After 1991 "no fly" zones protected Iraq's Kurdish population from a repeat of Hussein's brutal Anfal campaign, a conventional and chemical weapons which killed an estimated 200,000 Kurds. An enclave the size of Switzerland became a de facto Kurdistan, ruled by Kurds who answered to no other ruler. With Hussein's downfall, the "Kurdish Question" has come once again to the forefront. Many Kurds throughout the region would like to see their de facto state become a legally recognized Kurdistan, while others fear the destabilizing influence which a Kurdish state could have in Turkey, Syria and Iran.
The situation is further complicated by squabbling between the Kurds. The Kurds have traditionally been a tribal people, pledging allegience to clan leaders and family members rather than to parliaments and presidents. Traditionally these clans have united to repel invaders, only to resume fighting amongst themselves after they had defeated their mutual enemy. This rivalry continues today, as northern Iraq is divided between Mustafa Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party in the west and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the east. Disputes over revenue-sharing and land led to years of sporadic clashes between these parties. In 1996, Hussein's intervention helped the Kurdistan Democratic Party push the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan back to the Iranian border, leading Talabani to call Barzani a traitor. Today both parties are represented in an assembly which was mediated by the United States, but neither trusts the other and the longstanding warfare between the two parties could re-erupt at any time.
Since the Kurds have little historical experience in statehood, they have been forced to look for political models elsewhere. Many have looked to Islamic Fundamentalism. Mustafa Barnazi's father-in-law, Sheikh Mohammed Khalid Barzani, leads the Kurdish Revolutionary Party of God, while the Islamic Movement of Iraqi Kurdistan has been linked to numerous attacks on Assyrian Christans and other religious and ethnic minorities in the region. The Army of Islam, another group which has become increasingly popular, has well-documented ties to foreign terrorist organizations. The inaccessible mountains of northern Iraq, like the Afghan mountains, have also provided shelter for numerous Al-Qaeda camps. While both Talabani and Barzani have publicly distanced themselves from these radical organizations, evidence suggests that they have frequently ignored these groups, or provided them with covert support.
Other Kurds have found their inspiration in Maoism. Despite the 1999 capture of Abdullah Ocalan by Turkish forces, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party) still has some support in northern Iraq, particularly among guerrillas forced to flee neighboring Turkey. The PKK is generally mistrusted by the leading Kurdish parties, and its history of atrocities against its fellow Kurds has left many in Iraq wary of their message. Still, the PKK was one of the leading forces behind a decades-long and bloody civil war in Turkey; even in its present weakened and demoralized state, it may be too soon to count them out. Unlike most Maoists, Ocalan's group was never militantly atheistic, and has in the past reached out to Islamic radicals. Surviving PKK leadership has also expressed interest in transforming their group into a political organization, much as Yasser Arafat transformed the PLO.
Turkey is watching events in northern Iraq with an uneasy eye. The Turks are still trying to deal with Kurdish nationalism in southeastern Turkey, where the majority of the population is Kurdish and faces widespread discrimination and oppression from the Turkish-ruled government. They have explicitly stated that any attempt by the Kurds to establish an independent Kurdish state will lead to intervention by the Turkish Army. It is unclear how the U.S. would react to a Turkish invasion of Iraq. Even during the "no fly zone" heyday we regularly allowed Turkish forces into Iraq when they were pursuing PKK guerrillas. Turkey has received considerable criticism internationally for its mistreatment of its Kurdish citizens, and has generally made only cosmetic reforms in response. Mindful of the Turkish threat, the leading parties have stated that they seek only a "free Iraq" where Kurds have "autonomy" … but it is likely that the "Kurdish state" issue will arise again… and may well lead to yet another war in Iraq.