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Kurds May Lose Yet Again

They want to keep their hard-won autonomous zone, but the U.S. is likely to prefer the stability of central rule.

September 14, 2003|Said Aburish | Said Aburish is a journalist and author of, among other books, "A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite."

NICE, France — A proud, often-conquered people still hoping for a national homeland, the Kurds are once again emerging as a major factor in America's vague plans to reshape Iraq and create a new political balance in the Middle East.

For centuries, Iraqi Kurds -- now numbering about 5 million -- have wanted to control their fate. In the years since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they came close to that goal, living in autonomous zones within Iraq and shielded by U.S. might from Saddam Hussein. The big question now is whether the Kurds will be better off or worse off now that their former persecutor has been deposed.

Geography is both a positive and a negative factor for the Kurds. Their well-established control over defined territory within Iraq is a plus. But their position along the borders with Turkey and Iran, both countries with large and dissatisfied Kurdish minorities, makes Iraq's Kurds a target of suspicion. The United States knows that its actions with regard to the Kurds will be closely watched not only by Iran and Turkey but also by the rest of Iraq as well as Syria and the Muslim republics of central Asia, which also have Kurdish minorities.

In the Kurds, the U.S. had a reliable ally against Hussein. But the U.S. has never known quite what to do with its ally. The United States, Britain and the United Nations stopped Hussein from reoccupying the Kurds' mountainous region of northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. But then, as now, the U.S. was anxious to prevent the country from splintering along ethnic and religious divides.

The United Nations, under pressure from the U.S. and Britain, gave the Kurds part of the money Iraq realized from selling oil under the oil-for-food program instituted after the Gulf War. This money, in combination with revenues from widespread smuggling and other activities, substantially improved Kurdish living conditions. In recent years, the Kurds have enjoyed a higher standard of living than the rest of Iraq.

Now the Kurds have to decide whether to support the plans for Iraq being developed by the Bush administration. The United States' lack of clear plans for a post-Hussein Iraq increases the danger that the U.S. will, in the end, ignore Kurdish concerns. Before the recent Iraq war, the U.S. needed the Kurds because they occupied a strategic area from which to operate against Hussein's power base in Baghdad. Now that the U.S. no longer needs such a base, all bets are off.

With Hussein gone and the country once more reunited, the Kurds are likely to lose some of the autonomy they had gained in recent years. The Kurds have been careful not to ask for a separate state, as the U.S. has made it clear it has no intention of breaking up the country. But they have expressed their support for a federalist system of government, in which a central authority in Baghdad would exist side by side with strong regional governments in the rest of the country.

The U.S. is unlikely to give the Kurds in northern Iraq the kind of autonomy they crave, however, fearing that such an action could both contribute to the dismemberment of the country and anger Turkey, one of the West's major allies in the Middle East. If Iraq is to remain a single state, the Kurds must cede to a central Iraqi government some of the independence they have enjoyed for more than a decade.

A year ago, according to reports in London's Arab press, Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and a prominent Kurdish leader, visited Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Abdullah several times. Talabani wanted to know where the Saudi strongman stood on the Kurdish question, and whether he would support a federalist system for Iraq. The prince told Talabani that he had no opinion on the subject. Moreover, he made clear he would not be able to help the Kurds negotiate with the United States.

The Kurds, long an oppressed minority, have had a hard time finding justice in Iraq. Now, they may find it harder still. Since Hussein was ousted, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait no longer have much incentive to provide aid to the Kurds. In fact, the Saudis and Kuwaitis now worry about whether a strong and independent Kurdish region near their borders could point the way for dissatisfied minorities within their own countries to demand independence. Most members of the U.N. Security Council have never favored supporting Kurdish autonomy. And the U.S., long the Kurds' staunchest defender, now has other priorities in Iraq.

Today, the Iraqi Kurds' fate lies in the hands of the Bush administration. Having lost much prestige in recent weeks, as chaos swirls in Iraq, America is interested now in pursuing whatever course is most likely to bring an end to violence. The U.S. has few things it can offer the Iraqi people. If supporting a strong central government in Baghdad would bring stability -- even at the expense of the Kurds -- then the Kurds may once again be the losers.

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