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Sam v. Saddam: no easy victory Add to ...

As U.S. troops search the last remaining caves in Afghanistan, the question seems to be not if, but when the Americans will pursue their next target. A prime candidate is Iraq. Saddam Hussein might have assisted the Sept. 11 terrorists, but even if he did not, his chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons programs put him on the U.S. target list. But can the Afghan experience be repeated?

The Afghan model pursued in Iraq would cast Kurdish groups in the Northern Alliance role, and the operation would be launched from the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north (created by the West in 1991 to protect the Kurdish population from Mr. Hussein). The two Kurdish parties that govern the autonomous area, the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), can field roughly 60,000 experienced fighters. Like Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, Iraqi Kurds are torn by plenty of divisions within their own ranks, but have many years of experience in fighting Baghdad from their mountain hideouts. We generally take it for granted that they would be eager, like the Northern Alliance, to destroy Mr. Hussein's regime to the south of them.

But this is where the similarities with the Northern Alliance end. The Kurds have some very good reasons to not support a campaign against Baghdad. To begin with, Kurdish groups in Iraq have never sought to control the entire country, but rather to carve out a degree of self-government for themselves in their own mountainous region. Although they loathe Mr. Hussein (he dropped chemical weapons on them in 1988, part of a genocidal campaign that killed 100,000 to 200,000 Kurdish civilians), they do not want to risk the freedom and self-government they are enjoying at the moment. If the U.S. starts a campaign but fails to see it through, the Kurds know all too well that they will pay the price as soon as the Americans leave. And they do not trust the West, particularly the United States.

In the early 1970s, the U.S., Israel and the Shah's Iran persuaded Iraq's Kurds to rise up against Baghdad, but then changed their policies on the issue and left the Kurds to be crushed by the Iraqi army. In 1988, when Mr. Hussein was the West's ally against fundamentalist Iran, we dutifully ignored reports that he was using mustard gas against rebellious Kurdish villages and had massacred as many as 180,000 Kurdish civilians. Finally, as the Persian Gulf war came to an end in March of 1991, George Bush Sr. encouraged the Iraqi people to depose Mr. Hussein. When Shia Muslims in the south, along with the Kurds, followed his advice, they were left holding the proverbial bag, to be slaughtered by Mr. Hussein's Republican Guard.

Only two things saved Iraq's Kurds in 1991 and led to the creation of the autonomous Kurdish safe haven: the public outcry as CNN cameras filmed columns of fleeing Kurdish refugees being strafed by Iraqi helicopter gunships, and the fear that Turkey, which has its own rebellious Kurdish minority, would be overrun by hundreds of thousands of refugees. As the only way of encouraging the refugees to return home, the gulf war allies created the haven and committed themselves to launching air strikes against Iraqi troops if they crossed into the protected zone.

Since the haven's creation, however, Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed their first experience with self-rule. Although they still have their share of problems (many of their own making), the experiment has been a success: They held free and fair elections in 1992 for a Kurdish regional government, people are free to say and publish whatever they like, and civil society is thriving.

While Iraq languishes under the sanctions regime and its children die of starvation, standards of living in the Kurdish area have risen to a point higher than before the gulf war (despite the application of the same international sanctions to the Kurdish haven). Villages, roads and hospitals have been rebuilt, and modern supermarkets complete with automated check-out scanners and uniformed clerks have sprouted up. Only the stance of the international community and neighbouring Turkey, Iran and Syria has prevented the Kurds from officially declaring their own state, which they have in all but name.

So the question is, do they want to risk it all to join the American war on terrorism? Given past betrayals, their co-operation would require iron-clad Western guarantees for continuing protection and either a Kurdish state or real autonomy (in their view, autonomy that gives them about as much self-determination as they have now). But the U.S. cannot promise the Kurds much, mainly because of Turkish objections.

Although Iranian and Syrian opposition to Kurdish statehood or autonomy (both have Kurdish minorities of their own) can be ignored by the U.S., Turkey is a solid American ally, a member of NATO and, in the U.S. view, the most important bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.

Turkey's opposition to Kurdish gains in Iraq goes much further than Pakistan's disdain for the Northern Alliance -- Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit recently declared the establishment of a Kurdish state there to be causus belli. To Ankara, a true Kurdish state would set an undesirable example for the 10 million to 12 million Kurdish citizens of Turkey (around 20 per cent of the population).

As a result, if the U.S. wants to use the Afghanistan model in Iraq, it will either have to get the Kurds on board with false promises (again), or renege on assurances made to Turkey that the Kurdish autonomous zone would never become a permanent entity. Neither course of action bodes well for Washington's image. David Romano is senior research fellow at the Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle East Studies at McGill University.

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