Although Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson opposed use of U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf, he is now urging that American troops be used to protect Kurdish refugees in dire straits in northern Iraq.
The outspoken West Los Angeles Democrat said the United States has a moral obligation to ease the plight of the Kurds, who have been fleeing en masse into the mountains near the border of Iraq and Turkey to escape forces loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In a discussion Monday with Westside reporters, Beilenson went so far as to suggest the assassination of the Iraqi leader. And he urged a complete embargo on arms sales to the Middle East, including Israel.
But he said his most pressing concern was aiding the Kurdish refugees.
"You've got a million and a half people up in the hills who are starving and hurting and dying," Beilenson said. "We're undertaking finally, seriously, getting the U.S. military involved in delivering humanitarian aid to them.
"There is no way many of them can survive far away from their home villages and cities. The only decent thing that can be done is to ensure their safe move back into their homeland, to their own cities and their own villages. . . . If that requires an escort of U.S. military forces, so be it."
Beilenson said he thought that could be accomplished with little risk to American forces. "The chances of fighting breaking out between Saddam Hussein's troops and our troops is virtually nil if we moved our people up there to protect the Kurds and get them back home."
The liberal Democrat praised President Bush for doing "exceptionally well militarily" in the war with Iraq, but he sharply criticized Bush for being "unconscionably slow" in responding to the after-effects of the conflict.
"It's been a total moral failure on our part," Beilenson said. "We're going to have ended up, perhaps, having hurt more people than we helped in this whole undertaking."
On Tuesday, Bush ordered U.S. troops to start constructing temporary camps in northern Iraq for Kurdish refugees and pledged that U.S., British and French forces would protect them.
Beilenson said one of the reasons he voted against use of force in January to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait was concern about the "unpredictable, unforeseen results" of military action. Instead, he favored continued economic sanctions against Iraq.
Beilenson told reporters he saw no conflict between his opposition to military intervention to free Kuwait and his support for using American troops to protect the Kurds as well as Shiite Moslems in southern Iraq.
"You can't make a mess and walk away responsibly," he argued. "We can't walk away and leave these people being shot or killed or pushed out of their homeland by their own government. It may or may not require leaving some U.S. troops for some period of time."
He suggested that U.S. forces, which are now in the process of withdrawing from southern Iraq, remain for another few months until a United Nations or Arab peacekeeping force is established.
"We've got to ensure as best we can, at least for a few months, that these people we leave behind are not slaughtered by their own government."
In response to a question, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee suggested that Hussein be assassinated. But the eight-term congressman said he was not sure the CIA should be involved.
"Saddam Hussein is now killing or trying to kill or evict 2.2 million of his own people. Obviously he could care less about them," Beilenson said. "If someone could have killed him ahead of time, it certainly would have been worth it. The same as if someone had killed Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or someone of that sort.
"I don't know how someone goes about it and, quite obviously, it is not the kind of thing you want to go around advocating. Who draws the line? Who has the right to make those choices?"
Beilenson said he "wouldn't mess with" Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi or former Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega. "People like that are kind of small, lightweight monsters," he said. "There are lots of little monsters around the world . . . you can't go around killing them all."
In his trademark maverick fashion, Beilenson also called for an all-out embargo on arms sales to the Middle East, including Israel.
"For us to return to business as usual the moment the war is over--to start talking about shipping arms again to willing buyers in the Middle East--seems to me an abject moral failure," he said. "The last thing the Middle East needs is more weapons."
But his call for an embargo on arms sales to Israel could prove to be controversial with Jewish voters in the 23rd Congressional District, a traditionally Democratic stronghold that runs from Beverly Hills to Malibu and across the Santa Monica Mountains to parts of the west San Fernando Valley.