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A Remedy in Iraq: Kurdish Autonomy

A division of the nation might send Saddam Hussein packing.

September 03, 2002|DAVID D. PERLMUTTER | David D. Perlmutter, an associate professor at Louisiana State University, is a military historian.

Saddam Hussein, unlike most megalomaniacs, has spells of sober self-appraisal. In the midst of one, he told colleagues that when he died the people of Iraq would "tear me into 500 pieces." Occasionally, then, he appreciates that despite innumerable "spontaneous popular demonstrations" of love for him and most of the content of Iraqi print, radio and television praising his greatness, he is, in fact, the most hated man in Iraq.

Yet he survives--through terror, of course, but also because many Iraqis believe that Hussein, despite his disastrous helmsmanship of the state, is its only anchor of territorial solidity. When he goes, the thinking is, the nation falls apart.

The United States should use this to its advantage.

As it finds itself in a coalition of one to topple Hussein's regime by outright war, it should consider instead the expedient of robbing the Iraqi president of his last fragile justification for power: Washington should assist in the breakup of Iraq by recognizing the millenniums-old national aspirations of the Kurdish people. Then Hussein's situation would become like that of Slobodan Milosevic, who was ousted from power only when he failed to preserve Serb domination of the sacred land of Kosovo.

On the face of it, the moral sanction for an independent Kurdish state is unambiguous. The Kurds have existed as an independent people since ancient times. Unlike more prominent local aspirants for nationhood--the Palestinians--the Kurds have a separate language, culture, ethnic heritage and a continuous political precedent of seeking statehood. Indeed, legally, there should be an independent Kurdistan. The Treaty of Sevres, which delineated the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, recognized that the Kurds deserved their own state.

Of course, the devil's details for an independent Kurdistan in what is now the "no-fly" zone of northern Iraq are great.

Most regional powers, such as Turkey, Syria and Iran, oppose a Kurdish state because they believe that it would encourage hopes--and uprisings--for autonomy by their own Kurdish minorities. For example, Turkey--our must-have ally for any war on Iraq--has been fighting a decades-long insurgency war with Kurdish separatists. Other Arab states oppose Kurdish liberation because they fear the precedent of breaking up Iraq.

Such opposition could be overcome or dismissed on a case-by-case basis.

The Kurds (and the United States) could provide treaties and assurances that Kurdistan's borders with its neighbors would be fixed and extraterritorial Kurdish ambitions suppressed. Another "carrot" could be that rebellious Kurds in border nations could emigrate to the new Kurdish state. Turkey, in particular, would be happy to siphon off all its Kurdish militants.

Outside opposition, on the other hand, could be safely ignored. It is one of the great ironies of Middle East politics that many Arab leaders will blame European and Israeli colonialism for the region's problems, yet consider the fictional national borders drawn up by British and French cartographers to be inviolable from time immemorial.

In response, the United States can seize the moral mountaintop by supporting the principle of freedom for all peoples who want their own state. Or, put more practically, the price of an independent Kurdistan is an independent Palestine.

Europeans would join in recognizing a Kurdish state for that reason alone, but also because Washington could convince them that it would help avoid another Gulf War.

The regional consequences of Kurdistan are attractive as well. Certainly a shrunken Iraq would be of even less danger to its neighbors. Yet the U.S. would have to establish a strong military presence, much like in South Korea.

The Kurds would welcome permanent American bases and troop deployments. This shift of U.S. power and personnel would lessen our reliance on the increasingly hostile Saudi people and unreliable Saudi regime. In addition, Al Qaeda would lose its greatest recruiting slogan: that U.S. soldiers are trampling the holy sand of Arabia.

But the real unknown is the reaction of the Iraqi people. Would they, like the Serbs, rise up to replace their failed dictator? Hussein always has defied prophecies of his downfall. But the erection of a secure and antagonistic state in what was the northern fifth of Iraq would leave him clinging to power solely by fear.

The gains are many and the risks surmountable for creating Kurdistan. Recognizing the hopes and dreams of the Kurdish people would allow the United States to do the right thing in the eyes of the civilized world. It may also help it to dispose of its greatest enemy.

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