Iraq's Kurds Aren't Looking for a Fight
The Washington Post
By Nicholas Birch
5 May 2002
As the Bush administration weighs the prospects and logistics of
war against Iraq, invasion advocates look to Iraqi Kurds in the
north as potential allies. But the Kurds themselves view this
talk with more apprehension than appetite.
From here in Irbil, the heart of the Kurdish region of Iraq,
it's easy to see why. The air is scented by orange blossoms. In
the shops, you can buy everything from Turkish yogurt to German
vacuum cleaners, designer Italian shoes to frozen chickens from
the United States. Work has begun on converting the
bullet-ridden former local headquarters of the Kurdistan
Democracy Party into a luxury hotel.
Unaffected by the rampant inflation that has plagued the rest of
Iraq, the Kurdish currency is a hundred times stronger than the
Iraqi dinar. "In Baghdad, they call us Kuwaitis," says one young
Kurd who has family in the south. Sami Abdulrahman, whom
everyone here refers to as the deputy prime minister of Iraqi
Kurdistan, explains, "We Kurds have never had it so good, and
we've never had more to lose."
There is surprisingly little evidence here of the traumas
suffered by Iraq's Kurds -- the repeated invasions, countless
disappearances, chemical attacks and millions of refugees forced
to flee across the Turkish and Iranian borders. True, a lot of
men carry guns and official buildings are heavily guarded. This
is, after all, still part of Iraq; Iraqi Kurdistan is more a
state of mind than a state with borders. But under the
protection of U.S. and British fighter squadrons since 1991, the
northeastern corner of Iraq has transformed itself into a place
of peace, relative prosperity and de facto autonomy.
The new vigor of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament is a symbol
of this progress. Once, it rubber-stamped directives sent from
Baghdad. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein built an army base opposite
the parliament, as a warning to any local politicians with
delusions of grandeur. Now, however, the parliament passes laws
of its own and the base has been turned into a public park.
Political parties, TV stations and newspapers cater to the
region's ethnic and religious minorities.
The thought of risking all this for a new war led by the United
States is disquieting. Kurdish leaders remember the catastrophic
effects, in the 1970s and 1991, of naive faith in U.S. promises,
when the United States encouraged Kurds to rebel and then failed
to protect them. "Let's be frank," says Abdulrahman. "The U.S.
has let us down badly in the past. We must be sure the same will
not happen again." Another senior parliamentary official says,
"I think every Kurd would be glad to see Saddam gone." But, he
adds, "we must have solid guarantees that our future will not be
a carbon copy of our past."
The Kurds also fear that a U.S. attack on Saddam would uproot
U.N. Resolution 986, the real seed of the Kurdish spring.
Adopted in 1995 to ease the worst effects of the international
embargo on Iraq, this oil-for-food program provides money to
Iraq in exchange for petroleum exports. The Kurds receive 13
percent of the funds, which account for 60 percent of their $1.5
billion annual economy, according to the speaker of the regional
parliament. "For the first time, we have had money to spend on
humanitarian purposes, health, education, housing and basic
foodstuffs for all," says Jamal Abdulhameed, health minister in
Irbil. Seventy percent of villages now have a clean water
supply, according to Kurdish government statistics. Cases of
cholera and typhoid have all but disappeared. A joint
UNICEF-Ministry of Health survey last year showed that cases of
infant malnutrition to have dropped from 28 percent in 1994 to
10 percent in 2001. Infant mortality rates are half those in the
rest of Iraq.
If war broke out, however, it would interrupt food and oil
supplies, which travel to Kurdistan by way of storage places in
Mosul and Kirkuk, both under Hussein's control.
In addition, Kurds worry that a new, U.S.-supported regime
installed in Baghdad would end the oil revenue-sharing
arrangement. Kurds fear a new Iraqi ruler would be cast in the
mold of Saddam, perhaps one of his Sunni ex-generals, Nizar
Kharaji or Fawze Shamari, both of whom have defected to the
West. "A terrible idea," says Abdulrahman. "The only difference
between these men and Saddam is that he has his hands tied
behind his back."
There is also criticism for Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the
U.S.-financed Iraqi National Congress based in London. "A hotel
lobby opposition, with no popular support," snorts Ahmet
Sherwari, secretary general of the Irbil Communist Party
Committee. "There are two groups in Iraq popular enough to form
a government after Saddam, the Shiites and the communists, but
the Americans refuse both on ideological grounds."
Senior officials of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the
two major Iraqi Kurdish factions, accept that an uprising
supported by American airpower could topple Hussein. They point
out that in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, many Iraqi
provinces rose up against the regime.
But how much help could the United States rely on from the Kurds
in a new campaign? The Kurds have improved their forces over the
last 10 years. With a $16 million share of this year's $110
million budget, defense is the Kurdish government's second
priority after education. Gen. Babekir Zebari, commander of
forces in the westernmost of the three semi-autonomous Kurdish
provinces, presides in a marble-clad, neo-classical pile that
local cynics call "the White House."
Still, there are shortcomings. "Defense budget is a misnomer,"
says Abdulrahman, "None of our neighbors would ever sell us
weapons." Though the Iraqi army is weaker than it was a decade
ago, Zebari is not confident his men can stop it. "We have no
heavy artillery," he says. "Our rocket-propelled grenades can be
effective against tanks at close range, but they are no good at
all against Iraqi T-72 [tanks]."
Gerard Chaliand, who studies guerrilla warfare and is the author
of several books on the Kurds, agrees. "Without support in the
air, the Kurds can do nothing against Saddam's troops in open
ground," he says. "Everything will depend on the rapidity of the
U.S. attack. If the Iraqi army is pushed onto the defensive, the
Kurds could provide very useful reinforcements."
Mountains, ideal territory for the peshmerga or Kurdish
guerrillas, cover much of the region. But at least 65 percent of
the population lives on the plain abutting the area under
Baghdad's control. The three largest cities of the region, Dohuk,
Irbil and Sulaymaniyah, are just three to 12 miles from Iraqi
front lines. "If the Americans miscalculate at all, the cities
will be in Iraqi hands within hours," says Chaliand. "It could
be a repeat of 1991."
And for the Kurds, another chapter of American betrayal.
Nicholas Birch is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist who
visited the Kurdish area of Iraq from April 8 until April 19.