- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

The high point of a conference on Iraqi Kurds held one recent steamy Saturday at American University may have been a lecture by a Jewish journalist to Muslims on how to run their proposed country.

It was late in the afternoon when Jeffrey Goldberg, known for his 18,000-word profile of the Kurds in the March issue of the New Yorker, began to speak.

"There's nothing in the American press about Kurdistan," he began. "When God was handing out enemies, the Kurds should have picked the Jews. They would have gotten a lot more attention."

He then pleaded with Kurds assembled in front of him to emulate Americans of 226 years ago.

"The cause of independence is morally irresistible," he said. "I am struck in the Kurdish community by the smallness of their dreams. Sometimes, people don't discuss the truths staring them in the face."

But most attendees at the "Iraq's Kurds: A Key to Stability in Iraq" conference June 8 were not discussing the possibility of a state for the world's 25 million to 30 million Kurds. The idea of such a Kurdistan which would be one of the largest Middle Eastern countries if all Kurds united under one flag was shelved by most participants in favor of a united Iraq.

The Kurds are not an Iraqi version of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, ready to take up arms against their oppressors at the slightest signal from American forces. Instead, they are a cautious people trying to protect what little they have, even though their portion of northern Iraq could be the staging ground for a possible American invasion.

The conference was a gathering of 370 people belonging to key Iraqi opposition groups who came together in a neutral setting under the auspices of American University's Center for Global Peace, led by resident scholar Carole O'Leary. Cautious perspectives on Iraq's future were put forth by Europeans, journalists, Iraqis, the Kurds themselves and several supporting actors in the drama: Turks, Iranians and Saudis.

Only the Americans urged the Kurds to try for independence now that the United States has all but promised to invade Iraq to oust dictator Saddam Hussein.

"Until now," said Peter Galbraith of the National Defense University, "it's been crumbs under the table for the Kurds. The United States and its allies and there will be allies need the help of the Kurds. For the first time, the Kurds have bargaining power. This is the moment."

He added to applause: "Everyone knows that if the Kurds really had what they wanted, they would not wish to be Iraqis."

Not so fast, said Shafeeq Ghabra, outgoing director of the Kuwait Information Office. Kurds were considered a minor part of the Middle Eastern drama until the 1991 Gulf War, he said. But after TV cameras filmed thousands of them fleeing into the mountains while pursued by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein, the United States and Great Britain began fighter squadron flights over northern Iraq to protect the Kurds from further slaughter.

Eleven years later, the flights continue, and the American government is openly talking about completing a job left undone in 1991. Because of such international protection and its 13 percent share of Iraq's oil-for-food revenues, Iraqi Kurdistan has prospered far more than the rest of Iraq has. However, Saddam's troops are within a day's march of the region, and Kurds are aware that without Western help, their freedom and prosperity hang by a hair.

Ethnically, the Kurds are more Persian than Arab, and their language is closer to Farsi than Arabic. Their ancestral lands straddle northern Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran; a mountainous oil-rich region none of these countries is willing to cede to a new republic.

"The fear in the Arab world is Iraq will be dismembered and the Kurds will go on their own," Mr. Ghabra said. "A divided Iraq will create so many imbalances in the region. There's a fear it would upset Sunni-Shi'ite relations."

He urged Kurds to come to some sort of rapprochement with a post-Saddam government in Baghdad.

"There's not a strong base of support in the Arab world for a fully democratic Iraq," he said. "They want a ruler less brutal and more tolerant, but not fully democratic."

Others said Iraq functioned well as a democracy before 1958, when the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown by a military coup.

"Iraq was at peace with all the countries around it when the diabolic regime of Saddam came to power," said Hatem Mukhlis, of the Iraqi National Movement. "We are Iraqis before we are Kurds, Shi'ites or Turkomens." Turkomen are ethnic Turks who live in northern Iraq.

"Can an American democracy work in the Arab world?" he wondered.

He and other non-Kurdish Iraqi leaders talked about a united Iraq that would allow Kurdistan to maintain its own parliament, with taxing and spending power, and its own police force. It would operate quasi-independently, like Quebec.

"There's talk," said Jamal Khashoggi, deputy editor for the English-language Saudi daily Arab News, "that the Kurds are being used by the superpowers to divide the Arab world." Arab media, he added, will try to tie Kurdish aspirations to Israel.

But many Kurds feel they owe little to an Arab world they say has ignored their cause in favor of the less-numerous Palestinians. Like Israel in 1948, an independent Kurdistan would inherit plenty of enemies, such as Turkey, whose spokesman at the conference insisted that Turkey protects its Kurds. But from 1983 to 1991, Turkish law prohibited the country's 12 million Kurds nearly one-fifth of the population from speaking their own language. Thus, Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish leader who led a 15-year battle for autonomy in eastern Turkey, does not even know his own language. He is imprisoned for life in an island prison near Istanbul.

Organizers narrowly averted a shouting match between Kurds and Turks, and several Kurds at the conference were nervous about the presence of a Turkish TV crew and Turkish Embassy personnel. In turn, Turks reminded Kurds that their freedom depends on American and British fighter planes' use of Turkish military bases.

None of the Middle Eastern participants in the conference was willing to discuss how Saddam would be removed. Only Mr. Galbraith of the National Defense University spoke of the "impending military campaign in Iraq," while reminding Kurds that this may be a historic time of opportunity for them.

Much depends on harmony between the two rival political factions that control Kurdistan's three million Kurds: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). They have 90,000 members between them, he said, which is more than the Northern Alliance had when the United States invaded Afghanistan.

But, he added, before they put themselves on the line against Saddam, they must be sure of three things: that unlike in 1991, Americans will not leave undone the job of finishing off Saddam; that their people will be protected during the inevitable retribution; and that they maintain their political freedoms.

Already blood has been spilled in the region. In mid-September, the Jund al-Islam (Warriors of Islam) fighters, linked to the Taliban, killed at least 30 members of the PUK at the village of Heli Hama. The Jund is a radical splinter group that is hostile to both the PUK and KDP, and Kurds worry that such incursions will only increase.

But thanks to the September 11 attacks, the United States the sole international power able to remove Saddam seems poised to move into the area. For the first time, the Kurds see their aspirations at the top of international politics.

Judging from reactions from both PUK and KDP representatives at the conference, independence might be a hard sell among their own people.

"Our future is tied to Baghdad," said Hoshyar Zebari of the KDP. "We cannot go at it any other way."

The U.S. government has let them down before, he added. "This time, we will not be deceived. We won't risk what we have. We've had bitter experiences in the past."

Edmund Ghareeb, the Mustafa Barzani scholar of global Kurdish studies at American University, pronounced the Kurds living "in a twilight zone."

"In one moment, they are seen as freedom fighters; and in another, they are seen as pariahs or terrorists," he said. "There is a perception they are living on borrowed time under American and British protection."


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