160,000 Strong – Are we winning in Iraq?


(Transcript of Del Marbrook’s Hot Copy #30, a weekly podcast)

We’ve talked about lost story disease before. I know it hit a nerve because I got quite a bit of e-mail when I said big stories tend to get lost in the tsunami of smaller stories. Whether you become a reporter or an editor-you may well progress from reporter to editor, although it’s not necessarily an advancement-you can’t think about the lost story too much.

Here’s an example. We have almost 160,000 troops in Iraq. Now look at a map of the Middle East. Notice that Turkey has a long border with Syria, a shorter border with Iraq and a somewhat longer border with Iran. Notice that Kirkuk and Mosul are the two major Iraqi cities closest to the Turkish border. The Mosul oil fields are among the richest in the world. They are located in the Kurdish sector of Iraq.

Savor these few facts for a moment. Okay, now add another piece to the picture. Turkey has amassed more than 140,000 troops on its border with Iraq. Aha, you say, is this the lost story: Turkey is massing troops on the Iraq border? No, this troop movement has been reported. What hasn’t been reported are its possible ramifications.

The Kurds are an Indo-European people, not semites like the Arabs or the Israelis. They live in large numbers in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. There is a powerful nationalist movement among them. It goes by different names in different places, but it is well armed and it has been responsible for terrorist acts in Turkey and elsewhere. In Iraq its military arm, the Pesh Merga, has generally cooperated with the U.S. occupation for two reasons: 1) Saddam Hussein persecuted the Kurds and suppressed Kurdish nationalism, and 2) the Kurds hope that the American invasion will lead either to a quasi-autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq, or even an independent Kurdistan, which they would prefer.

There is probably only one thing Iran and Turkey are in absolute agreement about: they don’t want an independent Kurdistan. The Arab states are likely to have more mixed emotions. First of all, the Kurds are Sunnis, which allies them with the majority of Arabs. Second, one of the greatest heroes in Islamic history was a Kurd, Salah-ed-Din, called Saladin by his Crusader enemies, most of whom admired him. Many Arabs may feel that the only solution in Iraq is some kind of federation in which the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds enjoy a form of autonomy. The problem of course is that the Sunnis Arabs live where there is no oil, or very little. And still another problem is that the Shias and Kurds have powerful militias, while the Sunnis have only their tribes.

Iran and Turkey, considering the large numbers of Kurds living in their countries, fear that a Kurdistan would eventually threaten their territorial integrity and might encourage other minorities to clamor for autonomy. But it’s not that simple. A lot of blood has been shed in the quest for Kurdish independence, and there are many old scores to settle.

If Turkey feels threatened enough to cross the border into Iraq, no matter what the pretext is, the entire balance of power will change in the Middle East. Turkey has been there before. The Ottoman Empire, which was ruled by the Turks, occupied most of the Middle East for centuries until they were ousted by British, Arab and French forces during World War I. Turkey’s reappearance on Arab soil would not only be regarded with shame by the Arabs but it would stir old animosities. The Iranians, for their part, would regard an expanded border with Turkey with considerable alarm.

Nonetheless, Turkey is a Sunni nation, and the Arabs fear Iran a great deal more than Turkey. Turkey has changed a great deal since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. It has not exhibited the imperialist tendencies of its neighbor, Iran, and while the Turks might be historically peeved with the Arabs for siding with the British in World War I, they have nowhere near as big a grudge against the Arabs as they do againstIran. In fact, historically Turkey owes the Arabs a big debt. The Arabs provided the Turks with an alphabet and the means to empire, and of course they are co-religionists. On the other hand, Iran, which used to be called Persia, was overrun by the Arabs, and Iran has used the Shia-Sunni schism to preserve Iranian culture against the onslaught of Arabization.

The semitic Arabs, as they began to spread the Prophet Muhammed’s message, defeated Aryan Iran, then called Persia, in a series of bloody battles. The Shia branch of Islam has always been associated with Iran, although it has followers among many races. The murder of Ali, the Prophet Muhammed’s son-in-law and a great warrior in the cause of Islam, precipitated the Shia split with the Sunnis. But the causes run deeper than the apparent facts. The Sunnis represent a view of Arab society that is quintessentially tribal, regarding central authority with suspicion. It wasn’t in the nature of the Arab tribes that carried Islam’s banners to countenance hereditary leadership, although both Shias and Sunnis have, for the most, part lived under hereditary rulers. The Iranians quickly recognized that they could preserve pre-Islamic Iranian culture in the context of Shia orthodoxy.

The Turks’ relationship with the Arabs was different, and much less troubled. The Turks entered the Islamic sphere first as mercenaries in the Arab caliphs’ armies. These caliphs were Sunni Arabs. Later the Turks assumed control of the Arabs’ empire, but by that time they had become Muslims, were using the Arab alphabet and were themselves immersed in Arab culture. The Turks pushed the Islamic empire into eastern Europe and at one point almost overran Russia and Austria. While the Arabs longed for an earlier period in which they ruled the empire, they could not be said to have been a conquered people under the Turks, whereas the Iranians were certainly a conquered people under both the Arabs and the Turks.

I know this is a lot to absorb. So let’s backtrack a bit. I’ve said that the United States has almost 160,000 troops in Iraq. The United States almost daily complains about Iranian interference on behalf of Iraq’s Shias, Iran’s natural allies. But the United States is hardly breathing a word about those Turkish troops. The United States has been complaining that Saudi Arabia is arming and funding the Sunni minority in Iraq. Why wouldn’t it? The Saudis have not only religious and ethnic ties to the Sunnis in Iraw, but also tribal ties.

There is one other factor to weigh. Turkey has about 72 million people. About 12 million are Kurds. Turkey is the 17th most densely populated nation in the world. But Turkey’s population is a mere fraction of the total number of people in the world of Turkic origin. People of Turkic origin live throughout Central Asia, sometimes as a majority, sometimes as an oppressed minority, as in Iran. Turkey regards itself as their ally and protector.

The policies of President Bush have overwhelmingly alienated the Turkish people. More than 70 percent of Turks recently polled now regard the United States as the most dangerous nation in the world.

If Kurdish nationalists continue to stir Turkish anger and Turkey sends troops into northern Iraq, all bets are off. The Pesh Merga, an effective and hardened militia, will undoubtedly fight. The Iraqi government is in no shape to patrol its own streets, much less take on the powerful Turkish army. Turkey’s border with Iran would grow dramatically, increasing the possibility of a clash with Iran, particularly if Iran’s Kurds come to the aid of Iraq’s.

So here you have an oil well and a blowtorch, and what else? Oh yes, virtual silence in Congress, in the White House, in Baghdad, and in the press. Lost story disease.

Ask a foreign desk editor or a managing editor and he’ll say, Well, this is all speculation, it isn’t hard news, it isn’t even soft news. But that’s the reactive school of journalism talking. Something happens, the press reports it. But something may happen, and the press leaves it to the pundits. That’s bad enough. It’s lousy journalism, it’s lazy journalism. But let’s play the game for a moment. Why haven’t the pundits been writing about it?

Well, maybe they don’t know as much history as we’ve primitively laid out here, or maybe they don’t think it’s worth learning it. But they will sure as hell be pontificating about it once those Turkish troops cross that border. Then we’ll hear the pundits who didn’t tell us anything saying they told us so.

This is Hot Copy, and I’m Del Marbrook. If you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.

Djelloul Marbrook began as a reporter for The Providence Journal; worked as an editor for The Elmira Star-Gazette (Gannett), The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, and The Washington Star; executive editor for a chair of four dailies in Northeast Ohio and executive editor for a merger of two dailies in northern New Jersey. His first novel, Saraceno, was published in January (Open Book Press). For more information www.djelloulmarbrook.com or www.myspace.com/delmarbrook.


Source: The Student Operated Press

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook, born in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter grew up New York, served in the US Navy. His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University. His story, Artists Hill, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.