraqi Kurdistan safe and secure from such terrorism in the future” (KRG Press Statement, February 1, 2004). The KRG took the threat very seriously and resolved to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the region again for fear of disrupting Kurdish political ambitions.
Unlike the rest of Iraq, the Kurds had clear objectives they wanted to gain out of the U.S.-led invasion and it was partly this that motivated them to act so decisively and in unity. Despite having fought an internecine war in the mid-1990s that engendered a lot of mistrust between the followers of the two main parties, the Kurdish leadership decided to put all of this aside for the sake of larger objectives—Kurdish autonomy.
Unity and continuity of leadership is another reason why the Kurdish region has largely escaped Iraq’s violence. Although the Kurdish region in Iraq was always precariously balanced between the whims of various regional powers and the repression of Saddam’s regime, the region has experienced a certain stability and continuity in a way that the rest of Iraq cannot claim. Kurdistan has had a continuity of leadership under the KDP and PUK for the past 15 years—two parties that have ruled Kurdistan with an iron-clad hold on power. While more Kurdish citizens would like greater opportunities for political participation outside the patronage networks of the two parties, there is no power struggle, no violent assertions of power, some experience in quasi-democratic governance and some experience in institution-building and self-governance. There is, for the most part, a grumbling acceptance of the KDP/PUK monopoly on power because they have managed to provide for the security of their citizens.
There is also a definite lack of a permissive environment for violent terrorists and extremists. Security is extremely tight in the KRG and this has as much to do with citizen-security cooperation than anything else. According to one senior Kurdish official, “Kurdistan is blessed with the cooperation between people and law enforcement forces. This cooperation has been very useful in giving the terrorists very little chance to hide and be left unnoticed…People from Kurdistan have been indiscriminately subject to oppression, which has helped the Kurdistan inhabitants to defend themselves together against others.”
In Kurdistan, people know who is a stranger and who is not. Citizens fearing anything suspicious only have to call on their local Asayish—internal security agencies run by both the KDP and PUK. They control prisons, checkpoints and police. There are also the domestic intelligence agencies, the Parastin and Zaniyari. These local security services and the peshmerga monitor villages and towns, and most importantly checkpoints. When visiting the KRG overland, all visitors must have an invitation from a Kurdistan resident and a number of documents. Workers must have employment papers. Each visitor is checked and almost every car is stopped and inspected. Many checkpoints employ more than 50 soldiers.
There is a great deal of trust between Kurdish civilians and the security services, especially the peshmerga forces (former Kurdish fighters who fought against Saddam and other threats). The peshmerga have a special and revered place in Kurdistan and are thus respected and trusted by Kurdish citizens. Kurdish leaders managed to retain control over their peshmerga fighters. Moreover, they have ensured that Kurdish peshmerga remain legally independent from the larger Iraqi security structure through provisions in the transitional and permanent constitution while also integrating some of their fighters into national Iraqi security structures. Hamid Effendi, KDP minister for the peshmerga, has said, “The Arabs in southern Iraq struggle to build a new Iraqi army, but the Kurds already have one. The peshmerga wear Iraqi army uniforms, but they are still Kurds. We have about 60,000 peshmerga. And now they’ve got big guns” (The Scotsman, November 5).
Given their experience fighting Saddam’s forces (and at one point each other), the peshmerga are a disciplined and effective counter-terrorism force. According to Masrour Barzani, head of KDP security, “They know the area, the terrain, the people and are dedicated to protecting their region and their people. They are well trained, and are also experts in fighting terrorism and are up to the challenges they face.” The fact that the last terrorist attack was over a year ago in June 2005 when a suicide car bomber killed at least 13 Iraqi police officers and wounded more than 100 in Irbil is testament to their effectiveness. More importantly, their reputation precedes them. Even though elements of the indigenous, nationalist insurgency have voiced a great deal of criticism against the Kurds for enshrining a federal system in Iraq, they know there is little they can do about it militarily.
The peshmerga have also stayed out of the sectarian conflict that has plagued Iraq in recent months. They are more disciplined than the Shiite or Sunni militias. Since they have not perpetrated attacks on other groups, there has been no retaliation against the Kurds. Politically, both the KDP and PUK are allied with powerful Shiite groups and have worked successfully with Sunni tribes and groups in the past. Sunni Arab insurgents have thus largely focused elsewhere. They have more of a quarrel with Iraq’s Shiites than they do with Iraq’s Kurds. Iraq’s Shiites are embroiled in trying to govern the rest of Iraq and fight against the Sunni insurgency that has targeted their people.
Additionally, the Kurds’ close cooperation with coalition military and intelligence has been instrumental in keeping their region safe. Rooting out terrorists from Kurdistan and preventing others from entering is not solely their own doing. “There are professional security and intelligence institutions which have been very active and successful in pursuing any traces they suspect might lead them to terrorists. Their dedication has helped identify and arrest all the known terrorist cells linked to other terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunnah and so on” (author interview, Masrour Barzani, December 4, 2005).
Despite their success, Kurdish officials must retain their vigilance if security in the KRG is to continue and improve. According to Barzani, “there is still a chance for terrorists and proxies of the neighboring countries to operate in the Kurdistan region and be destructive.” Kurdish officials are still concerned about Kurdish or other militants infiltrating Kurdistan’s mountainous terrain to direct terrorist attacks. It would be extremely difficult to rid terrorists from the forbidding Kurdish mountains. KRG control over outlying areas is still incomplete and will remain a challenge in the coming years.