- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

A perfect opportunity has arisen for President Bush to prove to the people of the Middle East that his policy in their region is about democratization and reform and not about pure economic or political interest.

Over the past week, a wave of rallies swept the Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran in support of their fellow Kurds in Iraq, who have finally received the recognition for which they have been fighting for almost 80 years with the signing of Iraq’s interim constitution.

Typicalofautocratic regimes, the authorities in bothcountriesviolently quelled the expression of support for the democratic rights earned next door in Iraq. As a result, dozens were killed, and many more injured at the hands of Iranian and Syrian security forces.

The Kurds in Syria, Iran and in Turkey are perhaps the most repressed and discriminated-against populations in the Middle East. In Turkey, even their identity as Kurds is still denied; they are called Mountain Turks. In Syria, they are denied all civil and political rights. Almost 200,000 are denied citizenship outright. They cannot vote, own property, go to state schools or get government jobs. Kurds in Iran live in similar repressive situations.

In all three countries, public services, education and health care in Kurdish areas are purposefully underdeveloped. Even the most casual traveler in the Kurdish regions of these countries cannot help but notice that the difference between these areas and the non-Kurdish ones is like the difference between the white and black areas of old South Africa.

To the Syrian and Iranian regimes, recognition of minority rights and individual freedoms is a threatening and alien concept. The Syrian state broadcasting said that the demonstrations damaged “the stability and security of the homeland and the citizen” and that they were the fault of “some intriguers,” who had adopted “exported ideas.”

But to the people who live under these regimes, these demonstrations are not about destabilization or even separation. They are about asserting the right to live in dignity and as equal citizens in their country.

Following the demonstrations, I received a desperate e-mail from the Kurdish city of Qamishly, Syria, where one of the major demonstrations took place and Syrian police had killed 19. Written in coded language, the e-mail starts: “I can’t tell you much; I will be imprisoned or killed.” The message then begged me to tell the world what happened in his city.

Back in November, the same person sent an almost euphoric e-mail describing his feeling when he heard Mr. Bush in London saying, “We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East ? [We] have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability.”

The writer considered this statement a major shift in U.S. policy in the Middle East and an open commitment to stop tolerating oppression like that in his country and start supporting democratic change.

A Kurd from Turkey picked up on and praised another point in the same speech: “We cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient ? our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.”

With these words, Mr. Bush gave great hope to the Kurds of the Middle East, and they are waiting for him to oppose the tyranny just displayed this past week.

In fact, in one of the demonstrations in Syria this past week, a banner carried by the demonstrators read: “With our lives, with our souls, we sacrifice for you O Bush” — the slogan that people in Syria normally chant for President(s) Asad.

Many Kurds today consider these demonstrations as the real test for the words of Mr. Bush. They are waiting for the United States to condemn the Syrian and Iranian response and to voice support for the right of the Kurdish people to express their opinion in peaceable demonstrations.

When the war last spring geared, and an alliance was struck between the coalition and the Kurdish peshmerga forces, skeptics said that the United States is not after the interest of the Iraqi people, but only serving its own interests. “Since when was the U.S. supportive of democracy in the Middle East?” said an Arab intellectual on one of the Arab Satellite television channels just before the war.

Apart from recent history, when the safe haven was established in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991 and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Kurds have had a bitter experience with the United States. Thousands have died over several previous decades when the United States failed to deliver on promised support.

These recent demonstrations should be neither feared nor dismissed. The people of the Middle East both want and are willing to fight for democracy in their countries. The U.S. government must express their support for Kurdish rights in the autocratic countries in which they live to prove to all that there is a sincere change of policy.

As Mr. Bush said in November, “Our part, as free nations, is to ally ourselves with reform, wherever it occurs.”

Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.

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