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Mercenary Culture Prevalent in Kurdistan-Iraq

"In the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man and brave, and
      hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him for then it
          costs nothing to be a patriot.": Mark Twain - [Samuel Langhornne Clemens]

Culture is observable only in the form of personal behaviour but can be abstracted from individuals' actions and attributed to the social groups to which they belong. Hence, the anthropologists underemphasize the importance of individual responsibility and creativity and focus on the common denominator of collective identity and symbols.

We consider “political action” as an aspect of culture. Culture is defined as the “whole of behavior inherited or acquired by members of a society, and well ordered by the norms that are the updating of values”. In a culturalistic approach, there is no inferiority or superiority of a culture. In this article, we describe the characteristics of different cultural groups in Kurdistan and their evolution during the 20th century.

We can distinguish two mainstream cultural areas in Iraq: Arab culture and Kurdish culture. There are also other cultural entities, such as the Assyro-Chaldeen or the Ezdi (Yezidi).

Here we are mainly concerned with Kurdish cultural areas, their different components, as well as various stages and development leading from cultural incompatibility to confluence.

The ruling Sunni Arab minority held the key political power since the creation of the Iraqi state by British colonialism in 1922 to the fall of the Ba’ath regime in 2003. The Sunni rulers repressed Shiite and Kurdish political culture. From 2003, this minority is simultaneously at war against the emerging Shiite and Kurdish cultures and against the USA and British occupying forces. It has no desire to accommodate itself to the growing new political cultural spaces. After the fall of Saddam’s regime, we have witnessed the appearance of multitude of political cultures. The interaction between different political cultures was conflictual. The future of these cultural spaces is uncertain. It is characterized by ever widening “mutual distrust” hatred and violence.

So the Arab region has changed from an imposed cultural uniformity to a multiplicity of political cultures. This change is mainly due to the recent USA-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Meanwhile, in Kurdistan, the situation is quite different and rather special. We have passed from a “multiplicity” to a “uniformity” of political culture. Before 1991, there were three Kurdish political cultures in Iraqi Kurdistan, which existed in permanent hostility.

We name the 3 cultural spaces in Kurdistan’ as A, B, and C:

A = Sufi Culture (Quaderi, Sulaimani, Neqshebendi, Barzan) characterized by spirituality, justice and anti-corruption.

B = Kurdish political party culture and Kurdish nationalism, resembling to a great degree the Arab nationalism. Its slogans were ‘defending national rights, democracy, equality and economic prosperity’.

C = the Culture of an important number of tribes, allied traditionally to Baghdad until 1991 (certain tribes remained allied to the Baath regime until 2003). They were considered by A and B as mercenary, symbols of betrayal and interested only in personal gain. In Kurdistan, ‘C’ culture has the connotation of immorality, corruption and being always at the service of the enemy.

But at the present time, there is by and large only one culture, which is the consequence of the merger between what we have called the cultures C and B.

It worth mentioning that the Sufi culture represents a powerful symbol, around which the whole society has evolved and been organized. In Kurdistan, Sufism has a ‘liberation’ dimension. The symbol may not possess any material power, but as a symbol in action, it has resisted states and empires: e.g. the Ottoman, the Safavid or the British.

During the 19th century in many parts of the world, the Sufi order was the main force of resistance against foreign occupation in North Africa: in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere.

An important resistance leader in this respect was Abd al-Qadir whose family had a tradition of attachment to the Qadiriyya Sufi order. Between 1832 and 1847, Abd al-Qadir led sustained resistance to the French occupation of Algeria.

Omer al-Mukhtar, who belonged to the Sunosiyya Sufi order, resisted the Italian occupation in Libya until he was captured and hanged in 1931 by the Italian army.

In Kurdistan, Sheikh Obeidullah Nehri, affiliated to the Nequeshebendi order, lead revolts against the Ottoman and Safafide Empires, his aim being to create an independent Kurdistan. He was arrested in 1880 and exiled to Mecca, from where he was never allowed to return.

Sheikh Abdulsalam Barzani, from the Neqeshebendi Sufi order, demanded reforms from the Sublime Port, and resisted Turkish occupation. Then he was betrayed, handed over to Turkish troops and finally was hanged in 1914.

Sheikh Said of Biran strived for an independent Kurdistan, and resisted a Turkish invasion of his country. He was defeated, captured and then hanged in 1925.

During the 20s and 30s of the past century, Sheikh Mahmoud Hafid from the Quaderi Sufi order resisted British occupation and strived for establishing an independent Kurdistan kingdom. He was overpowered in a battle, injured and captured by British forces. He died in exile in 1956.

The late Sheikh of Barzan (Ahmad) led several revolts against British and Arab occupation during the 30s and 40s of the past century. He was imprisoned for nearly 12 years, and he was freed after the 14 July coup d’Etat of 1958.

All these movements had as a goal to free their homeland from occupation, preserving the people’s true identity, establishing justice and gaining independence. The leading personalities were pious men, honest with a deep sense of justice. Sufi culture is symbolised by rejection of foreign occupation, restoring of justice, fighting corruption, as well as promoting a high ethical stance and trust in God.

The mercenary category in Kurdistan, (Culture ‘C’) was mainly composed of a number of tribal leaders, who were historically hostile to Barzan. Among them were also some of the Sufi order, who belonged to the same Neqshebendi order as Barzan, but chose the opposite camp. These were Bradost tribes under Sheikh Reshid Lolan, or the Surchi tribes under their various Sheikhs. The Zebari tribes under the two brother Aghas -- Ahmed Agha Zebari and Mahmoud Agha Zebari, or under them their sons on behalf of their fathers, these were also in category C. Mahmoud Agha Zebari and his son Zubair Agha benefit from specific government attention, because of a marriage relation to the KDP leader. Mahmoud Agha is the grandfather of today’s President of both the KDP and the Kurdistan Region Government. The Iraqi governments in the past, did forme out of such tribes, forces which the Kurdish nationalists called “Jash” (a Kurdish word for a little donkey) to signify mercenaries who were armed and paid by the government. Their number varied (it is difficult to give a precise number) but it was probably over 50,000 armed men in Badinan alone during the Kurdish revolt which lasted from 1961 to 1975. These forces were mobile and well acquainted with mountain warfare. They were loyal to their Aghas, who exploited them for enriching their pockets. The Agha would receive a monthly salary from the Baghdad government. The amount was 13 Iraqi Dinar (around 50 USD) for each mercenary. During the military operations, against the bases of Kurdish revolt, and in order to strengthen their fighting morale, the amount was doubled. In case the mercenary forces could take a mountain from Kurdish nationalist forces, their gains in money would be considerable. But the money was given directly to the chief of the tribe, who in turn would pay his men according to his liking. Usually, the Agha would keep half of the money for himself. The more men the Agha had, the more money he would gain. The Iraqi government knew very well that these forces were unreliable and undisciplined, but still it used them as paramilitary troops. They were useful in many ways:

A. Proving to the outside world that the Kurdish people support the Iraqi government against the Kurdish liberation movement. On many occasions, they were brought to the media, to radio or the TV screen to speak out against the Kurdish movement, qualifying it as Zionist-inspired, as criminal bands, foreign agents etc.
B. Using them militarily to minimize the Iraqi army losses in battle against the forces of the Kurdish National Movement.
C. Using their knowledge of the mountain terrain to attack Kurdish forces and using them as spies in the government’s pay.
D. Used for the harassment of the Kurdish population in villages and small towns, in order to prevent co-operation between the Kurdish-populated areas and the Kurdish national movement.
E. They were very mobile and could go to any front in Kurdistan. They would be put into military trucks and then driven to fronts in the Sulaimani region, Duhok or Rewandouz. These irregular forces were totally submissive to their Aghas who, in turn, were also subservient to all consecutive regimes in Baghdad.

Some of these tribal chiefs were close friends to Iraqi army high-ranking officers, close to the Security services and to Iraqi ministers. All the aghas within this category of mercenaries were hostile to the agrarian reform Law. They served all Iraqi governments, which paid them in cash. In this way, many Aghas became among the richest people in Kurdistan.

Beginning in the 40s of the 20th century, Kurdish political parties begun to emerge, the most important one being the KDP- Irak. Most of the political parties, including the PUK have been derived from the PDK. At the beginning, many founders were honest members, inspired by nationalist feelings, a deep sense of justice and were ready for sacrifice. Many of them were imprisoned, some were executed. These founders were closer to
Barzan political action. There was a co-operation between both cultures: of a nationalist party and of the culture of a specific Sufi order. Kurdish people considered the KDP as a vanguard for national struggle. Kurdish masses enthusiastically joined the KDP, and through enormous sacrifice from 1961-1975, sustained the Kurdish revolt and resisted for nearly 15 years all the military operations led by various Iraqi governments. Thus, the two main cultural spaces, ‘A’ and ‘B’, were united against ‘C’.

Unfortunately, the Kurdish leadership, at later stages, due to personal rivalry, despotism, notions of superiority, greed and lack of strategic vision, begun to split, leading the Kurdish revolt to disaster in March 1975. The corruption, accumulation of money by all means, clientalism, tribal loyalty, and nepotism were rampant among the top KDP leadership, more particularly after 1965. Intermarriage between the leading personalities of culture B and culture C , resulted in ‘hybrid sons’, who later became future leaders of the party, leading to the gradual destruction of both cultural spaces: A and B, securing, at the present time, domination of the Kurdish administration by culture of ‘C’.

A great number of the leading mercenaries who served the Baath regime during three bloody decades, are now empowered, given high posts, their feudal privileges assured, and they are feared in Kurdistan.

It is this C culture which was behind the intrinsic wars among Kurds, behind asking financial aid from Turkey, Iran and Saddam Hussein to eliminate the rivals. It is also responsible for failing to follow the very constitution of the party. It permits very few to enjoy an extravagant life-style in poor Kurdish society. This culture is the backbone of the present-day feudal and oppressive system in Kurdistan. It is incompatible with democracy, freedom of expression and human rights.

All hostile states occupying Kurdistan used C culture easily and successfully against the true Kurdish national liberation movement. It is the ‘enemy from within’.

How does it happen that although the Kurdish society has moved backward, and that such a culture should have ceased, on the contrary it has begun to ‘flourish’. The chief Kurdish politicians are an integral part of culture C in today’s Kurdistan. It is an illusion to believe that large-scale social condemnation could be organized in a war against corruption among them. If this is not simply a matter of bad luck is it the force of an inevitable cultural reality? For, in our opinion it is impossible that culture ‘C’ could produce “Leaders with Vision”.

Are the Americans who have come, as they say, to ‘liberate Iraq from dictatorship, and establish real democracy’, are they aware of the nature of Kurdish society? Are they aware of the deplorable state of ‘democracy’ and the degree of corruption in Kurdistan? Perhaps this C culture is suiting their long term policies in the region!

Inaction vis à vis mercenary culture represents a great danger within our society, especially the submissive attitude of the intellectuals. Such contributes greatly to the production and re-production of mercenary culture. At the same time it prevents the emergence of new, progressive and democratic action, which might have an impact within the national, regional, and international arenas. The people of Kurdistan cannot be free unless the mercenary culture is uprooted, its symbols brought down and all replaced by modern and progressive elements.

This is a task of the Kurdish masses, and of the free intelligentia, who are not contaminated by the culture C virus.

Hishyar Barzani