Fieldwork and Fear in Iraqi Kurdistan

Fieldwork and Fear in Iraqi Kurdistan

Diane E. King, 2009

Before the Iraqi Baath regime’s ouster in 2003, I intermittently lived and carried out research in the Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq. I often commuted between the towns of Dohuk and Zakho by bus or a taxi shared with other passengers. Each time the bus or taxi passed the junction just north of Dohuk at which one of the roads led to the government-controlled city of Mosul, passengers typically tensed up. In the distance, but within view, lay the last Kurdish checkpoint. Beyond it was territory controlled by Saddam Hussein, who had declared himself the archenemy of both disloyal Iraqi Kurds and the United States, my country of citizenship. On more than one occasion, a taxi driver announced loudly to us passengers that he planned to take a quick detour to Mosul. He then turned his head towards us to see the looks on our faces. At this point, the taxi driver would throw his head back and laugh heartily, delighted at his ability to get a rise out of us, especially out of a visiting American. We all smiled as the tension drained from our bodies and we passed the junction, remaining en route to Dohuk.

One day in March 1998 the public bus I was traveling in came to an abrupt halt just before the junction.We passengers craned our necks to see what was going on and reacted with alarm when we saw what had prompted the bus to stop: the street ahead of us was filled with soldiers in Iraqi uniforms. The people around me gasped and murmured that we must have just been “invaded” by the Iraqi army arriving via the road from Mosul. Holding onto the seats in front of us, we stood to get a better view, aghast. I heard nervous exclamations of “Bismallah!” (“in the name of God,” an Arabic expression often uttered by a person in fear) followed by questions and speculations as to the implications of what we were seeing. My thoughts raced. It seemed possible that I was living some of my last moments and, judging from the commentary of the other passengers, they thought so as well.

During the previous few weeks the political tension had been even higher than usual. President Clinton had threatened to order the U.S. military to bomb Iraq for failing to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. For weeks people had speculated that if this happened the fallout might include a hostile incursion by the Iraqi army into the Kurdish areas. (When later the bombs did start dropping on specific military targets on the Baghdad-controlled side of the border, no incursion materialized and eventually people in the Kurdish area paid them little attention.)

In moments that seemed to last an eternity, the bus cautiously crept closer to the junction. Only then did we discern a strange but relieving detail: the soldiers were in fact Kurdish, not representing the Iraqi government. This was attested to by a yellow flag bearing the insignia of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and other subtle signs. Their Iraqi uniforms were a strategic display of the Kurdish regional government’s decision to promote Iraqi federalism, a much-talked-about idea at the time but one that had lacked visible implementation. By publicly clothing its peshmerga (Kurdish fighters who had been a guerilla force) in the same uniform as the Iraqi national army near the road to Mosul, the Kurdish regional administration could placate Baghdad, Turkey and the U.S. all at once.

This strategy performed Iraqi-ness by downplaying separatism while simultaneously providing a show of strength of peshmerga fighters amassing with Saddam’s forces just a few hundred meters away. It served the purpose of sending the message that the Kurds were militarily sovereign behind their lines of control, and it implicitly warned the Iraqi army not to advance. It took only a few seconds for us passengers to sort out the complex semiotics of the situation and come to an understanding of what we were observing. I remembered that I had heard that the peshmerga were in the process of adopting the features of a regular army. We breathed a collective sigh of relief as the bus waited and then slowly proceeded, inching through columns of soldiers and then on to its destination.

Fieldwork in Iraq(i Kurdistan)

I first went to Iraqi Kurdistan in 1995, and visited on three occasions during the 1991–2003 inter-war period, the subject of this chapter. During the 1990s Iraq was, as it indeed is presently, synonymous with violence. In a game of charades such words as “security,” “crises” and “violence” might bring to mind “Iraq” before the name of any other state. The Iraq that was led by Saddam Hussein was called a “Republic of Fear” by the author Makiya (1998) and by many other observers.

Human RightsWatch began reports with lines such as “The Iraqi government continued to commit widespread and gross human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests of suspected political opponents, executions of prisoners, and forced expulsions . . .” (Human RightsWatch 2000). An accounting of the Baath regime’s crimes would include many well-known atrocities, especially in the several years before 1991. For example, it used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Kurdish rebels and villagers, killing perhaps 100,000. It “disappeared” 8,000 members of the Barzani tribe in 1983. Millions of people lived under the regime’s tyranny, never knowing when it might strike them personally.

The regime of Saddam Hussein and those loyal to him relied on the constant threat and exertion of bodily harm and execution to exert sovereignty over the inhabitants of the state. To live in Iraq was to contend daily with governance backed up by force. Not only did thousands die in infamous mass attacks – the regime tortured and killed many other people one by one. Amnesty International asserted that in addition to the more known attacks, “hundreds of thousands of other people have been the victims of extrajudicial executions during the 1980s” (Randal 1999: 214).

In the anti-Saddam sanctuary of Iraqi Kurdistan, Saddam’s genocidal rampage in the 1988 Anfal campaign stood as as much history as possibility – history that could be re-enacted at any moment, and with almost unimaginable consequences. French philosopher Michel Foucault (2000: 340) contrasts a “power relationship” with a “relationship of violence.” The former “can only be articulated on the basis of two elements that are indispensable . . . the ‘other’ (the one over whom power is exercised) is recognized and maintained to the very end as a subject who acts . . .” The latter is more extreme: “A relationship of violence acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks, it destroys, or it closes off all possibilities. Its opposite pole can only be passivity, and if it comes up against any resistance it has no other option but to try to break it down.” The relationship between the Iraqi government and the inhabitants of Iraq felt like one that had moved beyond a mere power relationship to a purifying, reducing relationship of violence. Saddam’s 1988 attempt at genocide against the Kurds was not so much a fight against an “other” as an attempt to destroy the adversary once and for all. While talk was rife in the global media and among both local and global political commentators that “the Iraqi people” should eliminate Saddam and bring down his regime, no Iraqi managed to act accordingly. Saddam’s internal adversaries were passive victims who did not manage to strike back at Saddam in any effective fashion, much as they told me they wanted to.

I deliberately refer to the “inhabitants” of Iraq rather than to its citizens to emphasize the collapsing of social categories rendered by the totalizing fear engendered by Saddam and representatives of his government. Did the poison gas dropped by helicopters in the Anfal campaign kill only Iraqi citizens? Were the tanks poised to take Dohuk mounted with special “citizen sensors”? Did citizens need more (or less) elaborate plans for escape than noncitizens? No – fearing Saddam was for everyone inhabiting a particular space, the space of Iraqi Kurdistan. Everyone within the Iraqi state’s reach, citizen or noncitizen, Arab, Kurd, or American, had to live within this constant possibility of violence. By our very presence, we inhabitants faced the possibility that the state would reassert itself over Kurdistan as it continued to do in the rest of Iraq. We feared the arbitrariness of arrest, the state’s lack of accountability and the fact that the Leviathan of the state not only arrested those that committed some “wrong” but was out of control, excessive, irrational, killing and torturing merely upon suspicion and without reason.


Please read this artcile in full by downloading the attached PDF file.

King, Diane E. “2009 Fieldwork and Fear in Iraqi Kurdistan”, In Violence: Ethnographic Encounters. Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi, ed. Pp. 51-69. New York: Berg Press.

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