Turkey’s vote this week, to allow military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, comes amid growing tensions between Turkey, the U.S. and Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurds. The World’s Middle East correspondent Quil Lawrence explains that Iraqi Kurdistan has waged a long public relations campaign to brand itself as “the other Iraq.”
BOB GARFIELD: This Wednesday, the Turkish Parliament approved Turkish military incursions into Northern Iraq to rout out Kurdish separatist guerillas known as the PKK. That vote was seen, at least in part, as Turkey's response to last Wednesday's vote in a U.S. congressional committee to condemn Turkey for the Armenian genocide of some 90 years ago.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been a persistent problem for Turkey. It's also been a friend to the U.S. in a very unfriendly region. Iraqi Kurdistan has also served as a kind of safe haven for journalists, allowing them to be among Iraqis who are welcoming democratic Islamic moderates. And the Kurds are playing to their guests. [CLIP]: MAN: Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan. It's been practicing democracy for over a decade. It's not a dream. It's the other Iraq. [END OF CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Quil Lawrence is the Middle East correspondent for the radio program The World. He’s spent much of the last seven years in Iraq and Kurdistan, and he says the Kurds have found the media can be a mixed blessing. QUIL LAWRENCE: The three months before the U.S. invasion in 2003 when I was stuck there, along with many other journalists, there were only so many stories we could do before we started to look at the underside and the corruption and the nepotism and the local party politics in Kurdistan. And there was one case where Nechervan Barzani, who is currently the prime minister of the Kurdish regional government, made great apologies because someone had arrested a local Kurdish journalist for insulting his family and alleging corruption against them.
That was a huge story, and the Kurds found all of their friends they'd been cultivating all these years suddenly reporting on them as abusers of human rights. So it cuts both ways, having so many reporters sitting around watching you. BOB GARFIELD: There are three stories about Kurdistan that seem to get written repeatedly -- the one about its disputes, especially with Turkey, the one about the deadly gas attacks by Saddam Hussein on the citizens of Halabja, and the one about whether Kurdistan is a de facto nation that could operate separately from the rest of Iraq. Isn't that the trifecta? QUIL LAWRENCE: Yeah, those are the three stories that people do when they go to Kurdistan. BOB GARFIELD: Now, some of this has to do with these are natural stories to tell, but I gather a lot of it has to do with a pretty persistent P.R. campaign by the Kurds to guide the coverage. QUIL LAWRENCE: Yes. Now, you mentioned already the gas attack in Halabja. In the 1980s, the Kurds were really up against the wall. A lot of their leadership realized, we aren't going to win against poison gas, we need to come at this at a different angle. They realized that they should start cultivating the media.
Now the current foreign minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari, is a Kurd, and this was sort of his project. He started in London, and he would make himself available to absolutely anyone. You could call him up, he would meet you at any hotel bar in the city to talk to you about the story of the Kurds.
They were very savvy about this and did this through the '90s. You could tell that they were practiced at it when the invasion started to come. And in recent years, they've hired very high-power lobbyists to push their case on Capitol Hill, and they started a campaign called "The Other Iraq." BOB GARFIELD: In the outreach to the United States, there is lobbying in friendly offices in Congress but also elsewhere, including some fairly odd bedfellows. QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, there has been some very interesting and strange relationships with evangelical Christians who've set up shop in northern Iraq. They've even printed up a book called Kurds in the Bible, and it claims that one of the three wise men who was supposed to have attended Jesus' birth was from there. So there's an idea that the Kurds have a role in the Bible. BOB GARFIELD: Now, the Turkish Parliament has voted to sanction incursions into Kurdistan, ostensibly to chase PKK guerillas who are taking refuge in the mountains on the other side of the border.
But it happens to come at a time when the United States is at odds with Turkey over the possibility that Congress will condemn the Armenian genocide of 90 years ago. Is it a coincidence that these two conflicts have met this week?
QUIL LAWRENCE: They're not directly related but what they've done is poison the atmosphere for any sort of gestures of goodwill. Turkey and the United States have had, actually, a dwindling diplomatic relationship ever since 2003 when the Turkish Parliament voted not to let the United States transit through there to invade Iraq.
It's not very well known in the States, but Turkey, polls indicate, is extremely anti-American right now. And they see the United States as threatening them through northern Iraq. BOB GARFIELD: Well, on the subject of anti-Americanism in Turkey, tell me about the film Valley of the Wolves. QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, this is just a perfect example. There's also a popular novel which has essentially the same plot line, that the American invasion of Iraq is intended to set up an independent Kurdistan which will then steal away part of Southeastern Turkey. Even the Turkish First Lady said how much she liked the movie Valley of the Wolves. And, again, I don't think people in the United States quite appreciate how poisoned this relationship has been. BOB GARFIELD: Do you believe that the Kurds are going to be able to continue to portray themselves sympathetically in the media, or will the double-edged sword that you've talked about, the reporters running around everywhere, come back ultimately to fill out the story?
QUIL LAWRENCE: I would say they have a great challenge. Still, they've managed to make some inroads in Congress with, among non-governmental organizations. They're starting to convince people that perhaps there is a place in Iraq that you can invest, and we've seen some small-time oil deals going on in the north. The jury's still out. They're certainly way ahead of the rest of Iraq, where really no one dares set foot outside the U.S. enclave in the center of Baghdad. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Quil. Thanks so much. QUIL LAWRENCE: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Quil Lawrence is the author of Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq in the Middle East. It will be published in April.