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Iraq’s ancient splits widen: why the Kurds voted to secede

The referendum on 25 September was met with pockets of violence.

In 1918, British Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Noel ascended the mountain region of what is today northern Iraq. Through a thicket of fine junipers he followed a Kurdish elder named Tappu Agha. When the travellers reached the winter home of Tappu, they sat for a meal and the elder, seated among his tribe, unspooled a tale about his people.

Many years before, Tappu’s ancestor emigrated with several families to settle the land where Tappu now made his winter quarters, an area then occupied by a nomadic group of Turks. Invitations to grand repasts were traded between the two tribes, and on the day that the Kurds had planned to host the Turks in kind, they sent a young man to tell the Turks that the meal was ready.

But they refused to join them, saying, “How can we be expected to accept the hospitality of a lot of ignorant Kurdish shepherds?”

Hearing this, the young Kurdish messenger pulled out his bludgeon and badly beat 30 Turks. The chief of the Turks proposed a counter attack, but his tribe refused. As one man said, “How can we take on people of whom a mere boy can fight with 30 of our men? It is better for us to fly this country than to have to live with such neighbours.”

This they did, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Noel, leaving the land to its present occupants – the Kurds. A didactic parable to be sure, and one that favours the Kurds, but it is a story that highlights the long-preserved narrative of pride, retribution and feelings of dismissal that the Kurdish people (five to six million in Iraq alone) still hold, however grudgingly. It also speaks to the sectarian provocations ascribed to the region.

These feelings were no more pronounced than on 25 September this year, when the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq held an independence referendum to announce its desire to create a new nation state separate from Iraq. Official results suggest more than 92 per cent of voters chose to secede from Iraq.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is seeking independence because of marginalisation and economic disagreements that range from oil revenues to slashed salaries. Countries such as Iran, Turkey and the United States cautioned the KRG against such a vote, fearing it would hamper the ongoing fight against Islamic State.

“Analysis might say it [the vote] is symbolic or might offer the Kurds a strong hand in negotiations with Iraq,” said Ayub Nuri, editor of Rudaw English, a news website, and the author of Being Kurdish in a Hostile World, “but I believe and hope that it is for independence and that soon after, there will be a declaration.” For now, the KRG will continue talks with the central government in Baghdad, supporting the analysis that the referendum was largely symbolic.

The two separate governments – the KRG, headed by the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in the capital Erbil, and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – have peacefully co-ordinated military efforts since Islamic State erupted out of the Syrian desert to claim some of Iraq’s largest cities. But the relationship between both parties has since grown tense.

“The referendum is more of an agitprop statement by the Kurdish parties. And the groups that oppose it are mostly just not going to show up for it,” Nathaniel Rabkin, the managing editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political risk newsletter, said ahead of the referendum. “The one place where you might have real trouble are these few areas where there’s really … mixed towns and villages, especially Tuz Khurmatu in Saladin Province.”

The referendum was indeed met with pockets of violence. Voters in Mandali, about 150 kilometres east of Baghdad in the Kurdish region, were forced at gunpoint to vote against seceding from Iraq.

Here in Tuz Khurmatu, the crossroads between Baghdad, Kirkuk, and the disputed areas within Diyala province claimed by Kurdish forces but not officially part of the semi-autonomous region, clashes between security forces left at least one Kurdish Peshmerga fighter dead and two injured.

“Those small incidents are caused by some minor [Iraqi] PMU militiamen who shot Peshmerga forces trying to vote in the referendum,” a Kurdish Asayish security force spokesperson, Captain Farhad Hama Ali, said. The Peshmerga “mistakenly entered an area that is monitored by PMU”, he said, using the acronym for predominantly Shiite paramilitary forces, or Popular Mobilisation Units. A similar clash in the area between the same two security forces in 2014 left six Kurds and some 30 PMU fighters dead.

The city of Kirkuk, about an hour’s drive north, whose population includes Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, is arguably the most hotly contested city within the disputed areas. Its oil reserves are crucial to the KRG economy – and also highly prized by Baghdad. Voting was held here despite the protests of the international community.

Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said that giving Kirkuk its own special status between the two governments might ease tension. “Of course, the issue of Kurdish independence probably isn’t financially viable without Kirkuk, so you have a chicken and egg problem.”

These areas and the disputes within them will continue to be at the heart of power struggles between the KRG and Baghdad for years to come. 

Temporary lines of security and domination, whether drawn by a bludgeon more than a century ago or with an assault rifle today, have become permanent borders.

Regardless of sweeping victory for Kurdish independence in the vote, little matters more than where lines had settled in the months, weeks and days before the referendum. 

This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Halo Aziz contributed reporting from Tuz Khurmatu, and Dana Zangana from Tawuq, near Kirkuk

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia