State of the Union January/February 2008

After Iraq

A report from the new Middle East—and a glimpse of its possible future
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Not long ago, in a decrepit prison in Iraqi Kurdistan, a senior interrogator with the Kurdish intelligence service decided, for my entertainment and edification, to introduce me to an al-Qaeda terrorist named Omar. “This one is crazy,” the interrogator said. “Don’t get close, or he’ll bite you.”

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Omar was a Sunni Arab from a village outside Mosul; he was a short and weedy man, roughly 30 years old, who radiated a pure animal anger. He was also a relentless jabberer; he did not shut up from the moment we were introduced. I met him in an unventilated interrogation room that smelled of bleach and paint. He was handcuffed, and he cursed steadily, making appalling accusations about the sexual practices of the interrogator’s mother. He cursed the Kurds, in general, as pig-eaters, blasphemers, and American lackeys. As Omar ranted, the interrogator smiled. “I told you the Arabs don’t like the Kurds,” he said. I’ve known the interrogator for a while, and this is his perpetual theme: close proximity to Arabs has sabotaged Kurdish happiness.

Omar, the Kurds claim, was once an inconsequential deputy to the now-deceased terrorist chieftain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Omar disputed this characterization. By his own telling, he accomplished prodigies of terror against the pro-American Kurdish forces in the northern provinces of Iraq. “You are worse than the Americans,” he told his Kurdish interrogator. “You are the enemy of the Muslim nation. You are enemies of God.” The interrogator—I will not name him here, for reasons that will become apparent in a moment—sat sturdily opposite Omar, absorbing his invective for several minutes, absentmindedly paging through a copy of the Koran.

During a break in the tirade, the interrogator asked Omar, for my benefit, to rehearse his biography. Omar’s life was undistinguished. His father was a one-donkey farmer; Omar was educated in Saddam’s school system, which is to say he was hardly educated; he joined the army, and then Ansar al-Islam, the al-Qaeda–affiliated terrorist group that operates along the Iranian frontier. And then, on the blackest of days, as he described it, he fell prisoner to the Kurds.

The interrogator asked me if I had any questions for Omar. Yes, I said: Have you been tortured in this prison?

“No,” he said.

“What would you do if you were to be released from prison right now?”

“I would get a knife and cut your head off,” he said.

At this, the interrogator smacked Omar across the face with the Koran.

Omar yelped in shock. The interrogator said: “Don’t talk that way to a guest!”

Now, Omar rounded the bend. A bolus of spit flew from his mouth as he screamed. The interrogator taunted Omar further. “This book of yours,” he said, waving the Koran. “‘Cut off their heads! Cut off their heads!’ That’s the answer for everything!” Omar cursed the interrogator’s mother once again; the interrogator trumped him by cursing the Prophet Muhammad’s mother.

The meeting was then adjourned.

In the hallway, I asked the interrogator, “Aren’t you Muslim?”

“Of course,” he said.

“But you’re not a big believer in the Koran?”

“The Koran’s OK,” he said. “I don’t have any criticism of Muhammad’s mother. I just say that to get him mad.”

He went on, “The Koran wasn’t written by God, you know. It was written by Arabs. The Arabs were imperialists, and they forced it on us.” This is a common belief among negligibly religious Kurds, of whom there are many millions.

“That’s your problem, then,” I said. “Arabs.”

“Of course,” he replied. “The Arabs are responsible for all our misfortunes.”

“What about the Turks?” I asked. It is the Turks, after all, who are incessantly threatening to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, which they decline to call “Iraqi Kurdistan,” in more or less the same obstreperous manner that they refuse to call the Armenian genocide a genocide.

“The Turks, too,” he said. “Everyone who denies us our right to be free is responsible for our misfortunes.”

We stepped out into the sun. “The Kurds never had friends. Now we have the most important friend, America. We’re closer to freeing ourselves from the Arabs than ever,” he said.

To the Kurds, the Arabs are bearers of great misfortune. The decades-long oppression of Iraq’s Kurds culminated during the rule of Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni Arab–dominated army committed genocide against them in the late 1980s. Yet their unfaltering faith that they will one day be free may soon be rewarded: the Kurds are finally edging close to independence. Much blood may be spilled as Kurdistan unhitches itself from Iraq—Turkey is famously sour on the idea of Kurdish independence, fearing a riptide of nationalist feeling among its own unhappy Kurds—but independence for Iraq’s Kurds seems, if not immediate, then in due course inevitable.

In many ways, the Kurds are functionally independent already. The Kurdish regional government has its own army, collects its own taxes, and negotiates its own oil deals. For the moment, Kurdish officials say they would be satisfied with membership in a loose-jointed federation with the Shiite and Sunni Arabs to their south. But in Erbil and Sulaymani, the two main cities of the Kurdish region, the Iraqi flag is banned from flying; Arabic is scarcely heard on the streets (and is never spoken by young people, who are happily ignorant of it), and Baghdad is referred to as a foreign capital. In October, when I was last in the region, I called the office of a high official of the peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrilla army, but was told that he had “gone to Iraq” for the week.

The Bush administration gave many reasons for the invasion of Iraq, but the satisfaction of Kurdish national desire was not one of them. Quite the opposite: the goal was, and remains, a unified, democratic Iraq. In fact, key officials of the administration have a history of indifference to, and ignorance of, the subject of Kurdish nationalism. At a conference in 2004, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stated, “What has been impressive to me so far is that Iraqis—whether Kurds or Shia or Sunni or the many other ethnic groups in Iraq—have demonstrated that they really want to live as one in a unified Iraq.” As Peter Galbraith, a former American diplomat and an advocate for Kurdish independence, has observed, Rice’s statement was disconnected from observable reality—shortly before she spoke, 80 percent of all Iraqi Kurdish adults had signed a petition calling for a vote on independence.

Nor were neoconservative ideologues—who had the most-elaborate visions of a liberal, democratic Iraq—interested in the Kurdish cause, or even particularly knowledgeable about its history. Just before the “Mission Accomplished” phase of the war, I spoke about Kurd­istan to an audience that included Norman Podhoretz, the vicariously martial neoconservative who is now a Middle East adviser to Rudolph Giuliani. After the event, Podhoretz seemed authentically bewildered. “What’s a Kurd, anyway?” he asked me.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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