IT WAS cruelly symbolic that Saddam Hussein invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, the very night the oil ministers of OPEC were gathered to celebrate its twentieth anniversary in the ornate Hapsburg Palace in Vienna.
The catalyst for the Iran–Iraq war, a choreography of mass slaughter that was to convulse the politics of the Gulf forever, were rooted in the unique political pathologies of Baathist Iraq and Khomeini’s Islamic revolution. Once again, as in Palestine and Lebanon, the ghosts of the dismembered Ottoman Empire proved a time bomb for the destruction of an Arab state in our time. While Saddam posed as the champion of Arab nationalism against a resurgent imperial Persia camouflaged in the trappings of a revolutionary Shia theocracy, the immediate cassus belli was the Shatt al–Arab, the delta and waterway created by the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates, the boundary between two powerful but tormented provinces of black gold in the Middle East.
The politics of oil had compelled Winston Churchill to bulldoze ethnic and sectarian fault–lines to create the Hashemite kingdom of Iraq from the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish vassals of the Ottoman sultans. The Treaty of Sevres promised the Kurds their own homeland after the abdication of the last sultan but British colonial interests needed a pliant client state in Baghdad to control the oilfields of Kirkuk, whose oil seepages from ancient times earned it the name Baba Ghargour (“father of fire” in Persian).
A war over the Shatt al-Arab was, in essence, a war to control the production and transport of oil. Iran’s Abadan oil refinery and Iraq’s entire oil infrastructure – the port of Basra, pumping stations and loading terminals, pipelines and storage depots were all clustered on the Shatt al-Arab. While Saddam had hedged his geopolitical risk on the Shatt al-Arab with land pipelines to Syria and Turkey, while Khomeini’s Iran inherited the Shah’s offshore terminal at Kharg Island for supertankers, the fact remained the Shatt al – Arab was critical to the DNA of the oil and gas business of both Baghdad and Tehran. The struggle to control it would cost the lives of a million Iraqi and Persian young men in the bloodiest trench warfare since the battle of the Somme. It was yet another Middle East war where blood was the currency of power and control of crude oil.
The 30 million Kurds, serial losers from the cynical imperial deal making that followed the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the phony peace of Versailles, are now the largest ethnic group in the Middle East without a state of their own. Sandwiched between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the Kurds were victims of British imperial rule, the brutal megalomania of the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad, the nationalist dictatorships in Ataturk’s Ankara, Pahlavi/Khomeini’s Iran and Alawite Syria. An old Kurdish adage goes that the only friends of the Kurds are the mountains of their hauntingly beautiful homeland. Not true. In Iraqi Kurdistan, even the mountains betrayed the Kurds. Because the mountains held one of history’s great geological lotteries. Oilfields bigger than anything that ever gushed out of Alaska, the North Sea or West Texas, second only to the Saudi kingdom’s elephantine Ghawar field.
The Royal air Force bombed Kurdish villages when their tribes revolted against the British Empire’s Hashemite client King Faisal. Every Iraqi dictator – Kassem, Aref, Ahmed Hassan Bakr and Saddam Hussein – fought wars to assert the sovereignty of an Arab state over a people whose roots were Persian, who celebrated Nawrooz as their new year, whose men wore the baggy shalwars of Kabul or Peshawar, not the thobes of the Nejd and Diyala. The Shah of Iran and the Nixon–Kissinger White House had once cynically manipulated the Kurds, with SAVAK and CIA agents running arms and hard currency to the leaders of the Kurdish peshmerga, the militia whose very name means “those who seek death”.
Death, like oil, was all too spectacular in Iraqi Kurdistan. When the Iran and the United States abandoned the Kurds, the Baathists launched an offensive against the peshmerga six hours after Saddam and Reza Pahlavi signed the diplomatic communiqué in Algeria in 1975. When Saddam and his Tikriti thugs seized power in the summer of 1979 from President Bakr, the nightmare of the Kurds became genocidal. Mass executions, torture, poison gas attacks, the shame of Halabja and Chemical Ali during the Anfal campaign in 1988, a chronicle of terror against the Kurdish people amid the silence of the Islamic world. Washington and London saw the dead children and women of Halabja, gassed to death like the victims of Auschwitz and Treblinka, but Iraq’s oil and hatred for the Ayatollah’s Iran more than compensated for 200,000 murdered Kurdish human beings. So the West and the Arab world embraced Iraq, tilted to Baghdad and sealed their conscience from the anguish of the Kurds.
In 1991, the Kurds revolted once again in the aftermath of Iraq’s epic defeat in Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait. Saddam used the same Republican Guard helicopter gunships against the Kurds that the USSR had used against the mujaheedin in pre Stinger missile Afghanistan. Two million people fled across the icy mountain passes into Turkey, a humanitarian disaster televised on CNN that finally forced the West to act, to create a de facto sovereign state in Iraqi Kurdistan. 1991 witnessed the worst snowfall in a century and winter proved as decisive in international politics in northern Iraq as it had done when Napoleon’s Grand Armee encircled Moscow in 1812 or when Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Soviet Russia in 1941.
The game of nations is lethal in post–Saddam Iraq. The Kurdistan regional government of Massoud Barzani sits on one of the Arab world’s most priceless oilfields. Norwegian, Canadian, British and Chinese wildcatters are drilling for oil in the Kurd provinces of Irbil, Dahuk and Sulaimaniyah, where no Iraqi flags or soldiers are permitted and where children learn English, not Arabic, as a second language. Kirkuk could well become the new Kashmir, Jerusalem or Alsace-Lorraine of international politics, as the Turkish armed forces amass combat troops on the border to punish the PKK. Saddam tried to Arabise Kirkuk, expelled its Kurds, Assyrian and Turkomans. But Iraqi Kurdistan has 55 billion barrels of proven reserves, five times more than Mexico. The Petroleum Law in Baghdad can never be ratified if the Iraqi parliament, one fourth Kurdish, rejects it.
The world’s oil colossi are reluctant to drill in Kurdistan as the political risk is simply too great. Barzani desperately needs to appease the Turkish Army generals as Kurd oil can only be exported via pipeline to Ceyhan. Meanwhile, natural gas flares and crude oil blaze from the hills. The Kurds have no friends but the mountains. But foreign empires covet Kurdistan’s mountains for their treasure of black gold.Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst