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No place for <i>jihad</i> in Kurdistan

Ayub Nuri
6 April 2003

3 April 2003

A significant development in northern Iraq in the second week of the war on the Iraqi regime is that Kurdish peshmerga, together with American special forces, have expelled the fundamentalist Ansar al-Islam group from Kurdistan and ended its rule of terror in the area it controlled.

To understand the background to this event, it is helpful to refer to an interview published in the local, liberal newspaper in Hawlati recently with Kemal Raheem, a member of the ‘politburo’ of the Islamic Movement in Kurdistan (IMK).

IMK was the first Islamic group to form in Kurdistan. It quickly spawned a series of breakaway, extremist factions. One of its main bases was in the town of Tawella, in a range of mountains along the border with Iran. The American offensive against Ansar al-Islam did not touch this town because the IMK controlled it. The IMK had, however, taken the precaution of evacuating its forces from Tawella shortly before the American push, both to protect itself and to forestall any suspicion that it supported the Ansar fighters.

In the interview, Raheem mentioned that he had attended a meeting with the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Ahmad Chalabi, at which an American spokesman was also present. Chalabi declared in front of both men that neither the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) nor the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had ‘any problem at all’ with the IMK, and that the latter was a legitimate part of the Iraqi opposition.

Raheem went on to report that he had explained to the American that the IMK has consistently striven to avoid being associated with Ansar al-Islam. It appears that in September 2002, the IMK went so far as to agree to pull its fighters back from Tawella and let the PUK have access to it; this, if true, would suggest that the group is closer to the Kurdish government than to other Islamists in the region. And now, Tawella has been brought under the control of the PUK.

The broader context of these internecine discussions is that the IMK was always the most moderate among the Islamic groups that came to operate in the region from 2001 onwards. Many Islamic fundamentalists took advantage of the fact that the IMK was longer-established, and therefore had a reputation amongst the people of the region, joining it as a result. The IMK leadership was well aware of the infiltration of these radicals into its ranks, but was unable to do anything about them as their numbers gradually grew to a majority.

What Kemal Raheem also had to say – and here he sent a direct message to all those people who have travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan from a long way away, in order to pursue a jihad – was that their infiltration into Kurdistan had a hidden agenda, and that they were not ‘real’ fighters for jihad; if they were, they would stay in their own countries where jihad needed their involvement.

There was plenty, indeed much more, for a Palestinian Arab to do in his own country. Nobody should enter Kurdistan under the pretext of jihad and jeopardise the freedoms the Kurds had won since 1991 in the northern part of Iraq. Kurds – of all religions and none, secularists and Islamists – have suffered enough from the Iraqi regime, right up to the present day, to allow their territory to be misused in the interests of other people’s causes.

Yes to security, no to fundamentalism

Kemal Raheem was right to say that no one should come to Kurdistan to pursue their own jihad, which has also involved the ruthless killing of Kurds. But something in his words left me uncomfortable. He doesn’t seem to be too worried about what the Islamists may do in other countries, including their own.

One of the Ansar fighters captured a few days ago in the war with the PUK was from Palestine. Had he stayed in his country to conduct his own jihad, he would go about it in the same ruthless way that he and his group acted here. Day in and day out, we have seen how the Palestinians blow themselves up amid crowds and public places in Israel, killing a lot of civilians.

That is no way for any Muslim to behave. To be a pure Muslim, you should wish for others whatever good you wish for yourself. Surely we should not encourage the radicals to pursue what they call jihad in any country whatsoever. The Muslim people of Kurdistan have never practised fundamentalism, and those Islamic groups who work here must guard themselves against outsiders, and draw the line at any more jihad action in this part of the world.

There is a Kurdish saying: “when force enters, the bond exits”. The moment the Americans got involved in an offensive against the terrorism in Iraq, and the Ansar group in particular, other Islamic groups began to drop out of sight. They began to deny any links to fundamentalism. Iran also seems to have turned its back on the Islamic ‘friends’ of Kurdistan. When a number of Komali Islami’s wounded fighters wanted to cross the border into Iran for treatment, the Iranians did not let them in; around six of them died while waiting to be admitted.

The Kurdish peshmerga forces did a good job against the Ansar al-Islam fighters, especially the forces of the PUK who have taken up their position in towns and villages they clearly liberated from the Ansars. But they do not boast; rather, if you ask, they will tell you how much they appreciate the heavy fighting the Americans waged against the Ansars.

It is true. But what the Americans did was to conduct air raids and missile attacks against Ansar barracks and bases. At the same time, American special forces are full of praise for the Kurdish peshmerga for running up the mountains in pursuit of the Ansars so effectively. The two groups make a good team, proving able to offer each other a zone of security when it was most needed.

Duty and sadness

There are many journalists in Kurdistan working for TV Channels and newspapers around the world – BBC World, ABC News, al-Jazeera, the New York Times, Observer, Guardian, Washington Post – and covering the progress of war in the north of Iraq.

Kurdish people are well-known for their hospitality. Here, Kurdistan’s regional government, the political parties and ordinary people have united in welcoming the journalists and trying to help them work effectively and live comfortably. Kurds, like people around the world, want to hear the truth themselves and see their own news conveyed truthfully to others.

Al-Jazeera’s Arabic TV channel has gained itself a poor reputation in the eyes of the Kurdish people as a result of the war. The station has been always on the official Iraqi side, with the imbalance in reporting events that this entails. It has been a strong and persuasive advocate, but until it was mysteriously suspended from working in Baghdad, it has also confined itself to an exaggerated and emotional presentation of Iraqi suffering and Iraqi victories that conceals as much as it reveals about the overall pattern of the war.

Every day I find myself at a checkpoint having to deny that I am working with an al-Jazeera team; not because journalists are monitored in Kurdistan, but because Kurdish people are eager to correct al-Jazeera’s reports and exhort their employees to work more independently!

7 April 2003

As responsible hosts, we are sorry for any adverse event that happens to a foreigner in our country. Since the war started, three journalists have died in Kurdistan and the people are really appalled. This was followed by the terrible incident of ‘friendly fire’ between Mosul and Kirkuk yesterday, when an interpreter working for the BBC was killed, along with seventeen Kurdish peshmerga and US special forces.

The first journalist killed was the Australian cameraman, Paul Moran, the victim of a car bomb on 22 March when he was filming a few metres away from me. The second was Gaby Rado, an experienced and respected reporter working for ITN News, found dead on 30 March outside his hotel in Sulaimaniya. The third was a BBC cameraman who stepped out of his car into a minefield in the town of Kifri on 2 April, where Iraqi troops had retreated by several kilometres. His name was Kaveh Golestan; he was a famous photographer in Iran, and much loved by his colleagues. His friends and the local translator were injured, but not seriously.

All we Kurds can do to help after such tragedies is to clear the area of any mines, including from the evacuated barracks of the Iraqi troops. It is a well-known peculiarity of this regime that it has always laid mines to revenge itself on its enemies. Kurdish peshmerga have already removed 590 anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines from just one of the areas abandoned by the Iraqi troops – mines of many different types.

The other trick of departing Iraqi troops is to start shelling and bombing the villages and places which they pull back from, killing civilians and destroying houses. On the night of 1-2 April, the Iraqi army began shelling the village of Qurshaghlu in Zurgazaw region. This is only three kilometres away from the Iraqi frontline.

The shells destroyed twenty out of the twenty-five houses in that village, forcing all its inhabitants to evacuate immediately. Meanwhile, in the Khabat region, there is a village called Lajan which was similarly subjected to Iraqi shelling. 144 families were forced to flee into the northern part of Kurdistan, where they have settled.

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