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Section: Politics
7 July 2005

Christopher Hitchens: Flickering Firebrand

4. Befriending the Kurds

Right-click here and choose 'Save target as ...' to download the entire article as a word document. This article was published in issue 24 (2005) of Arena journal.

Then there is the matter of the 'protected' populations of Iraq. Hitchens informs us that 'for twelve years, a "no fly" zone has protected the Kurdish and Shia populations from extermination.'[1] He repeated this claim while condemning the insufferably demotic Michael Moore, telling us, in his own italics: 'Iraqi forces fired, every day, for 10 years, on the aircraft that patrolled the no-fly zones and staved off further genocide in the north and south of the country.'[2] Well, I'm afraid the level of protection given to the Kurds in the north of Iraq extended only as far as political convenience allowed. The ugly realpolitik in this case was the desire to keep Turkey (with its long and paranoid history of suppressing Kurdish independence[3]) 'on side'. As Nick Cohen noted years ago: 'The no-fly zone is not policed to protect Kurds but RAF and USAF flights deeper into Iraq. Nor does it provide a safe haven. The Turks are allowed to enter the sanctuary and exterminate Kurdish guerrillas.'[4] And not just guerillas, unfortunately. As reported by John Pilger:
Since 1992, the zones have provided cover for Turkey's repeated invasions of Iraq. In 1995 and 1997, as many as 50,000 Turkish troops, backed by tanks, fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships, occupied swathes of the Kurds' 'safe haven', allegedly attacking PKK bases. In December 2000 they were back, terrorizing Kurdish villages and murdering civilians. The US and Britain said nothing; the Security Council said nothing. Moreover, the British and Americans colluded in the invasions, suspending their flights to allow the Turks to get on with the killing...
       In March 2001, RAF pilots patrolling the northern no fly zone publicly protested for the first time about their role in the bombing of Iraq. Far from performing the 'vital humanitarian task' described by Tony Blair, they complained that they were frequently ordered to return to their Turkish base to allow the Turkish air force to bomb the Kurds in Iraq ...[5]
Yes, you read that right. The fighter jets that were supposed to protect the Kurds were taking off from the same airbases as the fighter jets that were pulverizing their villages. So let's not kid ourselves about 'staving off genocide.' Hitchens' fabled 'safe havens' did not protect the Kurds - they merely had the effect of transferring bombing privileges from one mortal enemy to another. For someone who has appeared on TV wearing the badge of the peshmerga on his lapel[6] and the cause of Kurdistan on his sleeve, it seems extraordinary that Hitchens would now find himself supporting the same coalition that allowed this slaughter to take place. Can it be that he simply doesn't know? I think not. The only other alternative - that he knows full well but chooses to pretend otherwise for fear of imperiling his own argument - is less than flattering. Silence on this matter, needless to say, is far more sinister than the silence of the anti-war left on the depredations of Saddam Hussein.

Besides, the sequence of events which led to the creation of the no-fly zones in the first place reveals a great deal about the motives of the 'protectors' who had taken the Kurdish and Shiite populations under their Exocet-laden wing. Following Saddam's Gulf War defeat in Kuwait, rebellions broke out in the north and south of Iraq, and when the rebels asked for US assistance, they were denied even the use of captured Iraqi artillery. The US, quite simply, wanted the revolts to fail. Facing the prospect of annihilation by a dictator who had not been squeamish about gassing whole villages in 1988, two million Kurds poured over the Iraqi border into Iran and Turkey. It was only when this mass exodus threatened 'stability' in the region (always a key concern, and the fulcrum around which a great deal of hypocrisy turns) that the US acted to create the no-fly zones. In an article in Harper's in January 1991, Hitchens himself described the horror of Henry Kissinger's use of the restive Kurds as a bulwark against Saddam Hussein and Hassan Al-Bakr's menacing manoeuvres against the Shah of Iran in 1975.[7] The Kurds were given arms and encouraged to revolt, but again, the US did not want the rebellion to succeed, merely to grind the Ba'athist regime down to a more obliging position. Once the Iraqi threat had receded, the US cut off all support to the Kurds, the Shah ruthlessly closed the border, and the resulting slaughter was foreordained.[8] (The British, incidentally, performed the same manoeuvre in 1932 with the Assyrians in the north of Iraq in an effort to bring the nationalist King Ghazi into line - this rebellion suffered a similar fate.) Incredibly, with this history in full view, Hitchens today sees no hypocrisy in supporting a country that has repeatedly sold the Kurds down the river simply to further their own interests. One wonders how he has rationalized this. That it couldn't happen a third time?

Hitchens' 'safe haven' argument forms part of a response to Michael Moore's assertion that Iraq had never attacked or even threatened America - the point is clearly made in the context of the argument that there was no legitimate casus belli for a US invasion of Iraq. But Hitchens has to whisk it out of this context and tack up a patchwork of points-on-the-side to attempt to discredit it. Among these: 'Saddam boasted publicly of his financial sponsorship of suicide bombers in Israel. (Quite a few Americans of all denominations walk the streets of Jerusalem)'.[9] That's reaching, to say the least. Compensating the families of suicide bombers, who, in losing their husband/father, had lost their source of income is simply not the same as paying assassins. As for Hitchens' parenthetical point, Iraq's endorsement of a Palestinian attack on an Israeli target at which an American might (or might not) get killed is a thin thread of causality with which to argue a war provocation.[10] Ditto for the presence in Iraq of terrorists such as Abu Nidal, or even the murderer of Leon Klinghoffer - the United States, after all, is harbouring Emmanuel Constant, executioner of thousands, and has repeatedly refused Haiti's extradition requests.[11] Likewise Hector Gramajo, who slaughtered thousands of native Indians in Guatemala, was a Harvard graduate. But again, Hitchens sees no double-standard in endorsing a terrorist-harbouring US invading Iraq because Iraq is harbouring terrorists. (As though that were the reason.) Nor can he plead ignorance. When asked about the US-run School of the Americas that trained thugs of this ilk, he feebly conceded that it was 'regrettably true ... that there was a manual on terror'.[12] Hitchens may bring up the undeniable war crimes of the Ba'athist regime, but is he not at all concerned that this regime was toppled by a country that has not only refused to endorse the International Criminal Court for the openly expressed reason that its soldiers may one day appear before it, but has arm-twisted many small countries into going along with its refusal to be held accountable for war crimes?[13] Is there nothing to write about here?

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1 Hitchens, Regime Change, p. 9
2 Hitchens, 'Unfairenheit 9/11'
3 Turkey abrogated the original post-Ottoman Kurdish state with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
4 Cohen, Nick. 'Our Enormous Lie', The Observer, 12 August, 2001.
5 Pilger, John. The New Rulers of the World. Verso, London, 2003. p. 80. Cohen and Pilger have both cited the findings of Bristol University lecturer Eric Herring on the matter.
6 John Stewart's Daily Show, 1 December 2004.
7 Hitchens, 'Realpolitik in the Gulf: A Game Gone Tilt', Harper's, January 1991, FSA, p. 77
8 See Tariq Ali, Bush in Babylon. p. 119.
9 Hitchens, 'Unfairenheit 9/11'
10 Perhaps the only analogue available from recent history is Israel's ludicrous rationale for the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its assault on the PLO's base there. The casus belli was the shooting - in London - of the Israeli ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov. The attack was carried out by Abu Nidal, a sworn enemy of the PLO.
11 With one exception: the 1995 extradition attempt, which Constant thwarted by threatening to reveal the CIA's involvement in his war crimes. He was rewarded with a Green Card. The Nazi Alois Brunner lived in Syria for years under a similar blackmail arrangement with its government. See Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 179 et seq.
12 C-Span, 11 November, 2001.
13 Borger, Julian. 'Congress threatens to cut aid in fight over criminal court', The Guardian, 27 Nov, 2004.