International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International 1991: Oppose imperialist war and colonialism!

The Tragedy of the Kurds—Lessons for the Working Class

This “Bulletin” editorial originally appeared in the April 12, 1991 issue

A tragedy is unfolding in Iraq. Millions of Kurdish people have been forced to flee their homes. Already tens of thousands have died from hunger, exposure and disease. The plight of the Kurds now holds the attention of the world. In the face of this disaster, workers must ask: Where does the responsibility for this calamity lie? What are the lessons for the working class?

The misery of the countless people now huddled on the borders of Turkey and Iran or moving north to join those who are already there is the clear responsibility of the allied imperialist powers. The fact that the Kurdish masses are now living without food, shelter, water or sanitation on barren hillsides, where mothers bury their infants who have died from dehydration, is the most immediate and direct outcome of the war waged in the region by imperialism, which has cynically welcomed the annihilation of the Kurds and is now wondering whether to intervene to further its own interests.

The imperialist powers attempted to persuade the world that they went to war against Iraq to relieve the suffering of the Kuwaiti people. The grim reality is being revealed in the aftermath of the holocaust. The invasion of Kuwait was a sheer pretext for the implementation of long-prepared US plans for military intervention in the region designed to further its strategic interests and to establish its domination over the oil resources of the Persian Gulf. The imperialists launched a war in the Middle East which cost hundreds of thousands of lives and has only led to a further catastrophe.

Perhaps the most obscene moment in this entire crisis came when US Secretary of State James Baker descended onto the mountains of northern Kurdistan and spent all of seven minutes surveying the disaster which his policies have produced. He was hustled away by officials fearful that his presence would cause an uncontrollable riot.

The expressions of concern for the fate of the Kurds now being made by various imperialist powers are completely worthless. The moral outrage of imperialism is turned on and off as political expediency requires.

This most recent suffering of the Kurdish people began, not with Saddam Hussein, but with the very air war launched against Iraq by the US and its allies. While claiming that it had no quarrel with the Iraqi people, the Bush administration bombed and strafed the civilian population of Iraq, north and south. In the north, thousands were killed or maimed in repeated air raids on all the major Kurdish cities, as sugar refineries, textile plants, cement plants, hospitals and domestic heating gas plants were relentlessly destroyed in such Kurdish cities as Mosul and Sulaimaniyah. Saddam Hussein’s troops, advancing to massacre the population of the north following the war, entered towns which had already been devastated.

But even as the bombs were raining down on Irbil and Kirkuk, a plan was under way which has revealed the US in a display of cynicism which is, if possible, even more cold-blooded.

The United States allied itself with the most reactionary forces among the Arab states, the feudal rulers of Saudi Arabia, to engineer a military coup to overthrow Saddam Hussein. To facilitate this, the Iraqi masses were to be encouraged to rise up against Hussein, with aid from the US promised or implied. But they were not to be allowed to succeed.

The bitter reality for the Iraqi people is that, far from desiring some form of democracy in their country, the imperialists, to the extent that they want to see any change in the government, only wish to establish another military dictator who would be more reliable in carrying out their interests than Hussein has proven to be.

As it happened, the coup failed to take place and the savage repression unleashed against the masses by Hussein’s regime was carried out with the full complicity of the imperialists. The United States, occupying 20 percent of the country, gave tacit approval to the slaughter while the other imperialist powers carefully waited until the defeat of the Kurds was assured before raising their voices.

As the New York Times put it April 11: “It is, perhaps, one of the most savage realizations of the Persian Gulf crisis and the subsequent turmoil in both north and south Iraq that the allied campaign against President Hussein brought the United States and its Arab coalition partners to a strikingly unanimous view: whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the west and the region a better hope for his country’s stability than did these who have suffered his repression.”

Details of the Saudi-US plan published last week in the Wall Street Journal reveal something of the cynicism with which the US acted. Salah Omar al-Takriti, a former member of the Baath Party who had fallen out with Hussein in 1982, was selected as an appropriate replacement for Hussein. He was a figure “without much of an authentic political base,” but who “convinced the Saudis he could arrange a coup through contacts in the Iraqi military. The Saudis promoted him and Saad Jabr, a London-based Shi’ite, also without a substantial political base.”

The Journal report noted: “Mr. al-Takriti briefed American officials in Riyadh about Iraq’s internal situation. The US ambassador even requested a meeting with him.... Support included a CIA-backed radio station in Saudi Arabia, which Mr. al-Takriti helped run, and which repeatedly called on the Iraqi population to revolt.”

At the conclusion of the war and with the Iraqi state greatly weakened, an uprising did indeed take place in the south. The Shia were quickly joined by the Kurds in the north. The US told the Hussein regime that the use of “fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters would be a violation of the provisional cease-fire.”

But, as the report makes clear, it was at this point that things began to go seriously wrong with Saudi-US calculations. “Salah al-Takriti’s coup failed to materialize” and “with Iraq’s Shi’ites in revolt and no military action against Saddam in sight, the Saudis panicked.... Washington then switched course. On March 26, the administration announced publicly that the US would not prevent Iraq from using helicopters. Predictably, Saddam took that as an invitation to mow down his civilian population. The helicopters dropped napalm and phosphorous bombs.”

And according to the report: “Although not announced publicly, the US also stopped interfering with flights of fixed-wing aircraft.” The significance of these moves was clear. “A decision had been made to let Saddam suppress the rebellion” and “the quicker the better. Having decided it did not want Iraq’s revolts to succeed, the administration stood fast as the slaughter continued; Saddam’s suppression was deemed ‘an internal Iraqi affair.’ “

Hussein himself is in every sense the political product of imperialism. For years he was seen as the direct agent of the United States, including in 1988, when he last carried out repression against the Kurds on a massive scale. Hussein is one of the modem representatives of the national bourgeoisie which heads the artificial states set up in the Middle East by imperialism, notably British and French, after the Ottoman Empire was dismembered in 1919 and the Turkish oppressors of the region were replaced by new imperialist powers.

Should Saddam Hussein survive this crisis and were it to suit the immediate political needs of imperialism at some point in the future, US foreign policy would make as swift and sharp a turn as in the recent case of Syria. Saddam Hussein would be welcomed as a guest in the White House, while the media adjusted its propaganda accordingly.

Those who would now justify supporting imperialist intervention in “defense” of the Kurds are suffering from the same blindness which always characterizes petty-bourgeois policy.

The politics of imperialism in the Middle East has been a series of bloody depradations which has created whole nations of refugees. The catastrophe which has now befallen the Kurds is only the latest chapter in the catalog of crimes produced by imperialism in the region.

To justify imperialist intervention on the grounds that this is what is needed “right now” to deal with this latest catastrophe would be to forget the previous catastrophes created by the same imperialism, each of which was put forward at the time as being what was needed “right now.” This is the politics of pragmatism.

Imperialist intervention will not save the Kurds. The proposal adopted by the European summit last Monday for a UN-administered enclave for the Kurds would in effect turn parts of northern Iraq into massive refugee camps, a larger version of the Gaza Strip.

Whatever policy happens to be adopted by the different imperialist powers in this situation, and some form of direct military intervention can by no means be ruled out, it will be motivated exclusively by the desire to further the political designs of the respective powers. The American bourgeoisie is divided over exactly what tactics to pursue at this time. So far the Bush administration has resisted calls for it to intervene even further with such statements as “We’ve done all the heavy lifting.”

Once again, the Democrats have done all in their power to associate themselves with the position of the administration. Richard Gephardt, House Majority leader, told White House reporters, “We’re doing the right thing” in Iraq. “We have a de facto situation where the Kurds are in an area where they are not being attacked,” he said.

The working class must draw political conclusions from the experiences of the Kurds, whose leaders have time and again claimed to be able to advance the interests of their people through deals with imperialism, only to lead the masses into one disaster after another.

The Kurdish question cannot be resolved on the basis of the nation-state system established by imperialism. The Kurdish people inhabit not only Iraq, but also the neighboring countries of Turkey, Syria, Iran and the Soviet Union. Each of these fiercely opposes the Kurdish right to self-determination, as do the major imperialist powers.

All over the world there are nations who have never achieved statehood and for whom imperialism has no immediate use in the present arrangements of states.

The only solution to the latest tragedy of the Kurdish people lies in the mobilization of the international working class, the sole force which has no stake in preserving or rearranging the state boundaries so arbitrarily set up in the Middle East.

The national rights of the Kurds can be achieved only as part of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat to overthrow imperialism worldwide.