Letter from Iraqi Kurdistan
In Washington in mid-August, PUK leader Talabani was in an ebullient mood following what an aide described as "our most positive meeting with the Americans in years." He said that the Kurdish people would welcome US troops in their areas. However, he qualified this apparently forthright statement of intent by saying that the United States should be there as "a source of protection to the Kurds against weapons of mass destruction, and for protection against regional interference."
Until 1996 the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition umbrella group backed by the CIA, had a base in the safe-haven zone. But infighting between the PUK and KDP led to Saddam's tanks rolling into the Kurdish region once more, and the opposition network was smashed. Since then, the American presence here has been largely limited to diplomatic and military observers, and the past six months have seen a surge of them. Of the $97 million authorized for the Pentagon under the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 to aid the Iraqi opposition, less than $1 million has been used; and of the $43 million authorized for distribution by the State Department, only about $24 million has been given out--spent largely on political activities outside Iraq. The funding program has been plagued by interdepartmental bickering and suspicions of misappropriation by its chief beneficiary, the Iraqi National Congress.
Nevertheless, airstrips dating back to the British Mandate in the 1920s have been resurfaced with US help, and a radio station, backed with Congressional money, is being built high up in the border region with Iran. In July the State Department announced an open competition for "humanitarian assistance projects" on the ground in northern Iraq, though it was quick to point out that the timing of the program held no significance for those trying to predict the kickoff date of any military offensive. Indeed, as the American logistical buildup gathers momentum in such regional countries as Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey, the US presence in Iraqi Kurdistan is noticeable by its absence--though inevitably America looms large in the minds of almost everyone. As we walked through the Sheikallah bazaar in the city of Erbil, a 5-year-old boy holding a tray of gum approached our interpreter and asked of us: "Are they the people of Mr. Bush?" My left-leaning American colleague shrugged and said, "Unfortunately, we are." "Welcome!" beamed the boy.
Since the state of Iraq was carved out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire by the British eighty years ago, the Kurds--around a quarter of the population--have been struggling for some form of self-determination. They have been attacked, persecuted and betrayed by successive governments in Baghdad, and cynically exploited or ignored by the international community. But did they, I wondered, welcome the thought of a US offensive? Would they be prepared to join in? Was this going to be just another US-backed proxy war? Or would the Kurds be able to extract sufficient promises from the Americans to realize their long-held dreams of self-rule? The efficiency and sheer ruthlessness of the Anfal operations in the late 1980s, which included the use of chemical weapons, was reminiscent of the Nazi campaign against the Jews. To its shame, the West, more worried about the threat of Shiite fundamentalism in Iran than about their bloodstained boy in Baghdad, remained largely silent throughout the whole affair.
As Mahmoud, a local contractor for UN engineering projects, told me, the Anfal was not the first or last time that the Kurds felt abandoned by people they assumed were their natural allies--namely, the United States. It is this perceived perfidy toward them that made the majority of Kurds I spoke to during my three-week visit here wary of committing themselves to any US-led attack on Iraq. "Appreciative though we are for the protection of the no-fly zone, and eager though we are to see the back of Saddam, how do we know that our American friends will stick to their promises?" Mahmoud said, adding quickly, "If they make any, that is." The message to America seems to be: If you're going to do it, then do it right this time.
Kurds remember with some bitterness the words of Henry Kissinger after the United States and the Shah of Iran withdrew support from a Kurdish uprising in 1975: "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work," said the self-regarding guru of realpolitik. They remember, too, at the end of the Gulf War, when the then-US President, George Bush Sr., famously called on the Iraqi people to rise up against the battered Baghdad regime. And how the West remained on the sidelines as the Kurds in the north (and the Shiites in the south) staged a swift but short-lived revolt that was ruthlessly suppressed once Baghdad realized it was free to use its lethal helicopter gunships.