February 23, 2005

The Kurds' War for Oil?

Posted by Jeremy Brown

Did you read that long article in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday? The one about the Kurds? My title for this post should tip you off to the fact that I read it and did not much like what I read.

What I normally do, when I've tiptoed into the mudroom of a long article and taken an immediate dislike to the smells drifting in from the kitchen (if you know what I mean), is that I will read the first paragraph and then read the last paragraph. A good and rigorously objective journalist ought to work both sides of the street — if there are two sides — at least to some extent, within a long news piece on an important subject. So I'm not one to skim for outrageous ideas and make easy assumptions about reportorial or editorial bias (or I often am one to do that, but in any case I not this time.)

But you can generally go by the first and last paragraphs (and if you're trying that trick on this post it may already be too late, but let me assure you that I did this time read the paragraphs in between).

Here, then, is the bulk of the introductory paragraph to Nir Rosen's piece on the Kurds:

Nir Rosen, a freelance journalist, spent the days before the election among Kirkuk’s bitterly contentious political parties. He says the election was not about ideas, or even politics, but was a blatant grab for power. “The people you saw dancing in the streets were Kurds, dancing to Kurdish national music, and waving the flag of Kurdistan,” Rosen says. Now, with their all-but-assured control over Kirkuk, the Kurds will be emboldened in their ambition to establish an independent Kurdish state, which includes Kirkuk and its oil.”

Welcome to the mental streetcorner at which I was pausing when I came up with this post's title.

Now here's the last paragraph:

It appears that Kirkuk has become a place where an oil field has to have a ''commander'' and where that commander thinks of himself not as an Iraqi, but as a Kurd.

Was it fair of me to conclude that this Nir Rosen — whose name was naggingly thought only distantly familiar — was trying to tell Sunday readers of the New York Times that it was all going to turn to shit in Iraq, and that those American allies, the Kurds, were just in it for the oil?

I'll share some of the stuff that came between the first and last paragraph.

I should point out that Rosen does remind readers that the Kurds suffered horribly under Saddam, citing a Human Rights Watch figure of 100,000 Kurds killed during Saddam's Anfal campaign of 1987 which, he owns, was “widely considered a genocidal offensive.” It was; that's true. But in the previous paragraph Rosen had introduced the topic of Saddam's treatment of the Kurds this way:

Turkmens and Kurds alike were suppressed by the aggressive Arabism of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Official ''Arabization'' began in the 1960's and accelerated significantly in 1975, when the Iraqi regime began forcibly removing tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrian Christians from Kirkuk and bringing in Arabs to take their place. This Arabization was chiefly motivated by the government's wish to consolidate its grip on the oil-rich and fertile region — and to pre-empt a gradual demographic takeover of the city by the Kurds.

And again, I don't mean to nitpick. The Kurds were suppressed by aggressive Arabism. True enough. I don't need Rosen to get elegiac or emotional about this stuff. The facts will suffice. The trouble is that just a few paragraphs down you almost — if you didn't know any better — would get the feeling that the Kurds were a bit scarier, a bit more 'aggressive' than Saddam's Baathists:

During the war to oust Saddam Hussein that began in March 2003, United States Special Forces soldiers fought alongside Kurdish guerrilla fighters. Together they descended on Kirkuk on April 10, and the vengeful Kurds — with Mam Rostam as their commander — looted many of the city's government buildings and shops, and convoys of Kurdish vehicles could be seen carrying the booty back to the north. Thousands of Arabs fled in advance of the Kurdish and American-led coalition forces; those who remained were subject to a campaign of intimidation. Many were warned to abandon their homes, which the Kurdish militias were seizing for themselves or awarding to the families of peshmerga casualties.

Did you notice the language-use as compared with the way he chose to describe the Baathist (some would say) genocide against the Kurds? Let's recap: 'guerilla fighters', descended on Kirkuk', 'the vengeful Kurds', 'looted', 'carrying the booty back to the north', 'Thousands of Arabs fled', 'campaign of intimidation', 'warned to abandon their homes.'

Almost makes you nostalgic for that aggressive Arabism (which, anyway, was ancient history as compared with this Kurdish and American onslaught that happened just this past year).

Am I saying that Nir Rosen is anti-Kurd? Upon reflection…no. Not exactly. Let me cut to the chase: Rosen is trying to induce in you, the reader, the idea (and you are to think it was your own) that as bad a man as Saddam was, things are going to get much worse than ever in Iraq. And very soon. Why focus on the Kurds? Because they are the most closely allied with the U.S. And because people have a tendency to, well, like them, or at least to fear them less than the Shia and, certainly, less than the Sunnis.

For Rosen there are only scary factions in Iraq. Thus the walls of the Shiite mosque Rosen visits…

“…were lined with posters featuring a who's who of radical Shiism: Ayatollah Khomeini, Moktada al-Sadr and his revered martyred uncle, Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, the father of political Shiism in Iraq. One poster, showing Moktada al-Sadr beside a masked man wielding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, announced, ''The Mahdi army supports Muslims and protects the religious sites for Iraqis.'' Another declared that al-Sadr was on the battlefield against the Americans…

And the Sunni sheik Rosen chooses to tell us about explains to Rosen why he named his son 'Osama': “'I named him after Osama bin Laden,' the sheik said, smiling. 'Bin Laden is a good man.'''

Right. I get it. Iraq was far better off before the war, before the election.

But I would be remiss in not sharing the Israeli connection, especially since it will make a nice segue, as you'll soon see (if you would indulge me a little further):

…the rotund and eternally tired chief of the traffic police, settled into a chair, removing his Israeli automatic pistol, which he said was a special gift from a benefactor he refused to name. The chief of security for this neighborhood, a handsome man, freshly shaved and with a permanent smile, refused to give his name or have his picture taken. Asked about reports that Israeli intelligence agents were training the Kurds, he said Iraqi Jews have the right to return to Kurdistan. ''Better to have Israelis than Arabs!''

So it all comes together nicely. While refraining from telling anyone what to think — but does he have to, since the facts speak for themselves? — Rosen finds himself in the midst of what one can only reasonably conclude is a nightmare about to be visited upon Iraq by Kurds and Americans wielding Israeli weapons acquired God only knows how, from some sinister Mossad deepthroat (Our Man in Halabja?)

But who in the hell am I, a lowly blogger, to criticize the work of a journalist who has risked his life to report this story and others? Let me say that I do respect his willingness to put his neck on the line to report this stuff. And I am grateful for any firsthand descriptions of the people, the cultures, the dangers in Iraq, however uneven or misleadingly applied any given account of these things may be.

I don't, however, respect how this man and others like him have used his unique access to pass his smugly subjective opinions off as if they were courageously dispassionate journalism. It's selfish and dangerous.

But my final paragraph approaches. I'll let Nir Rosen, a native of Israel, have the last word. What follows is from a piece he published last year in Counterpunch and on a website called “Dissident Voice” (and this was why his name was so familiar to me):

The sanctions that cripple Iraq and starve its people do nothing to the dictator whom they did not choose and cannot remove. Israelis on the other hand chose the war criminal that leads them, voted for the bloody policies of their government, and half of them support the “transfer” (the Israeli euphemism for ethnic cleansing) of Palestinians from the occupied territories. So I find myself in the unique and painful position of calling for international sanctions against Israel and wondering if a punitive bombing of Tel Aviv, the city I love, until it complies with international law, might be a good (albeit quixotic) idea.
Posted by Jeremy Brown at February 23, 2005 11:10 PM
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