The Kurdish question: Will U.S. keep bargain? On eve of war, memories
linger of former betrayals.
By Trudy Rubin
Feb. 12, 2003
SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq - This is "free Iraq," the portion of northern Iraq where 4
million Kurds enjoy virtual autonomy from Saddam Hussein because they are
protected by a U.S. air umbrella.
The Kurds, a non-Arab Muslim people who inhabit this beautiful, mountainous
region along with adjacent parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey, are America's
closest Iraqi allies. U.S. troops may soon enter Kurdistan from Turkey on their
way to Baghdad.
The Kurds hate Saddam Hussein, who slaughtered them by the tens of thousands
with bullets and poison gas in the 1980s. Yet the Kurds distrust the United
Two weeks ago, the independent Kurdish newspaper Hawlati did a survey in which
respondents were asked, "Do you trust the U.S. to protect Kurdistan?" in the
event of a war with Saddam. "Fifty-five percent said no," I was told by Aso
Harti, the gutsy editor of this pioneering paper.
A prime reason for this skepticism: the Kurds fear U.S. officials will let
Saddam gas them again.
For six months, Kurdish leaders have been asking the United States to help them
prepare for the possibility that Saddam may attack them with weapons of mass
destruction. They have repeatedly requested mobile clinics, gas masks,
antibiotics like Cipro, and antidotes to biological agents such as atropine, all
of which they are lacking.
Help has been promised, but nothing has arrived yet. And war may be only a few
"They might send us masks and medicine - after the war," says Interior Minister
Freydoun Abdul Kheder wearily. As the man in charge of the emergency committee
of regional ministers, which deals with potential war disasters, he is facing a
critical shortage of normal medical supplies, and a near-absence of means to
protect against biochemical attack.
Kheder worries about Saddam's large arsenal of short- range rockets, which were
not banned by the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire and can be fitted with chemical
warheads. He fears small attacks by terrorists enlisted by Saddam to use
chemicals or toxins to destabilize the Kurdish region.
"Our fear," he says, "is that some diseases might be spread which have
disappeared from the world."
Such concerns are not academic. In 1988, Iraqi airforce helicopters dropped
mustard gas and nerve agents on the Kurdish town of Halabja and may even have
disseminated biological agents like aflatoxin. Several thousand men, women and
children were killed, and Halabja residents continue to suffer hideous health
At the time, U.S. officials knew of the gassing, but the Reagan administration
chose to downplay it because it supported Saddam in his war against Iran's
Ayatollah Khomeini. This is only one of several bitter betrayals of the Kurds by
various U.S. administrations.
A prime example: George H.W. Bush urged Iraqis to rise up in 1991 and then let
Saddam slaughter them when they responded. Only when CNN recorded a million
desperate Kurds fleeing to Iran and Turkey did Bush establish the no-fly zone
that still protects much of Iraqi Kurdistan.
So it is an outrage that U.S. officials have yet to respond to Kurdish requests
for protection. All the more so when Saddam's use of poison gas against the
Kurds is cited by the Bush administration as proof the Iraqi dictator must be
U.S. troops have been issued preventive suits against his chemical weapons. The
Bush administration has sent Patriot antimissile batteries to Israel and Jordan
to protect against chemical warheads. Only the Kurds - in far more danger than
Israel - have gotten nothing.
The Kurds can't turn for medical supplies to the United Nations, which works
through Baghdad. They can't turn to international humanitarian agencies, as
regional Health Minister Muhammad Khoshnaw found out last week: "I told them the
war is coming nearer day by day and we have nothing. They say no one will give
them funds [for this crisis] before the war starts."
If the Kurds fear they won't be protected against poison gas they may once again
flee to the mountains, says Gen. Simko Dizayee, head of the peshmerga (Kurdish
military) general staff. That would cause a major humanitarian crisis. Or, if
they stay put, and some are gassed, "America will create new enemies in the
region by betrayal."
Why would the United States risk that? Maybe U.S. officials think the war will
end so soon that Saddam won't have time to lob VX gas at Kurdish cities. But if
those officials are wrong, America will never live down the shame.