TTU Professor's Latest Book Examines Kurdish Predicament

When Iraqi Kurds held democratic elections in the spring of 1992, hope blossomed that the Kurds could create a cohesive national destiny in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Seven turbulent years later, fratricidal clashes wilted the Kurds' unification hopes and left those who study them with a searing question: How did everything go so wrong?

Tennessee Technological University political science professor Michael Gunter published his first book about the Iraqi Kurds during the heady optimism of 1992. In his fourth and latest, "The Kurdish Predicament in Iraq: A Political Analysis," (St. Martin's Press, 1999) he reviews the Kurds' history, analyzes the rise and fall of Iraqi opposition, delves into the descent of civil war and concludes with recommendations for the future.

"Although long-term economic, political and social trends have played important roles, the personalities of two leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, have been absolutely critical to the development of the Iraqi Kurdish predicament," said Gunter.

Gunter sketches the two protagonists from details shared by prominent leaders and family members. After ferreting out personal details from the traditional Kurdish world that usually yields only public facts, he reveals two men whose personalities and problem-solving attitudes are completely different.

After the 1992 elections, Barzani -- leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and Talabani, as leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, intended to split power equally between themselves in a coalition. Barzani -- son of the most famous Kurdish leader of the 20th century, Mulla Mustafa Barzani -- is described as tribal, conservative, traditional and defensive. Talabani, a champion of Kurdish nationalism, comes across as a risk taker, a deal maker and a talker.

Gunter takes a comprehensive look at the intertwined histories of the two leaders, the background of the longstanding KDP-PUK rivalry and the relapse into conflict after the Gulf War. Numerous triggers, including land disputes and evolving, sometimes confusing, love-hate relationships with Turkish leaders and even Hussein, sparked conflict.

"Old divisions can be very difficult to overcome," said Gunter. "Fighting that began as minor disputes escalated into a renewal of what was essentially the old dispute for ultimate power between the KDP and the PUK."

The power vacuum created by the on-again, off-again civil war that virtually collapsed the Kurdish state in northern Iraq has resulted in attracting the attention of neighboring Turkey and Iran as well as the United States, Syria and Iraq. Turkish leaders even facilitated attempts at peace between the KDP and the PUK because Turkey wanted to decrease the influence and power of the Kurdistan Workers Party in northern Iraq, a Turkish Kurdish rebel group led by Abdullah Ocalan. The political vacuum caused by the Iraqi Kurdish civil war intensified Turkey's recent efforts to quash Ocalan and his influence.

"Ocalan had done more to re-establish a sense of Kurdish self-esteem and nationalism in Turkey than any other Kurdish leader in recent years," said Gunter. "But in the end, U.S. pressure on behalf of Turkey pressured others to reject Ocalan as a terrorist."

Gunter asserts that the answer to the question -- "How did everything go so wrong"Ñ lies in a combination of outside forces and the Kurds' "mindless pursuit of civil war" based on the power struggles and inherited disputes between the KDP and the PUK.

"With better foresight, there is still reason to hope the Kurdish national movement can harness the abilities of these leaders so their different strengths and skills will complement, rather than continue to degrade each other," said Gunter.

Gunter says the most important change -- one for the better -- is a new awareness of the outside world and the perception that the Kurds are part of and being influenced by it.

He concludes there are three basic problems that must be resolved before the Kurds find the unity they seek: loyalties to families and clans over loyalties to a Kurdish nation, proliferation of guns and armed militias and the disastrous economic situation.

"If the Kurdish people can gain valuable experience from their recent problems and move forward, it will only be the result of uncommon valor and intelligent statesmanship on their part and generous international aid and understanding," said Gunter.

Gunter, long recognized as one of the nation's preeminent authorities on the Kurdish problem, met with Ocalan over a two-day period in March 1998 in his then- sanctuary in Damascus, Syria. For his most recent analysis, he interviewed more than 50 Kurds and others involved with them.
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