The Kurdish Serbia.

Arab historians like Ibn Khaldun noted the tension between the simple, tough, and often war-like people of the mountains and deserts, on the one hand, and the refined, soft, and often feckless people of the towns and plains, on the other hand.[1] It’s not bad as an organizing principle, but in fact the silk slipper was often on the other foot. The Kurds offer a good example of this truth. Their hopes for a nation of their own were frustrated by the nationalism of other peoples. After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the Sunni Muslim, non-Arab Kurds found themselves divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. All of these governments repressed the Kurds. Iraq draws most of the attention for this, but all the governments did it.

Saddam Hussein found the Iraqi Kurds disloyal during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1989), so he used poison gas to slaughter some and then had many of the male survivors shot. The Americans encouraged and then betrayed a Kurdish revolt at the time of the First Iraq War (1990-1991). To show remorse, the Americans then fostered a semi-autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq through a no-fly zone and humanitarian aid. This potential nation cooked along better than the rest of Iraq for a dozen years.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 greatly stimulated Kurdish separatism. Elections in 2005 made the Kurds the second largest group in Iraq’s parliament. More adept at bargaining than their Arab compatriots, the Kurds wrestled-away ever greater degrees of autonomy from Baghdad. The American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 allowed the Shi’ite government to run amok at the expense of the Sunni Arabs. Again, the Kurds were better able to defend themselves. They built an oil pipeline to Turkey to gain a greater degree of economic freedom from the central government. The crISIS of 2014 then provided the Kurds with yet another opportunity to loosen the bonds between themselves and the failing Iraq state. Kurdish troops took advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi army in the north to expand their territory to include the city of Kirkuk. Similarly, the Kurds of Syria have looked to their fellow Kurds in Iraq and Turkey for aid against ISIS. Regardless of how the crISIS ends, it will be hard for Baghdad to corral the Kurds. The shattering of Syria and Iraq could lead to an enlarged Kurdistan on its way to statehood.

This will have long-term consequences. For one thing, it will be harder to hold Iraq together if it is merely a federation of mutually-hostile Shi’ite Arabs and Sunni Arabs. Kurdistan’s wresting-away of much of Iraq’s oil will leave Baghdad with fewer resources with which to buy-off opponents. For another thing, the majority of Kurds live inside Turkey. The Turks have fought a long struggle to repress separatism among the Kurds. For the moment, they seem willing to have the Iraqi Kurds serve as a bulwark against ISIS. However, an independent Kurdistan will again come to be a magnet for Turkish Kurds. This will threaten Turkish territorial integrity. The Turks might be well-advised to concede this demand ahead of time. They’re not likely to do so. The artist formerly known as Yugoslavia grew out of the Serbian desire to gather all the South Slavs in one state. The Austro-Hungarian Empire might have been well advised to concede this demand ahead of time.   Vienna preferred war.

“The other Iraq,” The Week, 25 July 2014, p. 9.

[1] European Orientalist art of the 19th Century adopted the same perspective as a way of introducing some adventure and soft-core pornography into the lives of highly inhibited European bourgeois gentlemen. See:


Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh (30 October 1966-7 June 2006) was born in Zarqa, Jordan.  He sprang from a Bedouin family which had settled down in Jordan’s one factory town.  Something went wrong early in life.  He drank a lot and had a great deal of “contact” with the police.  At some point, he got religion and shaped up his life.  A passport photo shows him clean-shaven, with a white shirt and tie—and a sad, mean look.  At some point, he took the alias “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” which means “the father of Musab” and “From Zarka.”

In 1989 he followed the well-worn Young Islamist pathway to Afghanistan.  Here he met Osama bin Laden, may have received basic military training in one of the numerous camps, and wrote some stuff for an Islamist newsletter.  By 1992 he was back in Jordan conspiring to overthrow the monarchy, for which he did five years in prison (1994-1999).  In prison he came under the influence of the Jordanian Islamist writer Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.  No sooner did he get out than he tried to blow up a tourist hotel in Amman (1999).  This didn’t work out any better than his earlier plot.  From 1999 to 2002 he moved to Afghanistan (where OBL fronted him $200,000 to start a Jordanian franchise of Al Qaeda and the Americans almost killed him in a bombing), then to Iraq by way of Iran.  He may have been recovering from an injury in Baghdad for a while.  In summer 2002 he moved into northern Iraq, where he joined an Islamist group that was waging jihad by cutting pictures of women off ads.

More serious work tugged at him.  He helped plot the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan (October 2002); organized the bombing of the UN’s HQ in Baghdad (August 2003); organized attacks on Shi’ite shrines in Karbala and Baghdad (March 2004); planned a huge abortive chemical weapons attack on the offices of the prime minister and the intelligence service of Jordan and on the American embassy (April 2004); beheaded a captured American civilian (May 2004), then posted the film on the internet; sent terrorists on an abortive attack on a NATO meeting in Turkey (June 2004); beheaded another captured American civilian (September 2004), then posted the film on the internet; organized the bombing of three hotels in Amman (November 2005); and organized the attack on the Al Askari mosque in Samarra (February 2006).  These attacks are only the most spectacular of his operations.

Having been organizing in Iraq from before the Second Gulf War, he had the weapons and explosive, the local contacts, the hideouts, and the local knowledge for insurgent war.  What he needed were fighters.  These began to flow to him in the form of the many Islamist foreign fighters who entered the country from 2003 on.  Without local contacts, Zarqawi became their controller.  He probably organized many of the hundreds of suicide bombings that battered Iraq from 2003 to 2006.

Zarqawi had been on American and Jordanian “Most Wanted” lists since early 2002.  In January 2003, the CIA had proposed killing Zarqawi at a camp they had identified in Kurdistan.  The proposal was rejected, possibly out of fear that an attack would release toxic clouds from chemicals stored in the camp.  Once the US invaded Iraq, Special Forces groups hunted Zarqawi with mounting intensity.  Several of these raids came close to capturing him, but always fell short.  (One time they found eggs cooking, but not yet burning, on the stove of his empty hide-out.)  However, the raids did capture some of his associates.  One of these was interrogated—humanely—by an Air Force interrogator who uses the pseudonym “Matthew Alexander.”  Zarqawi had a great many hiding places, but “Alexander” learned the location of one in a village near Baqubah.  It took six weeks of watching before he came in sight.  On the night of 7 June 2006, two precision guided bombs destroyed the house, Zarqawi, and his wife and child–Musab.