Erbil, northern Iraq

Northern, “free” Iraq looks more and more like Lebanon in the old days: venue of not one war but many. It should have been so simple. The US armed forces were to land in Turkey and base themselves in friendly Iraqi Kurdistan on their way south in Operation Impose Democracy. Democracy in Turkey, however, intervened, to close the Turkish road to Iraq. Meanwhile, Turkey’s real rulers–the army command, Kurd killers as much as Saddam–intend to invade Iraq themselves. That will add at least one extra war to the impending chaos.

Does the United States need a northern front to crush Saddam’s feeble army? Probably not. I met an Iraqi Army deserter here who said that only four tanks in his unit of twenty-eight actually work. Other deserters, many debriefed by US officers here, report that most soldiers want only to surrender. The United States wanted a northern front less than it needed another accomplice, Turkey, in its globally unpopular war on Iraq. But if it joins the coalition, Turkey will not fight Saddam Hussein. It will fight Iraq’s Kurds.

With 90 percent of its population opposed to the war, Turkey’s government demanded a payoff. America and Johnny Turk haggled over money, but the Turkish military wanted a little more: a piece of Iraq. The United States, as prospective liberator, was willing to hand it over. Zalmay Khalilzad, George W. Bush’s slow learner at the poker table of Iraqi politics, assured skeptics at the recent Iraqi opposition conference here that Turkey would invade only as part of the US coalition. Turkey’s insistence, however, that its army would not fight Saddam undercut its commitment to a coalition whose purpose was to do just that. Meanwhile, Turkey’s generals and foreign minister contradicted Khalilzad: Their troops would enter Iraq flying the Turkish flag, obeying Turkish commanders and seeking Turkish objectives.

“If their intention is not to fight Saddam Hussein, it is to demolish our experience here,” an angry Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told me. “The Kurds would use all means at their disposal to stop the Turks. So would the rest of the Iraqis.” He thought the Turks would attempt “to disarm the Kurds. They want to deny the Kurds a state. They want to end the status quo under which we have governed ourselves. They don’t want the Kurds to have Kirkuk or Mosul.” On this occasion he speaks for popular opinion here. No Kurd that I have met accepts any Turkish presence, in or outside a US coalition. Businessmen, taxi drivers, teachers and students have told me they would join the fight against the Turks. Men who had not volunteered for the battle against Saddam are buying new uniforms and rifles.

A Turkish occupation of Iraqi Kurdistan could divert the American army into the role of peacekeeper between its Kurdish and Turkish allies. Whose side would the US “coalition” favor? The Kurds, whom they are ostensibly liberating from Saddam; or the powerful and usually loyal Turks? If US forces end up protecting the Turks from Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas, Turkish propaganda will undoubtedly call the Kurdish resistance terrorism. Bush may draw on his rich vocabulary of euphemisms to explain to American soldiers that they must kill the people they came to set free.

In 1939, when France and Britain sought the neutrality of Turkey’s military, much of which sympathized with Germany, they found that money was not enough. So France cut off a piece of Syria and handed it to Turkey. Turkey renamed Alexandretta the Turkish province of Hatay, forced all its inhabitants to replace their Arab names with Turkish ones and banned the teaching of their native language. Alexandretta belongs to Turkey to this day. The Kurds, as well as Arab members of the Iraqi opposition, do not want the same to happen to a slice of Iraq.

In his definitive account of the Kurds’ tormented modern history, Jonathan Randal refers to Kurdish nationalism as a “disease that was considered highly contagious and thus especially suspect to the largely centralized states they [Turks, Iranians and Iraqis] were then forging in the West’s modernizing image.” In each country, America–champion of self-determination–helped the Shah, the Turkish Army and Saddam to deny Kurds a country of their own. Now Bush is going a step further and helping to deny them even limited autonomy within a new Iraq. Oh, brave new war.

I should say, wars. Turkish intervention anywhere near Kirkuk will prompt an Iranian response. The United States should remember that its plan for Lebanon was undone by Iran’s Shiite Muslim surrogates of the Hezbollah in 1983 when they destroyed the US Embassy and Marine headquarters in Beirut. Iran has far more Shiite surrogates in Iraq–about 60 percent of the population–than it ever did in Lebanon. And there will be the inevitable sideshows: Turkey versus the Turkish-Kurd commandos of the old PKK who are hiding here, Iran versus its exiled Mujahedeen al-Khalq, America and some Kurds versus the fundamentalists of Ansar al-Islam and, possibly, America versus Iran. If I leave a few out, these are early days.