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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)

A CIA memo of March 22, 1974, makes no bones about the U.S. objective: "We would think that (Iran) would not look with favor on the establishment of a formalized autonomous government. (Iran), like ourselves, has seen benefit in a stalemate situation . . . in which (Iraq) is intrinsically weakened by (the Kurds). . . . Neither (Iran) nor ourselves wish to see the matter resolved one way or the other." The memo calls the Kurds "a uniquely useful tool for weakening (Iraq's) potential for international adventurism."

In March, 1975, the shah and Hussein, meeting in Algiers, suddenly reached an agreement to end their dispute over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, Iraq's only inland route to the Persian Gulf. At that point, Kissinger pulled the rug out from under the Kurds and Mustafa Barzani, then the leader of the Kurds. As the Pike report put it, "The insurgents were abruptly cut off by (Iran) three years, thousands of deaths and 16 million U.S. dollars later." One observer remembered the chaotic scene at the airport when the shah returned to Iran. "He began shouting orders to his aides. They had no clue that the shah had ended the operation. He kept it all to himself."

The Kurds could not believe they had been betrayed by their trusted ally, the United States. Five days later, Barzani sent a heart-rending message to Kissinger: "Our movement and our people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way with silence from everyone. We feel, your Excellency, that the United States has a moral and political responsibility toward our people who have committed themselves to your country's policy."

The same message might easily have been written last week by Barzani's son, Massoud, who took over the leadership of the Kurds after his father's death in 1979. The Bush Administration stood by as Hussein's helicopter gunships crushed the Kurds and the Shiites, at least in part because of Washington's fear that a fragmented Iraq would lead to further instability in the Middle East. Having defeated Hussein, a certified butcher and torturer whom Bush compared to Hitler, the President now finds himself in the ironic and highly uncomfortable position of acting, in a real sense, as Hussein's ally.

The Kurds were betrayed a second time by Washington in 1988, after 5,000 Kurds were gassed at Halabja by Hussein's army. The Senate considered legislation to impose sanctions on Iraq for using chemical warfare against its own people, but the Reagan Administration--supporting Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran--opposed the bill, and like the Kurds, it died.

For the Kurds, the Bush Administration's betrayal is the third time around, exacerbated by radio broadcasts from a mysterious Voice of Free Iraq, based in Saudi Arabia, and very probably supported by the CIA, that urged Hussein's overthrow. It is not the first time, however, that the United States has called on a people to rise up and overthrow a government only to abandon them when their fight against their oppressor began. That happened in Hungary in 1956.

Bush's dilemma in Iraq is easier to perceive than to resolve. To have aggressively acted to protect the Kurds would have risked losing the enormous political support Bush enjoys from a public unlikely to favor renewed war in the Persian Gulf. But doing nothing to protect the Kurds from Hussein's forces has also made Bush vulnerable to political attack at home and to world condemnation.

Having based his Gulf policy and armed intervention against Iraq on high moral principles--"Our cause is just; our cause is moral; our cause is right" is how the President put it in his State of the Union address--it is paradoxical that Bush has sought to duck the moral issues embodied in the desperate exodus of some 2 million Kurds. He has scrambled to repair the damage. Whatever the outcome, however, it is probably too little and too late to do the Kurds much good.

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