Al-Ahram Weekly Online
6 - 12 December 2001
Issue No.563
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Once bitten, forever smitten

If the US decides to extend its "war on terror" to Iraq, the country's Kurds may not support their former ally, writes Maggy Zanger after a visit to northern Iraq

Ghosts of wars past: all signs point to the US extending its war to Iraq. (top) the ravages of war in Afghanistan have left little for a liberated population; (above left) Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein; (right) burned before, Iraqi Kurds are unlikely to ally themselves with the US again
(photos: AFP & Reuters)
The US-led "war against terrorism" in Afghanistan seems to be proceeding successfully, by US standards. Meanwhile, the sabre-rattling against Iraq is increasing, from both right-wing quarters of the conservative US government and the from US media pundits who seem to form an Israeli cheer-leading contingent.

"Afghanistan is just the beginning," US President George Bush has said, and speculation has been rife about what will happen now that this beginning is nearing its end. Officially, the US administration denies that it intends to move on to Iraq.

US plans for "Phase Two" of the war are uncertain. But Iraq itself clearly expects to be a target and has responded predictably. Government spokesmen have declared that Iraq is prepared to defend itself and "will not be terrified by any arrogant party."

The Kurds are rarely mentioned in this context, but in fact will be pivotal element for any US attack on Iraq.

After 10 years of self-government in three northern provinces -- after the Iraqi government withdrew from the area following the establishment of the no-fly zones and a safe haven in 1991 -- the Kurds are less fractious and better organised than Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. With as many as 20,000 men under arms, they form the ideal Iraqi opposition partner to help support any US attack.

Some members of the Bush administration may believe the Iraqi National Congress is capable of spearheading an internal uprising against the Baathist regime, but they are deluded. Even Saddam Hussein knows that, an internal military coup notwithstanding, only the Kurds are capable of posing any organised armed threat.

So it is no mystery why the Iraqi government began amassing troops and arms along the cease- fire line with the Kurdish area in early November. The Kurdish and Arabic press have both reported that infantry brigades, tanks, heavy artillery, anti-aircraft guns and missiles are now firmly installed along the borders with the Kurdish area, and around the nearby important oil- rich city of Kirkuk, which lies in government- controlled Iraq. The Iraqi government's intentions are clear. President Hussein intends to contain any Kurdish notions of moving against him.

The Kurds have no interest in a unilateral fight for the whole of Iraq. They do, however, want Kirkuk -- which has been a part of the Kurdish homeland for centuries. Despite the regime's 30- year effort to force out hundreds of thousands of Kurds (and Turkomans and Assyrians) from the Kirkuk area and replace them with pro-Baath Sunni Arabs, Kirkuk remains a near-sacred object of Kurdish identity. In the words of one Kurdish official, "Kirkuk is to the Kurds what Jerusalem is to the Palestinians."

Any Kurdish military operation would no doubt begin and end with Kirkuk. The Kurds, who constitute nearly 20 percent of the Iraqi population, see themselves as capable of playing a political role in any Iraqi administration after Hussein. Nevertheless, their primary goal is simply safe and secure autonomy within their traditional homeland. "Our objective is solving the issue of the Kurdish people on the basis of federalism within the framework of a democratic Iraq," said Mas'ud Barzani, head of one of the two major Kurdish parties, on 29 November. This is not a new policy -- Iraqi federalism has been a stated aim of the Kurdish government from the very beginning.

But far more significant than a direct military role, the Kurds will be pivotal in any US attack because their area can serve as a staging ground and can provide a physical space for a transitional government. Unlike other opposition elements in Iraq, they hold and control a chunk of land the size of Switzerland.

But the Kurdish government are inherently wary of US intentions. The deadly legacy of 1991 -- when, urged on by the US, the Kurds rose up against the Iraqi government, only to be left high and dry by a US administration that did nothing to support them -- has not been forgotten. With their backs against the wall and with nothing but a tenuous no-fly zone to protect them, the Kurds were left with little choice but to negotiate with Hussein from a horribly weakened bargaining position.

It was a sheer stroke of luck for the Kurds when Hussein's government made the tactical error of withdrawing from the Kurdish areas in October 1991 and placing them under an internal embargo. The Iraqi president apparently assumed that the Kurdish leadership would simply turn inward and kill each other off, making his job that much easier. Hussein seemed to he hoping that, without food, electricity, fuel or any other government service, the Kurdish people would soon see they were better off under the central government than under a fractious Kurdish leadership incapable of providing basic services.

To the surprise of many, the Kurds instead organised elections and channelled their efforts into building an administration that -- 10 years later -- looks like a relatively stable, fully- functioning, nominally democratic government. Equally important, with the help of hundreds of Western non-governmental organisations and the UN, the Kurds have been rebuilding in the three northern governorates that were decimated by 30 years of war with the central government.

The quality of life in Iraqi Kurdistan today is a far sight better than that in government- controlled Iraq. Their economy is more stable; freedom of expression and association far outstrips Iraq proper; and no one is lacking basic food, housing, education and health care.

The Kurdish experience has been far from perfect, but it offers an important model for the whole country. And the Kurds are smart enough not to give up their hard-won achievements easily.

While quick to condemn the terrorist attacks against the US, the Kurdish administration is far from certain that the US would be serious about them in a "Phase 2" that includes bombing Iraq. In recent weeks, they have been nearly bent over backwards with clear public pronouncements that they will not be a party to an attack against Iraq.

It is unlikely that they will be persuaded to be party to such an attack, unless they have cast- iron US guarantees that their efforts will not leave them swinging from the end of a noose like they were in 1991.

The Kurds are certainly not the only Iraqis who would support the exit of a regime dominated by one family and based on fear and brutal coercion. And they are not the only ones suspicious of US commitment to go the distance in effecting real change in Iraq. A punishing bombing campaign that further brutalises the Iraqi people but is intended only to bring Hussein's government to heel on UN inspections -- without radically altering that government -- is not in the interest of any opposition elements.

While organised internal Sunni Arab opposition is greatly weakened by extreme government oppression, the overwhelming majority of Sunnis in Iraq desperately want change, and would no doubt be willing to play a major role in the reconstruction of the state.

The Shi'ites in the south have long opposed the domination of the Sunni Arab government. While fears about a possible Iranian-backed Shi'ite state clearly influenced US reluctance to support the 1991 uprising, regional dynamics have changed. Iran today is more reform- minded and more open to the West, and has even quietly allied itself with the US in Afghanistan. So the US (and, for that matter, Saudi Arabia) has less to fear from the involvement of the Iranian-backed southern Iraqi Shi' ites. Furthermore, there is enough competition between Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ites to prevent Iranian domination.

In short, Iraq's three major population groups -- the Kurds, the Sunni Muslim Arabs and the Shi'ite Muslim Arabs -- have good reason to support an overthrow of the regime if it were to result in a popular-based, diverse, and democratic transition that included all three.

But although Iraqis have few reasons not to support the overthrow of Hussein's regime, they also have few reasons to place faith in any unilateral US effort. As most Iraqi opposition leaders have stated, the US has repeatedly shown more interest in an internal military coup than in any broad-based democratic transition. They are not blind to the fact that the US has a long global history of backing repressive regimes -- especially in the Middle East -- if those regimes are willing to play ball on US terms.

The Kurds -- and Iraqis in general -- are in a difficult position. The trick for them will be to get what they need from a unilateral US decision that will not be made with their interests in mind, but could serve their interests if they can maintain a firm grip in the aftermath of an attack.

"The political scene in the region is about to undergo major changes," said Barham Salih, Prime Minister of the Kurdish government of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, on KurdSat satellite television recently. "Sooner or later, these changes will affect our area. It is vital that we prepare ourselves and seize this opportunity to secure a future for our people."

While the US continues to oscillate between sabre-rattling and denial of intent to attack Iraq, the Kurds -- together with Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites -- would be wise to heed Salih's words. The opportunity to begin to lay a firm foundation together for a transition that represents their common goals should be seized. Only a united front will ensure their broad interests, not narrow US interests, are fulfilled.

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