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A People Betrayed : Twice before, Washington let Kurds die to promote foreign-policy designs. Now it's the Bush Administration doing the deed.

April 14, 1991|David Wise | David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and national security. His most recent book is "The Spy Who Got Away" (Random House)

WASHINGTON — President George Bush, after calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, refused to commit U.S. military power to protect the Kurds, who tried to follow his advice. When the desperate plight of the fleeing Kurds--the news stories of possibly thousands dying, of children crying in the snow because their bare feet had frozen--created a political backlash at home, Bush belatedly airlifted food, blankets, bandages and the secretary of state to the Iraqi-Turkish border. He also warned Hussein to end military operations against the Kurds in Iraq.

One thing seems clear: The President and his advisers did not adequately consider the consequences of calling for Hussein's overthrow. "They didn't even see the wave coming," said one former U.S. diplomat. For the Kurds trekking toward hostile borders, their third betrayal by yet another Administration in Washington should not really come as a surprise. In the mountains of Kurdistan, there is a saying: "Kurds have no friends." Once again, the words have proved tragically true.

Bush sought to justify his policy of nonintervention by arguing that the killing of Kurds in northern Iraq and of Shiite Muslims in the south by Hussein's army was an internal Iraqi problem. Yet the United States has not hesitated to intervene in the internal affairs of Iraq in the past. Its chosen instrument has been the Central Intelligence Agency.

In July, 1958, Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Kassem staged a coup in Iraq and murdered the royal family and Premier Nuri Said, who tried to escape dressed as a woman. Under Kassem, Iraqi communists grew powerful, and Washington worried that the new government was serving Soviet interests. The Eisenhower Administration strongly opposed the Kassem regime.

Enter the gruesomely named Health Alteration Committee, a CIA unit that had as its purpose doing exactly what its name suggested. The committee decided to "incapacitate" a target described in the Church Committee's assassination report as "an Iraqi colonel." Dr. Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA's Technical Services Division mailed a monogrammed, poisoned handkerchief to the target, identified in subsequent published reports as Kassem. The CIA told the senators on the Church Committee that the handkerchief had not worked, but that the target "had suffered a terminal illness before a firing squad in Baghdad." That description would fit Kassem, who was killed in that manner during a 1963 coup led by officers of the Baath Party, the political instrument of Hussein's rise to power.

Almost a decade later, during the Nixon Administration, the United States launched a CIA covert operation to support the Kurds against Hussein, who had by then become Iraq's strongman after a second Baath Party coup in 1968. In May, 1972, Richard M. Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger met in Tehran with the shah of Iran.

As a favor to the shah, a staunch ally of the United States, Nixon and Kissinger secretly directed the CIA to provide arms and money to the Kurds, who were seeking autonomy in Iraq. Over a period of three years, the CIA funneled $16 million to the Kurds. After the operation began, Britain and Israel joined in. Israel reasoned that if Iraqi troops were tied up fighting the Kurds, they would not attack Israel. Iran's role in the covert operation consisted mostly of directing artillery fire over the heads of the Kurds into Iraqi troop positions.

A proud, handsome ethnic minority of mostly Sunni Muslims, the Kurds live in the mountains and plateaus of Kurdistan, an area that spills over from northern Iraq into eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and parts of Syria and the Soviet Union. There are an estimated 20 million Kurds living in the five countries.

The CIA operation became known only because the story was told in the final report of the Pike Committee, a House panel that investigated the intelligence agencies in 1976. The House voted to suppress the report, but it leaked to then-CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr, who made it public. So secret was the CIA support for the Kurds that Nixon, according to the Pike Committee report, never formally notified the Forty Committee, a presidential panel supposed to approve such covert operations.

It was clear, however, that the Nixon Administration, despite its support for the Kurds, did not actually want them to win their battle against Iraq. "Documents in the committee's possession," the Pike report said, "clearly show that the President, Dr. Kissinger and the (shah) hoped that our clients would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of (Iraq)."

The Kurds, of course, were not told this. "Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise."

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