Letter from Iraqi Kurdistan
There is no certainty that a new, post-Saddam regime in Baghdad would be any less hostile to the Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan is not recognized by the United Nations, and Turkey, a US NATO ally, objects to any move that would enhance what the Kurds already have. Ankara, to the point perhaps of paranoia, fears that an independent Kurdish state on its borders would stir up its own harassed Kurdish population. The Kurdish leadership is quick to dispel such fears, insisting that it is not asking for, has never asked for, independence. The KDP and the PUK have different domestic agendas, and their leaders don't have much time for each other. But they do cooperate in key areas, such as health, education and security, and are slowly negotiating their way toward holding elections for a new Kurdish parliament (in which the Turkmen and Assyrian communities would be represented). Crucially, however, they appear to have adopted a united stance on the future of Iraq. Both parties want to see a federal, democratic state in which the Kurds have control over their own region and in which the rights of all the ethnic groups in Iraq, including the majority Shiite Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, the Turkmen and Assyrian Christians, are guaranteed. They just hope that the Americans will listen.
"For the last ten years we have had this ongoing debate with the US government that the salvation for the people of Iraq lies in democratic transformation and does not lie in a palace coup," Barham Salih, the head of the PUK government, told me in his office in Sulaimaniya. "The misery of the Iraqi state lies in a lack of democratic life, lies in denial of basic human rights. I think Iraq is a problem because the state of Iraq has been in a constant state of war with the people of Iraq. If the international community, including the United States, wants a peaceful Iraq, at peace with its neighbors, then they should support the people to bring about a broad-based democratic representative government that is at peace with the people." The Kurds, he emphasized as we lunched on kebab and salad washed down with cold beer, "are no threat to anyone."
Even so, if there is an attack on Baghdad, I asked, Kurds surely won't be able to stay on the sidelines. Which could leave them very exposed, especially if Saddam unleashes another wave of chemical attacks against them. "A Kurd by definition lives in a dilemma," said Salih, an articulate, Western-educated moderate. "We are the orphans of history. We have never had easy choices in our lives. But I am hopeful about the future. We are now venturing into a very dangerous period, no doubt about it, and we have to be very careful not to risk unnecessarily the lives and livelihoods of our people. But at the same time eight decades of the state of Iraq is nothing but a miserable failure. Everybody recognizes that to restore the unity and stability of Iraq, it requires a lasting solution to the Kurdish problem, and there will be no lasting solution unless you have a democratic, pluralistic, federal Iraq. I remind you we fought the present government of Iraq at a time when the United States was supporting the present government of Iraq. We are freedom fighters struggling for freedom and we have the cause of our people at heart. We are not guns for hire."
Back in Qala Diza we stopped at a large building site. Gradually emerging from the mass of spindly timber scaffolding facing us was a two-story high school that will soon open its doors to 600 pupils. Even in the heat of the midday sun, the place was a hive of activity: Bricklayers, carpenters and plasterers were hard at work. We were given a tour by Hamza Agha, the contractor who was building the school under the auspices of a UN program. Hamza Agha leads one of the most powerful tribes in the region. Once the Kurdish aghas (or chiefs) were despised for their indolence, for living off the fat of other people's land in time-honored aristocratic fashion. Many of today's aghas, by contrast, are busy doing business, and helping to rebuild their country at the same time.
We sipped sweet cardamom-scented tea in the foreman's office. The walls were lined with maps and plans of the construction work. Hamza Agha was convinced that Saddam had lost the town of Qala Diza for good. "Look at what we're building here. Our people only want to go forward. Saddam can't compete with that," he said. I wondered what made him so sure that the Kurds of the town would be able to contend with the full brunt of another Iraqi attack. Shouldn't he be urging the townsfolk to arm themselves however they could? Hamza Agha leaned forward conspiratorially and said, "We have a secret weapon. We have the stealth bomber."
Before I could signal my incredulity he winked and nodded at a diagram pinned to the wall. It was an architect's plan of the school, and yes, I had to admit, it did resemble the shape of a stealth bomber. Education and knowledge, Hamza Agha seemed to be saying, was the only true form of defense.