The Kurds Who Once Fought Saddam Hussein Are Now Fighting Exxon Mobil

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 6 2014 10:32 AM

Iraqi Kurdistan vs. Big Oil

These Kurdish villagers once fought Saddam Hussein. Now they are fighting Exxon Mobil.

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An audience gathers to watch performers at the third annual Gullan village festival. In the past, when the Iraqi government cracked down on the Kurdish minority, celebrations like this were illegal.

Photo courtesy Sebastian Meyer

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RANIA, Iraq—In 1977, after the Iraqi army first attacked his home village of Gullan in the Kurdish north, Askendar Mohammed went to live deep in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he served as a peshmerga—a term used to describe Kurdish fighters, meaning “those who confront death.” He fought for more than two decades, even as Saddam Hussein dropped chemical weapons on Kurdish towns and villages, murdering thousands.

An uprising in 1991 ultimately failed to depose Hussein. But after U.S. forces set up a no-fly zone over much of the north, Iraqi Kurdistan began to wrest itself from decades of fighting and move toward autonomy. For his valor in the uprising, Mohammed was elected the mukhtar, or village head, of Gullan, and gradually memories of war became eclipsed by promises of wealth and independence. Today, Mohammed, the aging peshmerga, has settled into a new life of calm; the shotgun tucked into his pants is more an accessory than a tool of the trade.

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But underwriting Iraqi Kurdistan’s bright future is oil—an estimated 45 billion barrels are waiting to be exploited in the most secure part of the world’s fifth-largest oil economy, much of it in the mountainous regions around Gullan. The village’s peshmerga are revered and laid-back in their retirement, but since last summer Gullan has faced a new adversary, one for which decades of firing Kalashnikovs in the mountains hadn’t prepared the fighters. Exxon Mobil won the contract from the Kurdistan Regional Government to explore near Gullan, and the oil behemoth has already begun digging holes in the mountains. The villagers are on edge.

In April I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan for the third annual Gullan festival, a daylong picnic where villagers celebrate Kurdish traditions and village life. During the festival, locals unfurled enormous Kurdish flags over the rocky slopes. On a brilliant green foothill, white pickup trucks came loaded with elaborate picnics that would feed villagers over a day of singing, dancing, and slapstick Kurdish plays that involved a lot of actual cheek-slapping. Mohammed’s wife set out aluminum trays of white sheet cake, spread with bright pink frosting, on the picnic blanket where we sat. The festival had been devised by older residents, including Mohammed, who worried that the development of Iraqi Kurdistan might cut off a new generation of Kurds from their history as decisively as war had almost cut off theirs. Exxon’s presence in the surrounding hills was a harsh reminder of that.

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Villagers join hands in traditional Kurdish dance.

Photo courtesy Sebastian Meyer

Villagers worried about the impact of an oil windfall—dividing society, replacing local populations with foreign workers, courting war. Although some villagers needed jobs, they weren’t optimistic Exxon would provide them. They found no inspiration in a future similar to those of other oil-rich nations. “Kurds have never benefitted from oil,” a member of the Gullan village council told me. “Oil was the cause of problems in other countries. In Iraq and in Kurdistan, the oil has only meant more money for gunpowder.”

The villagers’ simple lives were hard-fought, and they were not eager to see them disturbed by Exxon. A revolutionary spirit has fueled Kurdish society for so long that, even though that spirit was now mostly symbolic—the peshmerga uniform signifying tradition more than might—the villagers felt defined by it. Even the festival was seen as rebellious. “Before, if we wanted to have a party like this, we had to hide in the mountains to do it,” Aisha Hamza, a local mother in her late 40s, told me. “We saw the war, and now we look around the country and see that it is free. … We don’t want to leave the village, even for a lot of money. We don’t need a lot of money.”

When I mentioned Exxon, Mohammed was at first sheepish. Initially he had supported the company exploring the area. The possibility of a better life and full independence from Iraq, coupled with a resignation that oil was the only means to both, had led Mohammed to sign a document allowing Exxon to conduct seismic tests in the area. But so many villagers ended up opposing the move that, by April, Mohammed had firmly changed his mind. He began to talk about Exxon in the proud, threatening terms of a Kurdish peshmerga: “The uprising started here,” he said, sweeping his hands toward the mountains. “Ali Nabi”—the uprising’s first victim, and a symbol of Kurdish rebelliousness—“a very strong peshmerga, was from near here. Once people know that this is the kind of man who came from our villages, they will be scared.”

The people of Gullan decided they would resist Exxon, but not with the guerilla tactics they used to fight Hussein’s army. The threat of Big Oil warranted a new form of combat, more dissent and civil resistance than brute force. Last summer Gullan residents, along with a network of area villagers led by the newly formed Assembly for the Protection of the Environment and Public Rights, greeted Exxon trucks with placards denouncing the project. Villagers, numbering about 200, according to one group member, threw logs into the road to block the oil company’s trucks. They objected for environmental and social reasons. They tried to be part of the process.

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