- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

ERBIL, Iraq Its people hate Saddam Hussein, its government is pro-Western and its soldiers battle-hardened and familiar with the terrain. So it would seem that Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish-controlled entity in northern Iraq, would be a natural ally in an expected U.S. attack against Iraq.

Not so fast, say officials and ordinary people here.

In the 10 years since Kurdistan has been sheltered from Baghdad's control by an Anglo-U.S. no-fly zone, it has provided its mostly Kurdish population with a life relatively free of the hardships and restrictions most Iraqis face. There are freedom of speech, education in local languages, Internet and cell phones in the big cities, and better economic opportunities.

Government officials say they want to make sure any action they participate in will maintain this situation.

"We are not going to be the initiator of any military action," said Sami Abdul-Rahman, a deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. "But if a military conflict takes place, we'll behave in the best interests of the Kurdish people and Iraqi people."

Specifically, Kurds want to make sure that Saddam's successors don't end Kurdistan's autonomy. "The status quo is the best thing our people have had in their recent history, and it would be good if it continued," said Mr. Abdul-Rahman. "We hope that such a successful experiment will not be strangled."

After the 1991 Persian Gulf war, an uprising by Kurds in northern Iraq was repressed by Iraq, prompting the United States and Britain to impose the no-fly zone protecting three Kurdish provinces. Two other provinces, Mosul and Kirkuk, are still under Baghdad's control but are considered by Kurds to be part of Kurdistan.

In their protected enclave, Kurds established a parliament and government structures.

Infighting among the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the 1990s left about 1,000 dead. But a deal in 1998 ended that conflict, and the two now share power, the KDP controlling two provinces and the PUK the third.

Many believe that the KDP and PUK are leery of war because they want to protect their fiefdoms. Concern that Kurdistan's autonomy might be threatened or that Saddam might pre-empt or retaliate against a U.S. attack by moving into Kurdistan are overstated, said Yonadam Y. Kanna, general secretary of the Assyrian Democratic Movement and a member of the Kurdish enclave's parliament.

"That's politicians saying that, not people. [They] want a guarantee from the West that they'll have some autonomy [in a post-Saddam Iraq]," he said.

PUK and KDP leaders have recently met American officials in Berlin and in Virginia, where they discussed the Kurdish position on a U.S. attack. Concerns about war appear to be less based on issues of autonomy than on instability in general, as well as worries that any action might be based more on U.S. interests than on those of Kurds or Iraqis.

Wasfi Barzanjy, who owns a computer shop here in the capital of the Kurdish enclave, is expanding because business is getting better. "In a year and a half, everyone will be able to buy a PC," he predicted. The talk of war worries him, though. "People are afraid of the news about the U.S. and Iraq. people are afraid of what will happen in the future," he said. "If Saddam Hussein is gone, we don't know if anyone better will come."

"The Kurdish people will help the U.S., but people don't want change to come from the outside," he added.

Although people here hate Saddam Hussein he destroyed 4,500 Kurdish villages in the 1980s, attacking some with chemical weapons after they had been overrun by Iranian forces in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war Kurds have no problem with ordinary Arabs.

There is a small indigenous Arab population, and in the last 10 years many Arabs have come to Kurdistan for better job opportunities. Most people are not interested in Iraqi Kurdistan becoming an independent country, but rather staying part of Iraq and controlling their own affairs.

"We can't live alone. We don't want the U.S. to bomb Iraq, because we're part of Iraq and we don't want the Iraqi people to suffer," said Jamal, a retired bazaar salesman in Erbil.

There is also a lingering mistrust of the United States because it encouraged and then abandoned the uprising in 1991, and then failed to back another in 1996.

"If nothing like in '91 or '96 happens, then we'll help [a U.S. attack]," Jamal said. "But if it's like then, we don't want to have the U.S. anywhere near here."

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